What do tech companies need to understand about their social impact?

Guest post by Ildiko Almasi Simsic who is a social development specialist and author of What Is A Social Impact available in paperback, priced at £19.88.

When we think about technology and social impact, we might be thinking about technology connecting us, making it easier to access knowledge, influence policy making or solve everyday social issues. Whether we like it or not, we rely increasingly on technology to carry out simple tasks and work more efficiently.

The importance of social impact for tech companies

Technology is not only revolutionising the way we access information, but it also has great potential to influence our thinking on the economy, politics, and social or cultural norms. Technology provides us with the tools to do better more efficiently, but it is ultimately up to us to define boundaries, ethics and how we use these tools for our desired purposes.

Needless to say, technology has provided a boom for all sorts of content, some are less intellectually stimulating than others. Tech companies have great power – and responsibility – to move the world towards a more ethical and safe use of their products. Let’s look at some ideas to frame social impacts in the context of technology and tech companies:

Technology solving social problems

I once read that entrepreneurship is ‘merely’ identifying a problem and providing a solution. Technology, especially app development, has achieved this at scale. Whether we talk about apps that facilitate donations to charities, crowdfunding for certain causes, providing information on ethical brands and sustainable products, we see that most of these would have been impossible before. Impact investors are targeting microfinance institutions that rely on automated data recording, credit score creation and mobile banking technology.

Recently, I wrote a blog reflecting on the story of how mobile phones and voice messages are helping illiterate African farmers communicate. Technology solved an issue that would have taken years and contributes to a more cohesive community.

Tech companies at the forefront of innovation

The tech boom also led to significant economic growth in hubs around the world. Tech companies were among the first ones to implement human resources policies and workplace benefits that have since become more widely accepted. Flexible working, working from home, lunchtime exercise at the office, meditation groups or diversity and inclusion, it was certainly tech companies that recognised the need to step away from the rigid corporate culture. I think back at some of my previous jobs where even the mention of stepping out for a walk during lunchtime was frowned upon. Meanwhile, my friends working for tech companies spent 20 minutes in their napping pods during lunch!

But innovation doesn’t stop at the workplace, tech companies are working towards technology that greatly improves life. I certainly don’t have to think hard to see how much time I’m saving by having the data at my fingertips.

Reforming education and access to information

Long gone are the days of spending hours in the library looking for information. Not to date myself, but I have faint memories of this! Technology allowed us to rethink the way we educate the next generation. Previous generations were taught how to find information, and the current generation is taught how to interpret and use information that is readily available on their phones. AI and machine learning technology has the potential to take this even further by providing more context around data and information, almost like having a private tutor. The challenge, that we have recently seen, is that it is us humans that teach the machines what’s ethical, what our core values are as humanity and how that often contradicts our habits and behaviours.

Now let’s look at some of the risks that are often not mentioned:

Tech and the potential for labour exploitation

Here I’m not talking about the overtime in the office, but rather about the workers down the supply chain. All the tiny, tiny hardware that makes up the machines are manufactured in countries that often have a track record of human rights violations, inadequate working conditions, extremely low wages and the potential for forced labour. Modern slavery is also an issue that is widely discussed in the industry. Benchmark reports such as KnowTheChain (KTC) attempts to raise awareness of the issue and provides an assessment of supply chain management efforts of companies. In 2023, out of the 60 tech companies, 32% disclosed actual labour violations and nearly half didn’t disclose any information on their efforts to assess human rights risks. As a socially responsible tech company, you should ensure that your supply chain management system and due diligence on suppliers includes the topic of employment and working conditions, including occupational health and safety. Look beyond the policies and verify implementation.

The tech industry also paved the way for the gig economy that is notorious for not providing adequate labour safeguards to temporary or part-time workers. While there have been labour related (discrimination, racism) issues in large tech companies, the scandals were mainly around the treatment of non-employee workers. The issue was further highlighted during the pandemic years when these workers were not eligible for furlough, paid time off or medical coverage because they were treated as independent contractors.

Privacy, cybersecurity and digital inclusion

Data protection legislation might have been strengthened in several countries, but moving more aspects of official administration online also carries the risk of privacy breech, scams, identify theft and releasing private information to third parties.

Digital inclusion is the big opportunity for 2024 for the tech industry to proactively address issues around accessing digital infrastructure. In 2023, over 1 million people were estimated to have reduced their internet packages because of the recession. The main factors that might lead to digital exclusion include age, socio-economic status (affordability of services), disability and living in the countryside. It is suggested that making internet and technology available and affordable could solve most of the inclusion issues, however, providing training on how to use it, as well as on basic cybersecurity could be beneficial too.

Ildiko Almasi Simsic is a social development specialist and author of What Is A Social Impact available in paperback, priced at £19.88.

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