By Candice Baloyi, South African living in Oslo, student at Norwegian Business School BI and writer at Shifter
The merge of business and tech has created a model for successful innovation which stream lines innovation to solve the problems of urban middle-class lives. Tech giants, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple have “changed the world”. But was this the change we needed?
Humanity is at the height of efficiency, connectivity and consumerism; we seem closer and closer to a technological Utopia. It seems however, that this Utopia will be had explicitly before the world’s impoverished are dealt with, or next to a slum compiled of them. Technology’s capacity is so deep and broad today, enough so, that we can confidently say that it could eradicate many of the world’s worst problems if applied properly. In my opinion the combination of business and tech has been the century’s greatest and worst development. It is for this reason it is harder for startups to successfully pursue a real impact project.
This is not to slander startups. Startups have placed their water mark on traditional business processes and lives by making easing and simplifying any aspect which can be. In terms of serving the public their survival is reliant on answering every whim of their consumers and they have also helped with the commercialization of technology. But the labelling of this transformation of urban lives as “world changing”, burns the edges of the picture of the world, to enclose around a certain type of life. The startup wave was spurred by its potential to “change the world”, and startups fight desperately to preserve this image as though they will be discarded if it is not. This should not be the case. Yes, they are not always curing the sick and eradicating poverty; and this should be acknowledged and admitted, but they are affecting great change in the modern business and urban world, and this is enough.
However, the startup world and the greater tech world have taken to innovations which are centered around itself in more than one way. In the first sense, it produces innovations which improve the conditions of already existing tech companies through data compressors, cloud-based storage etc. or which facilitate big existing tech innovations like crypto currencies and AI – innovations which are only applicable to those within the tech world. In the second sense, in that it produces innovations which are only accessible by those with the funds to afford constant internet connection and smartphones, and which focus on retaining users. In these ways the startup/tech industry is self-catering. There have been improvements to the world, day to day tasks are performed seamlessly and with the highest efficiency, but efficiency seems hardly the world’s worst problem.
There have been great technological advancements which attempt to solve the grave problems of the world however these are not the main focus of the tech and financial world. They are not as numerous or as “trendy” as retail and social media developments, or anything which can relate to those. Often, serious impact innovations are corporate social responsibility projects of major tech companies, such as Facebook’s “Free Basics” initiative; which further emphasizes how only the residual of technological resources will go toward solutions which are desperately needed yet will not bear much profit. This is a microcosm for what is happening on a grand scale with capital distribution and tech. The tech world supports some kind of “technology trickle-down economics”, focusing all the capabilities of today’s technology on developments which solve profitable problems, and whilst having the capacity to solve them, leave the world’s worst problems unseen to, advocating the benefits will reach them eventually.
This development of innovations which are frivolous measured up against the reality of the world, happens at the expense of innovations which could be more impactful because of the competitive nature of capital. This is the problem with the pursuance of the world’s softer problems over the graver ones: they have been made mutually exclusive. The merging of business and technology in the way it is today has done great things for tech: it has allowed for technology to be more accessible by both the general population and developers and it has allowed for advanced technology to reach the public and be commercialized faster. But this same beneficial merge has created a model for success which looks like solving the problems of a middle-class person immersed in an urban life, or which fit in a futuristic technological utopia which seems to have amputated it’s poor to achieve that status. This stream lines innovation, and while there are deviations (the world should be ever grateful) they are not the trend. The merge of business and tech has diluted the social calling of technology developers and made it difficult to fund solutions which don’t look like this “model”.
It is a shame that hundreds of billions in capital, seemingly the greatest minds and huge work efforts are going towards technological innovation which is not aimed at helping the worst lives but easing the easy ones (most of the time). This trajectory of capital and tech companies is one which seems to be set in place and difficult to change. It looks as though we must trust “technology trickle-down economics” in the same way we have trusted and waited for actual trickle-down economics to bear fruits over centuries for the lower half of society.