A Rising Tide To Raise All Boats: How Tech Can Benefit Everyone on the Planet
Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a debate at Web Summit on an increasingly important topic: “Future of Tech: Will Everyone Benefit?” It’s a question we should all contemplate and analyze. As tech breaks out and reshapes so many aspects of humanity, will all of this stunning innovation create a rising tide that lifts all boats, regardless of geography, background, or culture? Or will the advantages of tech innovation be limited to only the fortunate few?
If you’re a technologist like me, you’re in a privileged position. Not because of what you’ve accomplished to date, but because of the power you have to shape the future. We all have a stake in determining the course of tech innovation and whether it delivers on its full potential for everyone on the planet. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this topic.
I certainly don’t profess to have all the answers, nor do I own a crystal ball. And it’s clear there are no simple solutions to the complex and deeply entrenched global challenges we face. But at my core, I’m an optimist. After nearly four decades working in tech, I’m hopeful and energized about the future – and tech’s role in shaping it for the betterment of all. The truth is that tech itself is neutral, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s about how we apply it to the problems of the day.
Part of the reason I’m optimistic is the combination of four extraordinary capabilities we now have at our disposal:
Mobile + Cloud + AI + IoT
Mobile provides unprecedented reach. Cloud delivers previously unimaginable scale. Deep-learning artificial intelligence enables us to mine massive amounts of data in real time and use those insights to create entirely new business models. Last but not least, the Internet of Things connects the physical and digital worlds and brings technology into every dimension of human progress. Each is powerful in its own right, yet fused together they open up game-changing abilities that were simply not available to us until this moment in history.
Perhaps the best way to frame this discussion is to look at the greatest threats we face as a global community. Put another way, what are the biggest barriers to improving quality of life for 7.5 billion people today, expanding to 8.1 billion by 2027? In my view, those big barriers center on the areas of health, environment, education, and job creation.
Advances in healthcare technology are transforming how we deliver medical services and how we treat and prevent disease on a global scale. Deep-learning algorithms are able to create breakthrough drugs, improve diagnosis, and design treatment plans far more effectively than any previous approach. Human Genome/DNA sequencing and CRISPR editing have enabled a vast step forward in our understanding and treatment of disease. Robotics and 3D printing techniques now allow for the creation of bionic limbs. Remote medicine is opening up healthcare services to under-served populations in the most isolated regions of the Earth.
Thanks to these tech innovations and investments in medical research, we have an opportunity to completely eradicate chronic diseases that have plagued humankind for millennia. According to the Gates Foundation, we now have what it takes to eradicate Malaria by 2040. And with gene replacement and bionic capabilities, eliminating blindness on a global scale is within the realm of possibility.
We’ve made amazing strides in global life expectancy. In 1955, global life expectancy was 48 years; by 2025, it will be 73. In developed nations, a baby born today has a 25 percent chance of living to 100 as we conquer heart problems, cancers, and make progress on brain illnesses. To be clear, there is still a massive delta between life expectancy in developing nations vs. first-world countries. But we now have a realistic opportunity to level the playing field over the next two decades.
Arguably our most daunting challenge is environmental. As we improve human health and enable longer lifespans, we also need to ensure that the Earth remains a welcoming and hospitable environment for all life on the planet. It is imperative that we sustainably manage the inter-related challenges of carbon, water and waste.
Advances in renewable power sources like wind and solar provide some data-driven hope that we can solve the central challenge of sustainable power generation. Transportation is a sector that currently accounts for around a quarter of all global emissions, and there are positive signs: by 2050, zero-emission electric vehicles will represent an estimated 75 percent of global car sales.
Equally important are our buildings, which contribute roughly 20 percent of global emissions at present. Here we need to continue to invest both resources and talent into large-scale IoT and smart-city initiatives, which can dramatically increase the energy-efficiency of the spaces where we live and work. In water, tech innovation is helping drive new approaches to filtration, desalination, monitoring, irrigation, wastewater treatment and more.
And then there’s the subject of waste. ‘Intelligent Assets’ is a recent report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which lays out a powerful view on resource maximization. The Internet of Things has the potential to unlock extraordinary potential in the Circular Economy - a system where we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them, and then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their life.
Education as the Great Equalizer
As we strive to care for the planet and lead longer, healthier lives, education becomes paramount. Education is the great equalizer, especially in a world being reshaped by tech innovation. This issue is very personal to me. Over the past 15 years, my wife and I have invested time and resources to build a school system in a poverty-stricken section of Nairobi, Kenya. These schools now provide 15,000 children with housing, an education, and three square meals a day. This year, the first graduating class received their diplomas, and it’s been both inspiring and humbling to watch many of them move on to college or a job. They’re creating opportunities for themselves and owning their future with a genuine sense of hope.
Fostering Hope Through Economic Growth
According to the U.N., 75 percent of the poor in developing countries rely on farming for their livelihoods. For many poor rural farmers, the low-cost mobile phone has become a game-changer – as critical to their success as livestock, seeds, water, and fertilizer. An inexpensive mobile phone with simple feature functionality empowers poor rural farmers to gain access to micro-loans and real-time pricing, as well as access to information on best practices in animal husbandry, crop rotation, varietals, fertilizers and more. No one could have predicted a decade ago that a simple mobile device could be so transformative for this segment of the global population.
If we take a step back, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the nature of work and how we feed ourselves. Roughly 140 years ago, more than 85 percent of workers in the U.S. were employed in agriculture. Today that number has dropped below 2 percent.
This is my heritage; I’m from a farming family. I vividly recall sitting at a family reunion a few years ago chatting with my father and all of his 10 brothers and brothers-in-law. It suddenly occurred to me that I was the only person sitting at the table who still had all 10 of their fingers.
From my perspective, the automation of farming has been a positive trend. Farming is not a bad life, but it is definitely a tough life. Even Thomas Jefferson, who viewed farming as the most dignified of human vocations, consistently advocated for embracing new technologies to improve farms and make them more productive.
Job Creation of Tomorrow
I firmly believe that tech will be at the center of job creation for the next decade. Of course, the opposite view is what we read in the headlines today: “Automation and robotics destroy jobs.” In fact, tech has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed over the past 140 years, according to a comprehensive report by Deloitte.
Losses in agriculture and manufacturing are being offset by rapid growth in jobs focused on technology, care-giving, and business services. And as we innovate to address our environmental challenges, we’re creating net-new jobs in the green sector as well. Today there are 8 million jobs in renewable energy worldwide, with China, Brazil, India and the U.S among the leaders – a number that is only going to grow, and fast.
Going forward, tech has the power to create jobs that are more productive, more rewarding and built for the future – including jobs that we can’t even imagine today.
Pointing Ourselves Forward
Today, we are in the early stages of a massive transition from an industrial to a digital world. By definition, these mass-scale transitions are wrenching and difficult. The same was true two centuries ago when we moved from an agrarian society into the industrial age. Back then, many predicted the end of the world; we hear similar themes today.
Consider this: right now, the pace of tech evolution is the fastest we’ve ever experienced. Yet it’s also the slowest pace of tech innovation that we'll experience for the remainder of our lives. In periods of disruptive change like this, it’s easy to let fear get the better of us. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that technology is inherently neutral. It’s our job to ensure that the stunning innovations we’re driving now deliver on their full potential over the next decade by providing value for everyone, rather than providing value for only a select few.
Now more than ever, the tech community has an individual and collective responsibility to engage and act. This applies not only to our own businesses but also to shaping global policy and regulatory frameworks to ensure that technology serves the greater good.
I’m interested in your thoughts – can tech improve quality of life for all 7+ billion on the planet? Where should we focus and what can we do better?