A game plan for technology companies to actually help save the world

Working together, people and technology companies can make a lot of progress. Pedro Tavares/Shutterstock.com

A game plan for technology companies to actually help save the world

Smartphones, computers and social media platforms have become indispensable parts of modern life, but the technology companies that make them and write their software are under siege. In any given week, Facebook or Google or Amazon does something to erode public trust in them. Now could be a moment for the industry to make good on Bill Gates’s promise of technology to do good, by “unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings” and improving the world – or Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of building a “new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.”

Around the globe, countries and societies are falling behind on reducing social inequalities and meeting goals for economic development and environmental sustainability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is issuing increasingly dire warnings about the effects climate change will have on human life on Earth – the beginnings of which are already unfolding.

I lead a major research initiative called The Digital Planet at the Fletcher School at Tufts where we study how technology is changing lives and livelihoods around the world. Here is an outline of how technology giants or nimble startups could help make Gates’s and Zuckerberg’s promises a reality.

Identify a big hairy problem

There is a long list of global problems to combat, including hunger, drought, poverty, bad health, polluted water and poor sanitation. One that’s connected to all the others is the recent bombshell news that climate change is accelerating: Over the next 20 years, Earth’s atmosphere will reach average temperatures as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consequently, extreme weather and natural disasters, food shortages, inundated coastlines and the near-elimination of coral reefs will likely happen even sooner than previously anticipated.

The scope of climate change gives companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon excellent opportunities to find specific approaches that would have meaningful effects.

Trace the root causes

There are, of course, many elements driving climate change. Consider the agriculture sector, which produces one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Farms emit the largest share and could benefit from a range of technologies, such as data analytics and artificial intelligence. As a bonus, innovating in agriculture could help feed more people.

Identify how technology can make a big difference

Technological tools could help farmers collect and use data to manage their crops more precisely in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions – such as using less fertilizer and plowing and planting fields more efficiently. Specifically, better data on soil and plant health could help farmers know where they need to increase or decrease irrigation or pesticide and fertilizer use. These practices save farmers money and increase farms’ productivity, generating more food with less waste.

Recognize how you can make money from it

If companies are to get involved, there needs to be an opportunity to earn money – and the more, the better.

One estimate suggests that making changes in farming and food practices that enhance productivity, promote sustainable methods and reduce waste could produce commercial opportunities and new savings worth US$2.3 trillion overall worldwide annually.

Our research team, in work that is ongoing, has estimated that of that $2.3 trillion a year, $250 billion could come from the application of artificial intelligence and other analytics for precision farming alone – $195 billion of which would be in the developing world, with $45.6 billion in South Asia and $13.4 billion in East Africa. Other estimates for the effects of AI and analytics are less specific, but still within the same range – between $164 billion and $486 billion annually. There is indeed money to be made by technology companies interested in developing climate-friendly, productivity-improving interventions in agriculture.

Innovate to overcome the many barriers to change

Before the commercial value can be unlocked, however, there are many barriers to consider. Many rural areas, even in the developed world, don’t have affordable high-speed internet connections and, particularly in the developing world, the farming community is not as technology savvy as other professions. Further, farming practices have been handed down through generations and the idea of using data to make modifications to such long-held beliefs and methods can be countercultural.

In addition, there are many practical realities: 83 percent of the world’s cultivated land is fed only by rain, with no irrigation systems to make use of better data. Beyond that, in most parts of the world, seeds and fertilizer are not high-quality, lowering crop efficiency. Further, a lot of farms’ output is wasted because of lack of refrigeration and slow transportation from fields to consumers.

With all those obstacles, it is understandable that investments in data-driven agriculture dropped 39 percent from 2015 to 2016.

There are groups still working, though. FarmBeats is a Microsoft project that combines low-cost sensors in the ground with drones that both create aerial maps and act as wireless data relay points. Nigeria’s Zenvus and India’s Aibono analyze soil data. Kenya’s FarmDrive develops credit scores for people without formal bank accounts or standard borrowing histories by using alternative data, like mobile phone and social media activity, together with local agricultural and economic information. Ghana’s Farmerline tells farmers about weather forecasts, market information and financial tips.

These are creative efforts to solve deep and complex problems, but clearly there is room for large, well-resourced technology companies to step in, make a difference with big ideas, deep pockets and global support.

Invest in partnerships

Technology entrepreneurs will need to develop business models and organizational structures that are better at collaborating with local agricultural communities and businesses, to navigate personal and political relationships as well as regulations and government programs. Technology will not, on its own, be some sort of silver bullet that will unlock prosperity.

Changing technology companies into agents for widespread global good will not be easy – and it can be done in areas beyond agricultural innovation, too.

There has been no shortage of talk about these ideas: 50 CEOs met with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss socially positive technologies; World Economic Forum events around the world discuss societal benefits of a Fourth Industrial Revolution; and some companies, such as Ericsson and SAP, are already committed to fulfilling United Nations goals for global sustainability.

We still have a long way to go. There is still a chance for technology companies to move fast and fix things by truly helping save the world – but sea levels are rising, so the time is now.

Double your gift to the The Conversation. For a limited time, your donation of up to $1000 will be matched dollar-for-dollar.