Can tech­nol­ogy solve poverty?

In­vestors be­lieve the fu­ture of tech­nol­ogy is less about gad­gets and more about solv­ing so­cial is­sues. Ni­cole Kobie shares all

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 -

Why in­vestors be­lieve the fu­ture of tech is less about gad­gets and more about so­cial is­sues.

Poverty isn’t a tech prob­lem – but tech­nol­ogy and star­tups could help lessen its ef­fects. That’s the ar­gu­ment made by so­cial in­no­va­tors, who would rather spend their in­tel­li­gence, mil­lions in fund­ing and valu­able time on tack­ling so­cial prob­lems than con­nect­ing ran­dom ob­jects to the in­ter­net (I’m look­ing at you, Ku­vée wine bot­tles).

Can star­tups re­ally build a bet­ter fu­ture for those be­ing left be­hind? Tele­fon­ica’s ac­cel­er­a­tor Wayra and in­vest­ment firm Big So­ci­ety Cap­i­tal be­lieve so.

They’ve teamed up with the Joseph Rown­tree Foun­da­tion and lo­cal fi­nance firms to start a new ac­cel­er­a­tor in Oldham called Wayra Fair By De­sign that aims to tackle the UK’s poverty pre­mium. That’s when peo­ple who al­ready have less money end up pay­ing more for goods and ser­vices than their richer coun­ter­parts, be­cause they can’t pay up­front to get a dis­count or have a poor credit rat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, this poverty prob­lem costs an av­er­age of £490 per year.

The ac­cel­er­a­tor is look­ing at ways to im­prove how lower-in­come Brits pay for en­ergy bills, in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums and other daily costs, as well as how they ac­cess fi­nance and loans. “There is ab­so­lutely no rea­son that poor peo­ple should pay more for the same ser­vices just be­cause they are poor,” Wayra UK di­rec­tor Gary Ste­wart told PC Pro.

Do we need star­tups to solve what’s surely a mis­take in how com­pa­nies charge cus­tomers? “To some ex­tent, all star­tups ex­ist to solve a prob­lem suf­fered by a large seg­ment of so­ci­ety and to com­mer­cialise that so­lu­tion,” ar­gued Ste­wart. “That be­ing said, I think that en­trepreneurs have to re­alise that for ev­ery prob­lem that we solve, we might cre­ate an­other prob­lem in turn.”

Look at Uber et al. Those work­ing in the so-called gig econ­omy are well aware of the con­se­quences of tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion, and are now left fight­ing to be paid a min­i­mum wage – hardly help­ing to bat­tle poverty. “If we can fig­ure out how to get cheaper taxi rides across the globe, why can’t we fig­ure out how to im­prove the lives of some of so­ci­ety’s least for­tu­nate?” said Ste­wart. “If we re­ally wanted to do it, the poverty pre­mium could be erad­i­cated within our life­time.”

En­cour­ag­ing a con­science

How can we en­cour­age startup founders to build a bet­ter world? Wave some cash in their faces.

There’s enough cash slosh­ing around star­tups to spare a chunk for so­cial is­sues, and some in­vestors will only take a punt on en­trepreneurs who are ad­dress­ing such con­cerns. Fu­ture Planet Cap­i­tal (FPC) is one such fun­der. “We look for proven tech­nolo­gies that can scale up and ad­dress the biggest prob­lems fac­ing

the planet, cov­er­ing cli­mate change, ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, se­cu­rity and sus­tain­able growth,” ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Dou­glas Hansen-Luke told PC Pro. “The star­tups FPC looks to in­vest in al­ways have a view to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.”

FPC isn’t a char­ity — it needs to get a re­turn on its in­vest­ments to keep the cy­cle of fund­ing projects for good go­ing. Hansen-Luke said such projects stand to make as much as their less so­cially re­spon­si­ble coun­ter­parts. “Ad­dress­ing the world’s biggest prob­lems means there is huge scale on of­fer, and there­fore huge re­turns,” he said. “Cur­ing dis­eases, solv­ing cli­mate change [and] im­prov­ing waste re­cy­cling would lead to mas­sive re­turns both fi­nan­cially and so­cially. Our mis­sion at FPC is to prof­itably im­pact the world’s great­est chal­lenges.”

He added: “We hope that once we have shown global is­sues can be prof­itably and pos­i­tively im­pacted by tech star­tups, more busi­nesses and more star­tups will look to fol­low our lead.” If help­ing pull peo­ple out of poverty isn’t mo­ti­va­tion enough, mak­ing cash while do­ing it hope­fully will be.

More so­cial projects

The govern­ment’s fu­tures and tech­nol­ogy quango Nesta ar­gues dig­i­tal so­cial in­no­va­tion is al­ready on the rise. Peter Baeck, head of col­lab­o­ra­tive econ­omy re­search, helped map projects us­ing dig­i­tal and other tech­nolo­gies to ad­dress so­cial is­sues across Europe. It found there’s al­ready more than a thou­sand. “A lot more at­ten­tion and money is go­ing to tech projects with a so­cial aim,” Baeck ex­plained. “Four years ago, I was scram­bling around for ex­am­ples. That’s not the case any­more.”

How­ever, they’re be­ing held back by a lack of fund­ing and dig­i­tal skills short­ages, mean­ing they can’t scale up enough to make a real im­pact, a Nesta re­port found. “Most of the money is go­ing to fin tech and so­cial sites, and that’s un­der­stand­able and there’s noth­ing wrong with that,” Baeck told PC Pro. “But the ques­tion is how to use the same tech­nolo­gies that power Google, Ama­zon and Face­book for so­cial chal­lenges.”

One way to ad­dress the prob­lem is pair­ing star­tups (and oth­ers with tech skills and in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions) with pre-ex­ist­ing char­i­ties. Those work­ing on the front-line of is­sues such as poverty know which prob­lems are most in need of at­ten­tion and the his­tory of failed so­lu­tions, but of­ten lack the skills to make use of dig­i­tal plat­forms or tech­nol­ogy to solve the worst chal­lenges. “They could re­ally ben­e­fit from tech,” Baeck said, adding such help could raise aware­ness of prob­lems and ex­ist­ing so­lu­tions, mo­bilise sup­port­ers, and raise funds.

It just may work

All of this may sound like wish­ful think­ing, ex­pect­ing tech­nol­ogy to help build a bet­ter fu­ture by ad­dress­ing so­cial is­sues such as poverty. But Hansen-Luke of­fers a his­tory les­son. “There is huge in­equal­ity in the world but we must never for­get that it is in­no­va­tion, tech­nol­ogy and trade that have pulled over a bil­lion peo­ple out of ab­so­lute poverty in the last 20 years,” he said. “This is a fact of far greater im­por­tance than the hand­ful of self-made tech en­trepreneurs that have emerged from in­no­vat­ing great prod­ucts.”

And if the pos­si­bil­ity of such ef­forts help­ing to build a bet­ter fu­ture isn’t mo­ti­va­tion enough, there’s an­other rea­son the startup com­mu­nity may want to put some ef­fort into help­ing the rest of us, Ste­wart noted. “There is an ever-in­creas­ing re­al­ity that some peo­ple are be­ing left be­hind while oth­ers be­come bil­lion­aires and uni­corn masters, and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence might make this worse,” he ex­plained. “If we aren’t care­ful, those who aren’t ben­e­fit­ting from the sys­tem might be­gin to see en­trepreneurs the way they might have viewed bankers in 2007.” Take note, founders: save the worst off, and you might just save your­selves.

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