How to be a ‘tech for good’ company

July 12, 2018

What does ‘tech for good’ actually mean? It’s a question we have been considering further at Nominet upon learning that our digital skills programme Nominet Digital Neighbourhood had been nominated in AbilityNet’s Tech4Good Awards this year. Are we a tech for good company? Definitions are as varying as the industry in which we operate.

Joe Roberson captured the sense of fluidity and interpretation in a recent article. The closest definition he could find was that the term refers to a community of people focusing on creating tech that addresses social, economic and environmental challenges. It also should be collaborative and user-led, with the result being ethically sound.

The term’s application and meaning has changed as quickly as the tech it refers to. Being ‘tech for good’ was originally never a claim that could be made by medium or large companies. It existed more comfortably within communities of passionate people working for change and is credited to Paul Miller, now CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures. The idea sprung out of small community operations in places like Shoreditch in London where people met to try and harness the power of technology for a better purpose than they worried it was being used for.

While such efforts were once the preserve of charities or small operations, the landscape is changing with new faces and larger businesses involved to supercharge the effort.

Whether or not you can be called a tech for good company should start with assessing your business’ capabilities in terms of expertise, experience and influence – what do you do well? Who could you help? How do you make that happen? This exercise ensures efforts aren’t too broad and ineffectual but really drive down to have maximum impact in a niche environment.

One example of this is our work with TV White Space to boost connectivity in rural areas. We have invested a lot into developing the technology and it could prove dramatic in terms of connecting communities and supporting global efforts to ensure everyone has access to a strong, reliable internet connection to support current and forthcoming digital innovations. Financial institutions are also doing what they can to make a positive change. Lloyds Bank, for example, has maximised its unique position to collect data on financial and digital capability to help to drive change through its Consumer Digital Index. Barclays has its ‘Digital Eagles’ programme to offer learning opportunities to those looking to build their internet skills. Could we call these businesses tech for good companies?

An integral aspect of being ‘tech for good’ is having leadership that buys in to the idea and works to create a culture and environment focused on delivering public benefit. At Nominet, it feeds into the very lifeblood of the business. As a profit with a purpose company responsible for the .UK internet infrastructure, we have a long history of supporting initiatives that contribute to a vibrant digital future that is connected, inclusive and secure for all – and so could be considered ‘tech for good’. Our public benefit focus underpins all our discussions and decisions, and drives the strategies we build to ensure all that we do serves more than just delivering the day to day business of running a world class registry. It also attracts and retains staff, and gives us all a sense of higher purpose during the 9 to 5. I am biased, but Nominet feels like a good place to be.

This commitment can help avoid the pitfalls of token CSR efforts, which serve nobody. A company needs to have a fundamental operations and leadership level commitment to serving the greater good with a company’s resources, regardless of whether it makes the newspapers or improves the balance sheet. News will out, and those still sceptical of all this altruism can take comfort in the importance of reputation management today. We need only look towards the negativity surrounding Facebook and other big tech firms to recognise that integrity and morals remain relevant to survival and positive opinion, regardless of the size of your business or seeming indispensability.

The idea of ‘tech for good’ will continue to evolve, but would it be pertinent to create a new BCorps for the digital era? This certification and accreditation programme was popular a few years back as a means of showing that a company met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. The focus for a BCorps is on using ‘business as a force for good’, but could we create something that places emphasis on using technology for good? A company can feel ‘tech for good’ when you are within it, but certification could be a reliable means of showing the outside world that your commitment to making the world a better place with technology goes beyond box-ticking exercises.

It could also dispel the myth that a company not listed as a charity can’t also be one that does good – capitalism hasn’t yet done away with philanthropy. If anything, being good at making money will make the application of resources more impactful, provided there is a clear process and strategy in place to target the areas that can best be helped. This is a thought publicly supported by French President Emmanuel Macron when he invited 50 global tech leaders to Paris for a tech for good summit in May this year. He spoke of the need to take responsibility for the technology we unleash, and that a focus on tech for good is a means of keeping a business in check.

Technology has given us many things, but ultimately it has provided us with an opportunity to make a positive difference in a way not yet seen in all our advancements and good intentions. Technology is neither good or bad. Application determines the outcome, so we should all take responsibility for driving efforts on technology for good, regardless of ambiguity in definitions. It’s not how you define it that matters; it’s what you do and who you help.