Defining Impact Tech

Extract from Chapter 2: The Rise of Impact Tech

GTL Team
GTL Team
Jul 15 · 6 min read

This article features an extract of our report The Frontiers of Impact Tech: moonshots worth taking in the 21st century, published in June 2019. Download the full report:

With a myriad of different concepts regularly used to describe the intersections between technology and society, it was not easy to pick one term for this report. Existing terms include tech for good, impact tech, social tech, cleantech, responsible tech, positive tech, transformative tech, humane tech, ICT for development, digital social innovation, factor-4 innovation, and more. Some relate to social good, others to sustainability. Some emphasize avoiding harm, others creating solutions. Yet others focus on specific sectors like civic tech, health tech, peace tech, and carbon tech. All of them have been used to describe projects featured in these pages.

To make things easier, we settled on using Impact Tech as the main term within this report, as we felt its current usages seem to better reflect the story we want to tell. We will define it within this section.

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith

“Not everyone has the same definition of impact. We chose to start simple: you need to have a financially sustainable business that improves the quality of life for the Bottom of the Pyramid, or you tackle one of the 17 SDGs.” Mariana Fonseca, co-founder at Pipe.Social

The “tech” part refers broadly to any technology, or “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes” (Oxford Dictionary). This includes digital, hardware and bio-based applications, from high-tech to simpler tools known as low-tech (see part 1.3), though the former is more widely represented within this report.

But what does “impact” mean, anyway?

This question is probably the most frequent we encountered. To answer it we rely on the work of the Impact Management Project (IMP), a forum for building global consensus on how to measure, report, compare and improve impact performance. The IMP has brought together over 2,000 organizations to agree on the following definition:

“Impact is a change in an important positive or negative outcome for people or the planet. It can be deconstructed into five dimensions: What, Who, How Much, Contribution and Risk.” The Impact Management Project

By assessing performance and data across the five dimensions, one can classify an organization’s impact in three categories:

Act to avoid harm: Preventing or reducing significant effects on important negative outcomes for people and planet. Such organizations are often labeled “responsible”.

Benefit stakeholders: Not only acting to avoid harm, but also generating various effects on positive outcomes for people and the planet. Such organizations are often labeled “sustainable”.

Contribute to solutions: Not only acting to avoid harm, but also generating one or more significant effect(s) on positive outcomes for otherwise underserved people and the planet.

An organization’s goals can relate to three types of impact: A,B, or C

In the context of science and technology, we propose the simplified terminology used in this report:

  • Responsible Tech refers to the use of science and technology in a way that minimizes harm to people and the planet (A).
  • Impact Tech refers to the intentional use of responsible (A) science and technology to benefit people and the planet (B), ideally addressing a major social or environmental problem (C ).

Responsible Tech

Responsible Tech “considers the social impact it creates and the unintended consequences it might cause” according to British charity Doteveryone. Unintended consequences can take many forms, including electronic waste, digital surveillance and bioethical challenges. Chapter 4 provides an overview of some of the most critical technology risks.

Many voices within the tech industry increasingly emphasize responsibility. Examples include the Copenhagen Letter and Catalog published at TechFest, the Center For Humane Tech which aims to tackle screen addiction, and declarations from the Canadian Tech community or US tech giants invited by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The use of “Tech For Good” in the two latter examples illustrates, however, how loosely defined that term is. Critics especially point to the risks of “good-washing” and “impact-washing” — especially when companies like Palantir are included, despite their pivotal role in global surveillance and their association to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Besides industry-led initiatives, NGOs have been campaigning for responsible technology for decades. The protection of an open and fair internet, digital privacy and freedom of speech have been the focus of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, La Quadrature Du Net in France, or Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation. Others like ThingsCon in Germany specialized on the ethics of connected devices. Meanwhile, research groups like Data&Society (US), Eticas (Spain), Data Justice (UK), ITS (Brazil), AI Now (US), and CIPESA (Uganda) have emerged.

Impact Tech

By contrast, Impact Tech aims to create positive social and environmental benefits. This goal is not tied to a specific kind of organization, and is observed among startups, nonprofits, social enterprises, academia, the public sector, and even corporates.

However, not everyone likes the impact label. Many tech investors and entrepreneurs told us they avoid it despite being mission-driven. The most frequent reason is the feeling it could send an implicit signal that financial returns would be lower — which is not necessarily the case, as we will see in our second report — and thus prevent them from raising funds.

“The word ‘impact’ is too often associated with lower returns. We think that if you solve the biggest problems in the world you should make a lot of money. Therefore we prefer to avoid this term.” Andrew Beebe, Managing Partner at Obvious Ventures

Another reason is that many mission-driven tech entrepreneurs and investors do not measure their social and environmental impact, and thus do not wish to carry a responsibility they cannot uphold. Explanations for the lack of measurement vary: i) they are not familiar with the methods; ii) they feel too resource-constrained to invest in it, especially at the early stage; iii) they do not think any method is relevant for their industry or their technology; iv) or sometimes they merely estimate that intent is enough, and measurement adds too much of a burden.

We understand these hurdles, but we believe it is possible to overcome them. In chapter 5, we attempt to demystify impact management.

At the same time, charities, foundations and social enterprises sometimes worry about words like “impact” and “for good” being used by for-profit companies, in potentially misleading ways. Indeed, not every social problem can be addressed by market-based solutions alone, especially in sectors like education and healthcare where so far only public services have a track record of universality.

“There is a huge disconnect between those who understand the possibilities of technologies like satellites, and those who truly understand social and environmental problems. It is our role to connect those two groups.” Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño, former VP Social Impact, Satellogic

Despite these concerns, we see encouraging signs of convergence from both ends of the Impact Tech spectrum.

This article features an extract of our report The Frontiers of Impact Tech: moonshots worth taking in the 21st century, published in June 2019. Download the full report:

Good Tech Lab

We are a research and innovation firm focused on the moonshots of the 21st century — reversing climate change while ensuring people and nature thrive. Read our first report on

GTL Team

Written by

GTL Team

Exploring the frontiers of technology, entrepreneurship and venture funding, where pioneers tackle the world’s biggest challenges. 🌍

Good Tech Lab

We are a research and innovation firm focused on the moonshots of the 21st century — reversing climate change while ensuring people and nature thrive. Read our first report on

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade