My fundamental belief is that people make the world better with technology. It makes our lives easier, alleviates extreme poverty, ends hunger, gives us longer & healthier lives and combats the climate crisis. This isn’t just a thesis, this is currently happening. Despite what one might see while doom scrolling on social media, the human condition continues to greatly improve. A lot of this stems from our ingenuity to create tools & technology, and yes for profit corporations to bring these innovations to the market.
There are many of these companies that fall into a bucket called “Tech for Good”. They are reshaping our future for the better. As a matter of personal interest, I want to cover the stories of the people behind them and the impact they are having. This post explains why this matters more than ever.
Nothing guarantees progress
Technology and in particular the internet has gone from a university experiment to becoming a human right in just over thirty years. That has perhaps slanted my world view that everything our lives will simply keep improving and that technology is an unstoppable force.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that progress rarely follows a straight line. As of late, it has become painfully obvious that isn’t true. It is not preordained that the human condition will just naturally improve. It takes hard work and human agency. This is why I believe technology and specifically software is such a force multiplier. In the history of humanity, the best time to be born is today. Nothing guarantees that this will be the case in the future. We have to fight to make sure that this trend continues.
Tech as a force for good
It’s become cliché to say that software is eating the world yet the saying’s true impact is yet to be felt. We are at the beginning of a decades-long shift that is reshaping our society writ large. As the old adage goes, we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. All you need to do is look around. Remove the phones and laptops from a room and you can imagine yourself back in the 70’s. This is just the nature of the diffusion of innovation, it takes time. Electricity was discovered in the 1700s, the lightbulb came just a *bit* later in 1878. Needless to say, the most substantive changes in our lives are still yet to come.
The impact is nearly invisible at first, we are talking about bits after all. This is the fascinating part of software. It is endlessly copied and distributed globally & instantly. Code once written can be copy/pasted at zero marginal cost. Given the composability of software, engineers also improve the solutions over time making it much more dynamic in nature.
Undoubtedly, technology has also been a huge disruptor in the economy upending entire industries. Our primary means of communication & information shifted to screens which dramatically changed the media and retail landscape. These were the first markets to be hit and won’t be the only ones.
What happened is that competitive advantage shifted from centralized distribution to customer experience. Software first companies had an edge in customer experience and were the big winners. This shifted power back to individuals and away from corporations & governments. It’s a slow burn with new gatekeepers appearing, progress rarely follows a straight line. In the long run, I’m betting that more sovereignty will accrue to the individual giving people control over their lives. As it stands now, I can’t see why this is not a dramatically better thing.
This tectonic shift of control and large scale improvement is slowly but surely altering the makeup of every sector of the economy. From healthcare to energy to transportation to education, we are just beginning now to understand the true potential of what software can do.
These will be hard problems to solve of course but most innovations already exist. It’s simply a question of deploying them. The next decade will see the convergence of multiple technologies coming together to create solutions to these different problems. I won’t insert the buzzword du jour but you have already heard them all in the past few years. They will be combined & adapted in new ways. It’s just a question of people deciding to tackle these challenges.
We shape our tools and our tools shape us
Of course, it’s not all flowers and roses. Technology by itself is neither a force for good or evil, it’s simply a tool. The rest is up to us. There are many examples of how technology can lead us down a dystopian future if applied in the wrong way. Not to mention phone addiction and its insidious nature.
Our tools won’t solve anything on their own. It takes people to build and believe in what they are doing. As we’ve seen in recent years, human progress is not assured. If you look back at history, there are multiple instances where civilization took a huge step back and that risk is always present. These business trends are not independent from the physical world. War, famine, pandemics & slavery are all unfortunately still common today.
Without getting too much into political drama, my gut tells me that we’re entering a part of history with much more variability and uncertainty. Shit is gonna get weird and intense. The exec summary of my thoughts on this is that we are entering a multi-polar world as opposed to a unipolar world with one world power. This means much more unpredictability and higher degrees of risk.
Despite this, the glass is half full. If you zoom out, we can imagine a future where we have much more regional and individual autonomy. We can move away from a globalized world towards a sustainable local one. Online services will be available at scale with local manufacturing, agriculture and energy hubs. A circular economy isn’t just a far off dream, it’s a necessary one. Creating more tools & technology to power this vision is an essential ingredient to make this happen.
Strong opinions loosely held
The means to achieve this end goal should be flexible. This is why fundamentalism should be avoided. A belief shouldn’t be unquestionably good or bad. As with everything, the context is important. My worldview on this topic was shaped by my upbringing. Fleeing poverty in Greece, my parents came to Canada to start new lives and a family. Growing up as a first generation immigrant, I was always a bit confused about my own identity. Am I greek? Am I canadian? Why is poutine so damn good!?
This complex ultimately gave me the sense that multiple viewpoints matter and that more empathy is always a good thing. To bring it back about tech for good. The end goal should be about improving our lives, the way technology is used should be flexible and adapted to each situation. It will take a lot of people starting companies, scaling them, funding them, and putting in hard work to do this.
It takes a village
Starting a company is an act of rebellion against the status quo. No one gives anyone permission to do this. Indeed, this is one of the only ways to change the world.
A healthy ecosystem is also needed to support entrepreneurs doing the hard work.
The people that are attracted to work in Tech for Good companies and the broader community are the ones looking to make a difference. Believe that people that there are new & better ways to do things and that there are no more limits to what is possible.
Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted
A classic business trope is what gets measured gets managed. This has led to a focus on only analyzing what is visible above the surface and often translated to maximizing shareholder value. There is a slow awakening that more is needed. Profits and growth are not the only metrics that matter anymore. Having a double bottom line is fast becoming an integral part of the good old P&L statement. How you measure this is still very nascent and lots of greenwashing is common today. This is part of the reason for this post. I want to learn more about this space and share in public.
My business partner JF and I have been busy building a boutique consultancy in the past few years. As part of our work at Point of No Return, we meet with entrepreneurs, investors and CEOs many of whom are building enduring technology businesses. Our role is to help organizations create their strategic plan and ensure it gets executed. We focus on alignment and getting people to work with shared goals & accountability. From the front lines, more & more leaders are realizing the importance of adding a new strategic objective – becoming more sustainable and moving beyond just profitability as their guiding principle. We’re playing a small role in helping them understand how to achieve this and measure its impact. It’s still early and incredibly exciting.
Moving forward, I want to explore the topic of Tech for Good more deeply. There are so many interesting Canadian companies working with this philosophy in mind.
Selfishly, I want to learn more about the brave people behind the brands, talk to the founders on my podcast and maybe invest in them too.
So here’s to the crazy ones, looking to build a better future.