How Big Tech Could – Profitably – Save The World
The world is becoming a less and less viable concern, year on year. We’re facing overpopulation, breathtaking disparity of wealth distribution, a rising cost of living, largely due to post-Covid economic fluctuations and the restriction of the flow of a commodity on which daily life depends – gas. Pestilence has had its turn at ravaging the world, swiftly followed by war, and increasingly, in wealthy countries as well as poor ones, famine – or at least an inability to afford food – is kicking in, too. And above all, there is the ever-present specter of climate change. It may not exactly be turning the moon to sackcloth and the rivers to blood, but it’s quite apocalyptic enough to be going on with. So, grim as the picture is, how can big tech save the world?
Firstly, some good news – big tech itself is, compared to lots of other industries, a fairly low-level contributor to the potential catastrophe of climate change. You could argue this is no less than its expected position – if high tech can’t see the benefits in going low-carbon, changing to renewable energy sources, and reducing its footprint on the eco-structure of the Earth, then what chance have heavier polluters got of seeing the light?
Thought Leadership and Practical Example – Effect on Other Industries
And that’s a very large part of the answer to the question. Big Tech can act, both with one voice and with the decisions and choices it makes, to steer other industries in a positive direction, because a) everybody in this high-tech century looks to big tech to see what it does, and then emulates it, and b) because big tech already has a fairly good record for minimizing its ecological impact on the planet.
With some of the major players in the tech world, such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, buying up either wind farms in strategic areas, or at least buying the majority of the energy from such local wind farms to power and cool their server farms, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that big tech has already faced the crisis point that other industries have yet to either acknowledge or work around – the shift from ways of working that are ecologically unsustainable, to ways that impose the lightest footprint currently possible.
But tech is also constantly working towards getting more output from smaller energy inputs, revolutionizing battery performance, and minimizing the planetary harm of building components to power the next wave of technological development.
So, big tech is perfectly placed to take the lead in the wider business community, both in terms of showing the way and by encouraging other, more heavily polluting industries to follow suit. Encouraging and investing in the development of clean energy plants like wind and solar will reassure other industries that the necessary changes are possible.
And the bonus to that is that very often, investment in clean energy technologies can actually save business sectors money, certainly in the longer term, by unplugging them from the dependence on fossil fuels which not only exacerbate climate change but, as we’ve seen in 2022, are expensive to harness and can be restricted by national governments for their own, often objectionable, political purposes.
Thought Leadership – Consumers: The Cool Factor
It’s no secret that big tech is seen as a ‘cool’ industry by most consumers. Buying in both to the science fiction potential of what big tech can do to transform our daily experience, from ultra-thin laptops and tablets to all-knowing smartphones to life-saving medical tech, big tech has a dedicated core audience of thought-obedient listeners, and that core audience is quite capable of swaying the national and international norms of society. So big tech could make lightening the carbon footprint of consumers ‘cool,’ as well as making it easier than it has previously been.
Bringing cache to the idea would help drive adoption of carbon-reducing and recycling practices. Apps that gamify the process could easily become a norm in some sectors of society, especially if there were to be social media engagement and the potential of real and regular rewards for achieving and maintaining landmarks in carbon-reduction, but more than that, the idea that big tech has fully seized the notion of saving the planet would help pull otherwise skeptical consumers in the right direction.
Beyond swaying hearts and minds, big tech could put some of its big money where its as-yet fairly small mouth is and set up funding streams for next-generation climate-friendly technological innovation. It’s frequently said that some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the world have been made by individuals or small teams, working without funding or approval.
Big tech could make funding available to help push such breakthroughs into reality, either as a simple ‘pay it forward’ act, gaining the kind of publicity money can’t buy, or working some wording into the funding grants that gives them at least the first exploitation rights to any breakthroughs made under the funding.
That would increase the capability of big tech to keep itself at the forefront of carbon-neutralizing development, and while there would be significant initial outlay, it would bring enormously positive reputational enhancement, and could well lead to further transformative economies if breakthroughs were made that could lower environmental impacts and costs simultaneously, as has been possible through the transition to cleaner fuel sources.
The Hothouse Effect
Science and technology traditionally takes a legendarily long time to go from breakthrough to universal application. The case is often cited of Einstein discovering the photoelectric effect in 1921, and it taking 40 years to be used in the NASA space program as the basis of solar panels – and a further 50 years for solar panels to become even tentatively ubiquitous as an alternative fuel source to take the pressure off the Earth and its climate.
Big tech has the infrastructure, the distributive networks, and the PR punching power to hothouse potential breakthroughs, growing them from idea to prototype to product to social norm in a much faster timescale than would be possible if such ideas were left to mature on their own. By dedicating resources to developing the next-generation climate-friendly ideas at speed, big tech could not only secure itself future revenue streams, it could reward the individuals and teams who are actually more likely to save the world, and drive the planet forward to a safer future.
Digital transformation is a phrase that some think is overused to mean any advancement where technology streamlines processes or changes the nature of work. But it can be much more fundamental than that. By pushing digital transformation forward in its own industry, and creating the tools that can help more industrial, polluting industries to make digital transformation a reality in those sectors, big tech can help ‘green’ some of the more ecologically troublesome sectors, and lift their more heavily industrial footprint off the Earth and its climate.
Ensuring that the lessons of its experience – most notably including the need to bring existing workforces along with the process – can be learned and replicated in other industries should mean not only more industries that are fit for purpose in the 21st century, but also more industries actively evolving away from polluting behavior models.
Big tech has been an early adopter of methodologies to lighten the load on both its bottom lines and the planet on which it depends. Were it to maximize its commitment to the planet, it could help transform the future of the Earth and its people, and help us step back from the brink of an eco-cataclysm – without harming its bottom line.
21 March 2023
21 March 2023