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Changing the world - company-by-company, city-by-city, person-by-person?

By Clive Longbottom
I had a good conversation with a large computer company recently about its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.  Alongside all the normal stuff of recycling, minimising the use of chemical and elemental nasties and minimising the environmental impact on the surrounding environment, we got on to the subject of how a large organisation should view the use of its technology in the wider sense of being "good for the world".

This uncovered some interesting ground.  The first is that there are three main approaches to what is "good for the world":
1. minimising the impact of the company, its suppliers and its customers on the usage of non- (or slowly) renewable resources
2. creating a sustainable ecosystem such that the impact of the company, its suppliers and customers is nett neutral
3. creating a means of ensuring that the overall impact of the company, its suppliers and customers on the planet is nett positive.

From there, we came down to the issue of what is "good"?  In today's global village, there are many different cultural cliques; providing technology that helps one group may be completely against the aims, beliefs or cultural norm of another group.  This doesn't even have to be by country: the increasing mobility of the global citizens can lead to these issues being seen across very small areas, such as within individual cities.

From there, we also have to look at what it is that technology can do, and what those with access to the technology are aiming to do - which can be completely different things.  For example, big data analysis to identify people missing from home with medical needs can also be used to track other people for other reasons as they go about their daily business.  This can get into problems around the concept of "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist".

However, the main discussions centred around what is it that technology vendors can do for the greater good of the planet, rather than the greater good of individual commercial concerns?  This is where it becomes apparent that the cultural differences between different groups can get in the way.

During the Industrial revolution, there was mass migration from the countryside into the cities - the saying the London's streets were "paved with gold" being a major draw pulling workers from the villages and towns into the high-growth cities.  However, not everyone found wealth - work houses flourished; deaths from malnutrition were commonplace.  The size of cities grew, and people suffered as land lay fallow and unused in the countryside due to lack of workers.

Wind forward a couple of hundred years, and we see the same happening: not only in emerging countries such as India, China and Brazil, but still within the UK, as workers from within and without the UK still try to follow the money to London.

The company I was talking to had the approach that they could provide technology that could ameliorate the problems caused by this sort of mass movement within the cities themselves - dealing with areas such as energy grids, intelligent water usage, traffic and logistics movement and so on.  It wasn't particularly aimed at ensuring that there would be jobs available for everyone, which could be more of an issue.  My view was slightly more radical - technology should be used to try and stop the mass movement of people from one are to another.

Why?  The world is increasingly dependent on a smaller number of people within the agrarian systems to provide enough food for a growing number of people who are getting more removed from any understanding of the food chain.  Agrarian economies are being ripped apart as high-tech, retail and manufacturing companies grow within their regions.  Families find themselves saving up money to send a child away from the family to a city, in the hope that they can make their fortune - even though it is unlikely that they will.

Why not use technology to keep families and communities together?  Make a farmer a better, more effective farmer; encourage farmers to get together as co-operatives to provide a better mix of farm produce to buyers; increase economies of scale of purchasing and production and share workforces.  Encourage artisans to work from their own towns and villages, providing work for others in their communities.  Use technology, such as video conferencing and screen sharing alongside IoT monitoring, for education and medical support for those towns and villages that are remote - and should stay viable as remote communities.

It seems to me that many tech vendors see technology as something that fits into a series of small problems that are not always joined up into a bigger picture - intelligent cities, organisations and so on.  The knock on impact from this is that technology is doing the exact opposite of what it should do: it is creating a two-tier environment of the technology haves and have nots, with the haves being focused on specific centres.  These centres then create problems such as the need for increased energy distribution, travel congestion, increasing housing and food costs where more technology is needed to minimise the impact, and the spiral continues.

No - let's improve the planet one person at a time: let's find out what an individual truly wants out of their life and apply technology to help them.  As each person gets what they need, they will work more closely together.  As communities become empowered, they will be more efficient and effective.  As communities build to provide support for themselves and to others outside the community, the growing world population may find that it can be adequately supported.

And only then technology can be seen to have had a nett positive impact on the planet.