Why tech has a purpose problem

Today’s technology companies are innovating faster than their values can keep up, creating a gap between their intent and their impact.

By Kristina Joss and Hannah Nascimento, Salterbaxter

The fourth industrial revolution is touching every country in the world. Evolving at a transformational pace, technological advancements are impacting governments, people, business and the planet in unprecedented ways. Technology’s pervasiveness in all aspects of society has made it both the hero and villain of modern society. It is commended for advancing society, and demonized for destroying it, in equal measure. Technology often offers us something we never knew we needed, swiftly becoming embedded in our everyday lives, and our never ending dependency on technology means this tension isn’t going away anytime soon.

From brand loyalty to brand expectation

The spotlight is now slowly turning on the tech industry. There is no doubt that technology, and the companies that create and offer it to the world, have the power to drive significant change. Technology has provided new economic opportunities, lower transport costs, global connectivity and endless access to resources and knowledge. However, this potential is simultaneously being thwarted by the erosion of core societal values. Job loss due to increased automation with no clear transition planning, Apple’s questionable supply chain activity, Uber’s gender inequality revelations, Amazon’s privacy challenges, and Facebook’s struggles to manage content are all examples of society no longer turning a blind eye to tech.

It cannot be coincidence that these are all examples of companies expanding at exponential rates with an apparent lack of direction when it comes to purpose and societal value. As Oscar Salazar of Uber recently articulated, “We are adding technology to a society without thinking about the consequences. I think government, industry and society need to work more together, because it is going to get crazier and crazier.”

The importance of finding purpose

What was relevant 2–3 years ago is no longer sufficient as these companies innovate and evolve constantly, entering new revenue streams and coming up against unexpected challenges. As a result, their purpose statements are often no longer fit for purpose, vague or intangible. In trying to stand for everything, they end up standing for nothing.

Practically speaking, purpose statements for technology companies put too much emphasis on the “what” rather than the “how” and “why”. Let’s look at a few examples:

· Amazon: Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online. Sounds great and very convenient, but not particularly inspiring.

· Google: Organize all of the data in the world and make it accessible for everyone in a useful way. OK, but “a useful way” does not always mean “positive” and this certainly sounds all about you Google.

· Microsoft: To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Definitely better, but “more” is quite subjective and not always best for a sustainable future. This is actually quite vague.

Purpose pulls. It’s what compels you to do, create, explore and discover. Innovation and thinking outside of what is possible today to challenge norms is what makes tech companies thrive. It is also what makes them exceptional leaders for sustainability. And while it is by no means the sole responsibility of the technology industry to save the future, they are well positioned to be enablers on a broader scale by breaking down silos, reimagining systems and engaging the masses — all of which are required for a sustainable future. But they can’t lead the way for all of us, without their own set of clear values and purposeful direction.

Too many tech companies are looking inward but rather they should be stepping up to the challenge of bringing society along in step with their innovation. Given their breadth and depth, technology companies should be guided by a purpose that not only articulates an aspiration for the future, but why it is important to achieve and the values and behaviors they intend to uphold along the way.

Looking ahead

We all have the opportunity to redesign the future. There is no reason why the next 50 years cannot be shaped to meet the challenges of today, rather than exacerbate them. And while we all need to take responsibility for creating change, you might say technology companies, and in particular their leadership, have a particularly important role to play. They just need to ensure their own path is clear.

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