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How big tech is giving back to society

Key takeaways

  • Big tech has reach, power and influence like never before. How do they balance this with reinvestment into society?
  • Innovation and technology have offered compelling solutions to complex problems.
  • These organisations are in a unique position to put the needs of society above the bottom line.  

In the early 1800s factory owners in Great Britain made some simple improvements to the conditions of workers’ lives, with hopes of boosting their productivity. This was one of the first examples of a business recognising social responsibility (notwithstanding their motivation to do so). The concept of businesses having an obligation to give back to the community within which they exist has evolved over time. Today, we have the formalised construct of this idea known as corporate social responsibility (CSR).

CSR really began to take shape throughout the mid-to-late 1900s, reaching a critical point in the 1970s when the US Committee for Economic Development (CED) published Social Responsibilities of Business Corporations. The publication said that “business functions by public consent and its basic purpose is to serve constructively the needs of society — to the satisfaction of society” so organisations should assume responsibility to contribute more than just goods and services. The CED’s action was in response to social action of the 1960s and early 70s that brought about legislation of environmental issues, worker safety, and consumer and employee rights; and sparked the growing regulation of business by governments.

Since then we’ve seen ‘big business’ develop into multinational organisations with influence and financial resources exceeding that of the governments that regulate them. As the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility and, just as citizens expect investment and return from their governments, people have come to expect the same of these corporate giants.

The potential far-reaching impact of some of the largest companies today, is often unimaginable until it manifests — for better or worse. Decisions made by big business can, and have, resulted in economic collapse1, environmental destruction2, political turmoil3 and catastrophic disasters4. What also lies in their remit however, is the potential to change and shape the future.

As tech organisations have grown exponentially in the last few years, we see a new contender stepping up to the CSR plate. With unmatched financial growth, and unprecedented influence in society, how can big tech make its contribution to society equally impactful? The ‘big four’ in tech –  Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook – have a combined market capitalisation greater than the GDP of all but the richest four countries (Germany, Japan, China and the US).5 Despite their increasing fiscal resources however, tech companies’ most valuable contributions are stemming from their innovation and influence.

Audience reach like never before

In 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan, engineers at Facebook noticed how many people were using their platform to communicate with family and friends who were in the region. Inspired by this, Facebook created it’s Safety Check function, which allows users to mark themselves as safe and sends a notification to all their Facebook connections in the event of a crisis. This feature was first deployed following the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal where more than seven million users marked themselves safe, notifying more than 150 million connections worldwide. It has been used in every major disaster when other forms of communication are unavailable or unable to be used by those affected, including the 2015 Paris attacks, 2016 New Zealand earthquake and 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. This innovation, though inadvertent, could only be made possible through Facebook’s immense reach and saturation.

Facebook is also endeavouring (despite numerous setbacks) to increase internet accessibility, especially in remote regions across Asia, Africa and Latin America through software and infrastructure.6 Its ambitious solar-powered drone project, which is reportedly back in the works7, aims to bring internet access wherever the aircraft can fly.

Data: a case of give and take

Google is using its unprecedented access to information and people to collect lost data, records and stories for its fight against racial injustice.  The Equal Justice Initiative’s goal is to change the narrative on race in America.8 “Google has been able to take what we know about lynching, […] and make that knowledge accessible to a lot more people,” said the initiative’s founder Bryan Stevenson. As part of the same drive against racial injustice, Google’s philanthropic arm is also supporting the Center for Policing Equity to analyse data across the US and develop national benchmarks for police-citizen interactions. Meanwhile, Google engineers have volunteered their time to help build and scale the platform.9

Technology to change the future

Google is also using its technology to tackle education inequality worldwide. The company has supported the creation of an open-source platform which translates books into local languages spoken in smaller communities around the world.10 It is also working to make digital content available offline in remote regions, and helping teachers connect to assist in knowledge sharing.

Unique resources for complex problems

Outside of the big four, other tech companies are working in niche areas to achieve real change. Nvidia created the Compute the Cure initiative, which aims to find a cure for cancer by researching, diagnosing and developing treatments using innovative computing techniques. It also supports not-for-profits that focus on patient care, prevention, screening, survivorship and end-of-life care. Even staff at Nvidia undertake their own philanthropy, deciding over a decade ago to forgo a holiday party and instead invest that money and time to volunteer with community members and restore local schools and playgrounds.

Technology and telecommunications company Cisco has run educational program Network Academy for over 20 years. Through this initiative it has taught more than nine million people worldwide communication technology skills that prepare them to succeed in the modern workplace. Beyond just educating students, Cisco helps graduates find jobs by utilising its technology to automate the process of job-matching with its network of partner organisations worldwide.11

Cisco also uses its communications expertise to run a tactical response team, able to establish emergency communication connections immediately after natural disasters, which is vital for rescue and aid efforts.

Unintended greatness

We are seeing world problems being solved in innovative ways that we never thought were possible and the new tech giants are continuing to innovate and leverage their investments and scale to give back to society.

In many cases, the usefulness of some of these platforms or solutions often come about by accident: Facebook’s accessibility and reach, and Cisco’s existing business resources, have provided a better system to handle disastrous events – without an initial focus to address that problem. Google’s store of data and knowledge, created through commercial endeavours, is now being mined to address major societal issues.

As we look towards the future growth of CSR and all the areas in which it may diversify, there are unforeseen benefits of the technology and services which will continue to support these organisations’ potential to contribute to society.

In tech giants we trust

Technology, and therefore tech companies, will only continue to be embedded into our lives. As AI, voice technology and other new innovations enter workplaces, transport, health services and homes, how will the organisations that yield this power ensure they uphold their responsibility to the society within which they exist? Can those corporate giants be trusted to prioritise the values of a community, or should we legislate imperatives of technology for all, protection of privacy and secure management of data?

Perhaps the answer lies in revisiting the origins of social responsibility. After the US Civil War in the late 1800s, no business could get a corporate charter and a few large organisations began to dominate and surpass the government until they had almost limitless power. As economist Nicholas Erbsdat summarises: “business might never have turned back toward responsibility and accountability if the culmination of corporate irresponsibility had not been the collapse of the economic system” and the start of the Great Depression.