Sustainability is increasingly recognized as a priority for technology leaders. We see this reflected in industry actions, like the ambitious climate plans launched by Microsoft and Amazon in 2019.
Governments have also increased their focus on the industry, with Europe’s Green Deal the highest-profile regulatory push to tackle the impacts of digital pollution. Yet in the minds of many, the sector is still characterized by the “magical” returns generated by its unicorns and its seemingly limitless capacity for growth. In the balance between profit and purpose, to date profit has nearly always come out on top.
In the crucible of the coronavirus, appreciation for the societal importance of the technology sector appears to be growing. Until this year, Google’s AI-focused DeepMind was mostly known for its ability to beat world champions at the strategy game Go. Now the system is under a very different spotlight thanks to the potential it has to contribute to pharmacological research. Through machine learning, DeepMind’s AlphaFold is capable of “[predicting] the 3D structure of a protein based solely in its genetic sequence” and therefore rapidly accelerating the research phase needed for the development of new vaccines. This is just one of the many examples of initiatives from companies across the technology sector — like Facebook and Cisco — presently underscoring the crucial and positive roles the industry can play in society.
From education to healthcare, the range of essential and non-essential services for which we rely on technology companies was growing rapidly already, growth which has been super-charged by the manner in which the COVID-19 crisis has pushed so much more of life online. While the coronavirus and the need to socially isolate is the driver of increased online dependence and service delivery today, we will undoubtedly lean still more on technology during future disruptions when other grey rhinos and black swans emerge.
We have seen this previously in the ways people leveraged social media to plan demonstrations during the Arab Spring and coordinate during the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet, the current global pandemic is the first time we’ve seen worldwide reliance on technology increase so quickly and universally. While almost four decades have passed since the Internet was established, the degree to which it penetrates all aspects of life has accelerated tremendously in the last decade when the mobile phone became the chief means of online access for billions of people. Mobile and digital have now penetrated personal and commercial life almost unimaginably deeply in every society and economy, and it is this recent global interweaving that has let today’s internet giants — the likes of Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google, Amazon and Alibaba — come of age. The tech industry is now key to letting modern societies flourish and function. Again, in this COVID-19 moment, imagine the far greater impact on education without the almost instant transition of schools and students to digital learning environments enabled by platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. While this has revealed persistent inequity — such transitions have been made mostly in the developed world, and are simpler in wealthier homes with Internet access and multiple home computers — it is incredible how quickly many educational, work and other communities have been able to move online. As the pandemic recedes, many things will return to the way they were, but the potential of technology will have been permanently reframed.
This reframing presents an opportunity to explore and emphasize the technology industry through its capacity to create camels rather than unicorns. Defined by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in New Power (2018), the camel “delivers economic returns less spectacular than its alter-ego the “unicorn,” but serves an important social function and can sustain investors and its community for the long term.” Though the current model has created the conditions and capacity for technology companies to respond remarkably well to the global pandemic, the moment has also revealed the industry’s enormous untapped capacity to create positive change. This potential might be realized by embracing a camel mindset and shifting from a pattern of cyclical product launches and marginal improvements to advancing technology as a more holistic vehicle for social and environmental progress.
Embracing a camel mindset does not mean disavowing profit for purpose, but instead rebalancing the two. This requires recognition that a company’s success is as much and more bound to its long-term strategy and support of its diverse stakeholders as its latest product launch. Institutional investors (Blackrock’s Larry Fink in particular) and ESG funds have been earlier than others to advocate “purpose [as] the engine of long-term profitability.” The benefits of this are visible right now, with ESG-linked investments so far outperforming their non-ESG peers amidst the global economic downturn. Especially if this continues, we expect more investors will embrace longer-term perspectives that value the definition and realization of a company’s societal purpose over the long-term, or, put another way, prioritizing camels.
Shifting understanding and expectations of the technology industry will require concerted and collaborative effort. For technology companies, it will mean building on existing sustainability targets and investments and drawing sustainability into the core business such that it has much more influence on future product development and delivery; this will result in the algorithms that currently drive financial results being realigned to ensure they serve wider stakeholder interests as well as they do investors. For the public sector, it will require creating a regulatory environment conducive to camels and championing public-private collaborations like the World Economic Forum’s 2030Vision platform for leveraging technology to drive progress against the Sustainable Development Goals. And investors and customers alike need to support these changes with the right market signals, specifically investment and purchasing decisions that favor more sustainable outcomes.
The immediate focus for business under COVID-19 is weathering the storm, but companies must look beyond the moment and plan for the long-term now also. The past few weeks have reinforced the unique capacity technology companies have to drive change, inspiring us to rethink and reset old paradigms. “The pandemic is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,” Arundhati Roy wrote this week in the Financial Times. For the technology sector, the opportunity is ripe to emerge on the other side as camels rather than unicorns.