The social and environmental impact of technology
Technology has revolutionised the way we consume, interact and stay informed. However, it can also be useful for solving social and environmental problems. We know it as social technology and it is helping us to meet the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Whenever we list the virtues of technology, we usually highlight its capacity to connect us, entertain us and make our lives easier. Smartphones immediately spring to mind, as do social media and smart household appliances do, and we forget or downplay its enormous potential for transforming the world into a fairer, more equal, sustainable and prosperous place for everyone.
What is social technology?
This technological trend with philosophical implications uses all available knowledge and the digital tools at hand to transform society. The term came to the fore at the end of the 19th century and since then the concept has been developing and now provides a cross-sector approach to identify and tackle the foremost challenges facing humanity: inequality, poverty, hunger and the democratisation of access to energy, employment, education and healthcare.
Today, social technology is one of our principal global partners for achieving, by 2030, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by the United Nations (UN) in 2015. If they're accomplished, in addition to making our planet better and more pleasant to live on, a report published in 2017 by the 2030Vision international network predicts that the digital solutions required to meet the SDGs would generate 2.1 billion dollars a year.
Social technology and how it contributes to achieving the SDGs
Technological innovation involves huge savings of both time and money with respect to achieving the SDGs. In greater detail, and in accordance with the United Nations Global Compact, the social impact made by technology can be summed up in seven key points:
Promoting access to information
The information transparency and quality that the Internet has made generally available to areas such as the environment, employment, health, education and social services, among others, can contribute to meeting social and ecological objectives (SDG 1 and 16).
Facilitating the analysis and gathering of data
Digital technology enables innovation in the gathering, measurement and monitoring of data by facilitating, for example, the taking of strategic decisions in agriculture for combating hunger (SDG 2).
Favouring the creation of new business models
Internet and the new technologies have spawned new business ideas that are boosting the economy and helping sustainable development. This is the case, for example, of the car sharing scheme that helps achieve SDG 8 and 11.
Raising more online funds
Collective financing (crowdsourcing) and responsible investment platforms can provide new sources of funding for sustainable businesses and innovative initiatives that have a positive influence of SDGs such as 7 and 9.
Developing new reality models
Virtual Reality and augmented reality can improve education and professional training (SDG 4 and 8) and raise the awareness of certain groups and collectives with respect to injustices, gender inequality (SDG 5) and climate change (SDG 13).
Supplying and providing adapted products and services
Social technology can reduce inequalities (SDG 10) by designing products and services adjusted to meet the needs of society's most vulnerable individuals, groups and collectives.
Modernisation of processes
Robotics, for example, enables the construction of robots for repairing complex machinery or performing surgical operations. Furthermore, 4D printers prevent material waste and Artificial Intelligence automates recycling. All these factors help towards achieving SDG 9.
Requirements and examples of social technology
Social technology must fulfill four principles in order to contribute towards the achievement of the SDGs:
The technology must be easy to implement and use by most of the population.
The production costs of this technology must be relatively affordable.
It must be possible to replicate a solution easily under similar circumstances.
Proven social impact
How they work and their results must be known in advance and be affirmed.
Social technology is habitually to be found in the areas of education and healthcare, with two examples being:
- Applications for learning to read: they help younger children by providing access to suitable reading materials. These apps usually come with intuitive menus, with different levels and challenges, so that pupils have fun while learning words and how to spell at the same time as improving their reading and pronunciation.
- Low-cost incubators for premature babies: these are extremely practical and of great help in developing countries where conventional incubators are too expensive and, very often, difficult to set up and use due to their complexity.