What will be interesting in tech for good in 2019?

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.

Plastic alternatives

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.

Car crash?

The opportunity for electric car conversion startups

By 2025/30 I think the majority of new cars sold will be electric only. The signals from governments that they’re going to ban fossil fuel engines will start to shift consumer behaviour much sooner than the dates the bans are actually scheduled to come in. Frankly, I can’t see many of the big car companies making it much longer than 2025/30 either. Not because they don’t have the technology to become electric car companies but because they were too slow to shift their investment programmes. They’re going to make a big loss on the investments they’re still making now in things like more efficient petrol or diesel engines which will put them at a huge financial disadvantage to companies only investing in developing electric car technologies.

But I think the bigger problem for the big car companies is the way they’ve tried to change the nature of car ownership. There was a little mention of it on the Today programme this morning — almost nine in ten cars are leased or on some form of finance rather than owned outright so it’s looking like there will be a glut of second hand cars in a few years time. If you take into account that many of those cars will be diesel and by that point it will be clear that they won’t be welcome in cities, you start to wonder whether there’s a big crash coming. Ultimately the people who own the majority of the cars on the roads are the big leasing companies which in turn are linked to the manufacturers. They have great cash flow but will they be able to weather the storm of a huge drop in value when electric becomes the only thing that people want? It doesn’t look like it to me.

Which brings me to the opportunity. Everything apart from the propulsion system in modern cars is amazing. They’re safer, quieter and more comfortable than they’ve ever been. In a few years time there will be millions of chassis that nobody want on the market which I’m guessing will be pretty inexpensive. The opportunity I see is in converting them to run electrically by taking the engines out and replacing them with motors and batteries. It’s not completely straightforward but it may well be much cheaper option for many people than buying a new electric car.