Technology companies and their employees are often highly insular, failing to interact with a diverse range of people, cultures, institutions, and societal problems.
The technology industry’s focus on corporate and technological success generates powerful innovations, but it also leads to missed opportunities to solve societal challenges.
Employees, customers, and other stakeholders should do more to ask technology companies how they are benefiting the world and should support companies that are making a difference.
“The system and the focus do work. What I think is really missing is [awareness] about the impact and the outcomes that we drive… . We should be much more conscious about how the mission and the innovations that we are going to create can and should create better outcomes…” —Mark Bauhaus, Just Business Fund and Upstream
“We need to put engineers and entrepreneurs in front of people and problems they don’t normally experience and let them practice empathy. [We need to] put them in a room with people they normally don’t interact with; that’s where innovation comes from.” —Catherine Bracy, Code for America
“If we don’t have our eyes open, the industry will move. It’s going to be in China, and it’s going to be in India, and it’s going to be in Vietnam. I just don’t think that because being closed off worked the last decade means it’s going to work the next decade.” —Kathrin Winkler, EMC Corporation
“Silicon Valley is the absolute best at blind capitalistic innovation.” —Mark Bauhaus, Just Business Fund and Upstream
Mohapatra opened the session by wondering whether the power of technology can be used to address pressing societal issues. Winkler explained that technology is solving very real problems, but not on its own. Rather, it works in concert with other industries, supporting innovations in areas such as health care, education, and science. Bauhaus offered a contrasting perspective on Silicon Valley: “No, we’re not solving real problems.” He added that Silicon Valley is excellent at being ambitious and drawing on talent to innovate and create, but it often focuses purely on “capitalistic outcomes” instead of societal problem-solving.
Commenting on the insularity of Silicon Valley, Bracy described the need to expand the worldview of technology engineers. Additionally, she argued that society needs to foster new entrepreneurs and engineers from populations that aren’t currently participating in the industry. She highlighted that it is in everyone’s interest to build a technology industry that is widely representative, generates a broad pool of wealth, and addresses issues that matter to people’s lives.
Mohapatra went on to ask about the relative importance of expanding access to technology compared to directly addressing issues such as global health. Winkler asserted that distinguishing those approaches is a false dichotomy because technology, with its full range of available devices, can be used to help address health challenges. She also acknowledged the importance of doing more to understand the lives of a broader group of people in applying technology.
Mohapatra asked Bauhaus how companies can make sustainability a core part of technology jobs. He replied that, while Silicon Valley companies often start with values and ideals, they lose them over time. They must work to reconnect with those problems to create a better industry.
Bracy described how, because companies believe that their platforms are valuable in and of themselves, many don’t perceive a need to integrate sustainability. She called this a “cop out” that ignores the broader context, applications, and real-world value of technology.
Mohapatra pressed the panel about the risks of technology companies taking a myopic view about their role in society. In the ensuing back-and-forth, Bracy expressed concern that the industry fails to realize the important role of government and how the industry relates to politics and legislation, which could present existential threats to the industry. Bauhaus commented, “I think there is a bubble, and I’m fine with it.” He argued that the industry’s simplified focus on technology spurs innovation. Policy and government are areas where companies have much less expertise and influence, leading to a lower return on engagement compared to a stricter focus on technology development. Winkler acknowledged that the bubble has worked to create innovation, but that the situation could change in the future if the industry does not think more broadly. Bracy argued that the Silicon Valley bubble approach does not work in addressing social needs.
As the panel opened to audience participation, one attendee commented on the importance of not oversimplifying complex global challenges and systems. Rather than having companies or NGOs try to solve them alone, she underlined the importance of working with existing experts.
Kathy Mulvany, Senior Director of Corporate Affairs for Cisco, observed that technology’s fast global connections enable solutions to global challenges. She also made the point that public-private partnerships are crucial to ensuring that those solutions are embedded in communities.
Another attendee argued that people should prefer to work at companies that are making a difference in the world. Winkler replied that prospective employees should ask companies more questions and that companies need to do a better job of articulating their mission. Bauhaus added that employees need to vote with their feet.
Diana Lyon, Program Director for Corporate Environmental Affairs at IBM, described how the company’s founders left a legacy of strong corporate values. A company based on such values, she asserted, can be stronger and have a more meaningful impact on the world.
Ran Tau, Sustainability Fellow at The Coca-Cola Company, asked how technology can be used to address labor issues in the supply chain. Winkler commented that companies are looking at how to do that, and she made the broader point that the industry has an obligation to understand a wide range of its negative impacts and to collaborate to address them on a large scale.
For the final question, one audience member asked what those who were making money from Twitter’s initial public offering should do with their new wealth. Bracy encouraged them to interact with new people, visit new places, and “build their empathy muscles.” Then, as they find social problems they are passionate about, they should start their own companies to solve those problems.