I loved that the FT published a version of Cory Doctorow’s Marshall McLuhan Lecture in the FT Magazine. On the surface it seems so ‘unFT’ – both in style and approach – but it’s reflective of a lot of conversations I have with people in the tech and finance worlds.
They’re often called ‘Big Tech’ but the biggest tech firms aren’t just big, they’re ginormous – both in terms of their financial power and influence over our lives and politics. They’re Big with a capital B. And I don’t think it will last forever.
The backlash among activists and people in the industry has been going on for a while but as Cory points out, now the experience of users and customers (often advertisers) is getting worse and worse. At some point, people and Governments will break.
It strikes me that the moves by some of those large companies to do share buybacks and even (whisper it) pay dividends smacks of desperation. It’s a defensive play to prop up share prices for a bit longer and an admission that they’re not the best allocators of capital for innovation.
I think that leaves lots of space for new startups to create value in a more sustainable way. And if those startups learn what the current generation of giants forgot (that you need to be able to demonstrate that you have a positive impact on the world), then the future of tech is rosy. Those companies that success will still be big but not Big.
2018 was the year of tech for bad. An annus horribilis for the reputation of the big tech companies and mistrust of the technology industry. I fear there’s more of that to come this year with new revelations and scandals.
But on a more positive note, we’ll see tech for good continue to grow in 2019. At BGV we meet more and more founders wanting to solve the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems and that’s why I’m still optimistic. If there is a market correction (aka a crash), tech for good companies will be the ones that prevail. The motivation of the founders and teams is just so strong.
Here are a few areas that could be interesting this year.
More fintech for good
Now that the hype cycle of blockchain has started to pop, we’ll actually see some useful and beneficial applications of distributed ledgers. I have to admit we usually groaned when teams tried to shoehorn blockchain into their applications to BGV in the past, but I’m more interested now it’s less sexy.
The plastic problem is much worse than people thought and pressure on companies to replace plastic in their packaging and products is intense. Our own Panda Packaging is part of that charge.
Agritech will grow
Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and lots of old techniques for increasing output seem to be coming to the end of the road. We’ll see more meatless foods being created (animal production is accounts for 70% of agricultural land use) and completely different ways of growing crops. BGV company LettusGrow is doing great work on this and Farmerama is a fantastic way to learn about new approaches to farming.
WorkerTech starts to work
WorkerTech really seems to be growing in profile now. As precarious work (sometimes caused by technological change) has grown so have the effects on income security, health and mental health. We’re seeing more and more good ideas for ventures to use tech to help tackle this. Organise, LabourXchange and WorkerBird are just three.
More chief ethics officers
While ‘what’ you do is important in tech for good, ‘how’ you do it is just as vital. Big tech companies are starting to do this by hiring new people to set policy and interrogate the way that products and services are created but it’s important for startups as well. New frameworks to help are beginning to emerge.
Funding options diversify
While the way we tackle social problems and start businesses has changed rapidly over the past decade, traditional forms have finance haven’t (think bank loans, grant making and even venture capital). I’ve got a feeling there will be greater diversity of funding models for tech for good in the future. Take a look at the Indie.vc model for one early sign of new approaches.