I’m not the first one to beat the drum on this, and I won’t be the last, but here’s an important insight that you can ignore at your own peril: Technology integration will determine your organization’s relevance in the next decade. Even if you think you have a monopoly in your area of work, you’re mistaken.
The way we create social change is changing, and changing rapidly. Just ask your parents how they mobilized people across the country for a protest, or how people affected by natural disaster got cash, or if they were able to customize prosthetics for kids in need back in the day.
Whether you’re in the world of advocacy, or corporate fundraising, or social services, or international development, there are technologies in your area of work that are going from the edge to the centre 10 times faster than you can form your next advisory committee.
Here’s a cheat sheet. It’s just about everything you need to know about how exponential technologies are changing the social impact game.
What are exponential technologies?
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Singularity U Canada’s 2019 Summit as Future of Good was a social impact content partner.
According to Singularity University, exponential technologies are those which are rapidly accelerating and shaping major industries and our lives. Exponential technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), data science, digital biology and biotech, digital fabrication, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.
Why is it called exponential?
Singularity University notes that for a technology to be “exponential,” the power and/or speed doubles each year, and/or the cost drops by half. By way of what’s already mainstream, smartphones are a good example. The Law of Accelerating Returns and Moore’s Law are both central concepts to understanding exponential growth. You can go deeper here.
Who is behind them?
There are all sorts of organizations in the private, academic, and public sectors that are advancing exponential technologies and many are multi-sector collectives. Recognizable brands include Oculus (virtual reality), Waymo (autonomous vehicles), as well as newer companies including Sanctuary AI (robotics) and RightMesh (blockchain). While a number of these types of companies are in Silicon Valley, organizations advancing exponential technologies are located all around the world, including Canada.
Who are the Canadian social impact organizations that have embraced exponential technologies?
While exponential technologies are not yet fully understood or embraced, there are Canadian social mission organizations that are at the leading edge of incorporating emerging exponential technologies as part of their work. For instance:
In the world of private foundations, the Gordon Foundation has catalyzed a powerful open-access online platform called DataStream that helps Canadians share information about the health of their local watersheds. The twist: DataStream is the only known freshwater data platform to use blockchain technology.
In the world of fundraising, Pathways to Education helps youth in low-income communities graduate from high school and successfully transition into post-secondary education. It has been the first national Canadian charity to accept Bitcoin (BTC) donations.
On the ground, Mind.Me is a mobile app built to help diagnose, manage and more importantly predict depressive episodes. They are at the forefront of developing machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to diagnose depression. The Victoria Hand Project 3D prints complete body-powered prosthesis that has high functionality, a natural-appearance, and is custom-made to fit each amputee to increase their quality of living.
What do exponential technologies have to do with social impact?
Big issues: As many as 5.7 billion people may not have regular access to clean, safe water if current trends continue. Globally, 32 million children suffer from significant hearing loss, the majority of whom live in countries where access to hearing care can be a significant barrier. Only five percent of the 40 million people who need prosthetic care can access the resources they need.
Technology can be an integral part of bettering lives, faster. However, the world of social impact has never really been at ease with new technology—but the thing is, we have so much to offer by way of shaping them. It’s about time we get up from the sidelines and act. Imagine if we could’ve reaped the potential of the internet or social media a decade sooner.
Serving a digital-first generation
In the next decade, the world of social impact will have to serve an entire generation of people who have been immersed in entirely digital lives and who, for the most part, have never had disconnected, non-multimedia, data-free, and un-social media lives.
Do we realistically think we can serve a digital-first generation with analog solutions?
This generation will demand social services and social change solutions that incorporate technology and they already are—from mobilizing for climate change and education in refugee camps to tackling mental health and enhancing food security.
Having said all of this, what questions should we be asking?
Exponential technologies are shaping all aspects of our lives. They are also demonstrating, as with the examples here, what it looks like to enhance lives faster.
As the world of impact moves closer to fully serving a digital-first society, our organizational strategy shouldn’t just be to play defense. Nor should our strategy be to play this casually, like a friendly match. There is huge potential, huge urgency, and importantly, unanswered questions. Questions such as: Who benefits? Who owns it? Who sets the standards? What would become of social divides if it were not available equitably?
To begin the journey of maximizing opportunities that exponential technology presents, our first call to action is the awareness that this matters for our future. Let us be open to our peers showing us how it’s making a difference in their mission, both in the office and on the ground.