The Evolution of Technology & Society

In the wake of a new political landscape, it seems more timely than ever to have an important conversation about the interaction of business and society in today’s world, and the increasingly blurred lines between the two. For one, the U.S. presidential election in 2016 might have created the perfect storm for a number of global companies with headquarters in the U.S. to take on bigger social and political stances than they have been accustomed to because of mounting customer, employee, and stakeholder expectations and advocacy (including Starbucks, Nordstrom, Uber, New Balance, and Under Armour to name a few).
One of the most interesting sectors involved in this has been the U.S.-based technology sector, which has massive influence globally considering that 14 of the 25 largest public tech companies in the world hail from the U.S., along with numerous other privately held tech giants which are also based in the U.S. In the last month, there has been a lot more news coming out of companies such as Facebook, Uber, Twitter, and other globally recognized technology brands around their social stances (for example, through this lawsuit).
Technology companies traditionally seem to have enjoyed a “halo effect” where stakeholders (especially the general public) tend to assume—and expect—that they operate under a strong social conscience simply because they are at the forefront of innovation and progress. GlobeScan’s own annual global public opinion research has shown that the technology sector is consistently the most trusted (see chart below).

However, whether this reputation translates to actual leadership in driving positive economic, social, and environmental change remains to be seen. GlobeScan and SustainAbility’s annual global stakeholder research on sustainability leadership continues to lack significant representation of technology companies. However, if economic, social, and political trends continue, we may see that change in the next few years as the social conscience and purpose which is implied, but not necessarily overtly stated by tech giants, faces dramatic challenges.
These trends are especially relevant for GlobeScan’s San Francisco office, given the work we do with some of these tech giants based out of San Francisco Bay, which includes Silicon Valley. So, in an effort to encourage greater sharing and leadership among companies in the technology sector, and to ensure it is future-fit, we’ve compiled some points we think are important for the industry to consider:

Beyond enablers

Many technology companies we have worked with and analyzed talk about how their primary roles within sustainability/corporate responsibility (CR) are to be “enablers” of action rather than to take action themselves. However, within the technology space, this “enabling” language sometimes no longer differentiates, and we are increasingly hearing from stakeholders that the technology sector can no longer “pass the buck” on to its users. How do companies now reconcile these shifting expectations of technology’s sphere of influence? For example, how should companies respond when the actions they enable are unethical, discriminating, or counter-intuitive to the progress they were originally envisioning?

Attention to “societal affairs”

Our research for and engagement with technology companies often points to a key risk factor: that society is in many ways unable to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. We see this in regulations and policy, culture and values, access, and adoption. One can argue that recent global political events, including the U.S. presidential election, are a reaction to this widening gap between those who have benefited from new technological shifts and those who have not. Stakeholders are demanding that technology companies take on greater responsibility and proactivity in analyzing the societal impacts of their core business, and mitigate any negative consequences. Whether these consequences manifest in cybercrime, fake news, unemployment or skills gaps, or lack of diversity/inclusion, these issues may become more damaging to corporate reputations. The recent announcement of the Facebook Journalism Project illustrates one response to these challenges. Are we at a point where “societal affairs” becomes a more strategic issue for the technology sector to address?

Differing opportunities for “older” and “younger” technology companies

Some technology companies that we work with have been around for almost 80 years, while others are less than a decade old. Younger technology companies are often created with a singular, directed purpose rooted in solving challenges of modern living—for example, finding transportation quickly, renting other people’s houses, or selling and buying used goods. When considering their purpose, these companies often need help tying their relatively narrowly focused solutions to wider societal aspirations in ways that allow for flexibility, growth, and the solving of even bigger challenges. Older companies, on the other hand, have often strayed away from their original purpose and need help redirecting their purpose to today’s needs— prioritizing and focusing on being narrower and deeper in their impact. We’ve found that a company’s unique history and trajectory are important to consider when discussing purpose and defining what the company stands for—and these are best assessed through thorough stakeholder engagement.

Employees (talent) as one of the key stakeholders and drivers of sustainability/CR

The technology companies we work with often compete with each other for talent, even if they don’t necessarily compete with each other through their products or services. Thus, a strong driver of social consciousness and purpose comes from employees, and from the need to be an appealing employer brand in a time when STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills are in high demand and where competition to recruit tech workers can be fierce. These companies must align with the collective consciousness of their employees to continue to retain, attract, and motivate talent (as Uber recently exhibited).
We will continue to explore these fascinating trends and what it means for technology companies and society. Please watch for our latest global public opinion (GlobeScan Radar) and stakeholder tracking on leadership (GlobeScan/SustainAbility Survey) coming out in spring/summer 2017, where we will assess consumer and expert views on the technology sector.
This post was written by former GlobeScan Associate Director, Caroline Teng.