A tech-tonic shift: After the scandals, it's time to move faster for longer without breaking things

Alastair Loasby, Business in the Community's Responsible Digital Lead & Relationship Manager, on the ideas that could lead to sustainable growth in the tech sector.
 
One of the most thought-provoking articles I read over the (now distant) Christmas break, was a summary of the 18 biggest technology sector scandals of 20181. From 87 million users being affected by the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal to Google developing a censored Chinese search engine, it wasn’t hard to see the tide turning against the tech sector.
 
We have a lot to thank the tech sector boom for: where would we be without Google Maps? However, has Mark Zuckerberg’s quip, “move fast and break things”, had its day? Elon Musk once tweeted that the “pace of innovation is all that matters in the long run”, and I’ve seen this in action when working with entrepreneurs as a tech consultant and when exploring my own start-ups. It’s a great approach that can yield fast results, but the costs can be significant.
 
At Business in the Community (BITC), we continue to be advocates for innovation. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen time and again that we won’t achieve our campaigning goals by sticking to the status quo. Also, in a volatile yet competitive world like ours, innovation is a necessity for any organisation seeking to thrive. Of the Fortune 500 companies from 1955, only 60 had continued to make the list in 2017 due to a trend of disruption2
 
Yet more and more investors, founders, and consumers want companies to make more than money. They expect businesses to address the fundamental challenges facing our society and environment today. There is a clear benefit too, from sustainable business growth to better employee and customer engagement, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s been a 38 per cent increase in sustainable investment since 20163:
 
We need changes in the start-up community to drive the change we need to see in our communities and environment, to lead to sustainable economic growth and investment, and to redeem the tech sector’s brand.
 
Responsible Innovation
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup model drove many businesses. It’s clear, effective and works, but is also deliberately short-sighted and not sustainable. This needs adjusting. Clearly, any process for bootstrapping startups must be light-touch, cheap, suited to agility and drive knowledge or growth, but it should also recognise the system in which it operates. 
What if we made a couple of changes to the model?
 
Ideas that matter
 
  • Coming up with ideas is rarely a problem for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. But are these ideas for services that actually matter? If nothing else, in the face of a climate crisis, should we be encouraging more commercialism? Instead, start with societal and environmental challenges and consider how our ideas can address them. For more ideas, there is DotEveryone’s Tech Transformed work.
  • Looking for inspiration? The World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers are full of positive business ideas.
  • Once initial idea and hypotheses have been thought up, work can start on identifying the communities that will be affected. Don’t forget silent stakeholders such as the environment and future generations. The priorities in BITC’s report A Brave New World? Why business must ensure an inclusive digital revolution would be useful here.
 
These ideas should be built to serve communities, and so your building team should be both representative and diverse. Representation ensures a better understanding with fewer potential unintended consequences, while diversity drives greater innovation. With diversity a clear problem for Silicon Valley, is it any surprise that Google’s search can be accused, as Wired put it, of having a “massive celebrity sexism problem”?4
 
Measure the impact
Yes, growth must be tested and hypotheses valued, but this stage is the ideal time to consider the unintended consequences on your communities. Engage stakeholders and field experts to understand how the new service might impact lives.
 
Learn, don’t guess
Learning should be based on insights and data, not on biased opinions. Gut feelings have their role, but are based on our background and experiences, and will not take account of those of others. 
 
Purpose
All of this should be underpinned by the organisation’s purpose beyond profit. Pivoting will always be encouraged, but what difference do those in a business want to make? BITC's Purpose toolkit can help here, for both new and established organisations.
 
BITC continues to develop responsible innovation work and support responsible start-ups, such as members Azoomee, which is seeking to transform the way primary school children learn using digital technologies.
Contact us if you would like to find out more.
 
These changes can and should be led by the founders and early-stage workers in start-ups. There are clear and measurable benefits to mitigating unintended consequences, being purposeful and having a diverse and representative build team. But large-scale change needs to be incentivised by those with power. For start-ups, that power means money, and so more incubators are needed – investors and businesses calling for this change and more responsibility. More sustainable investments are good for the bottom line and for our planet.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
References
  1. Paige Leskin and Nick Bastone; The 18 biggest tech scandals of 2018; Business Insider; available at businessinsider.com
  2. Mark J Perry; Fortune 500 firms 1955 v. 2017: Only 60 remain, thanks to the creative destruction that fuels economic prosperity; American Enterprise Institute; available at aei.org
  3. SRI Basics; The Forum For Sustainable and Responsible Investment; available at ussif.org
  4. James Temperton; Google's Image search has a massive celebrity sexism problem; Wired; available at wired.co.uk