While we may think of the story of global population as one long steady ascent, the reality is that in the last five decades the world has seen an unprecedented increase in its people and their life expectancy. This has led to a significant global challenge for its 7.6 billion inhabitants: putting increasing pressure on an already fragile ecosystem while ensuring its people and planet will prosper now and in the future.
We aim to provide education, healthcare, housing, food and safety for everyone on the planet, yet are stretching the resources available so thinly that scarcity amongst these is becoming more and more prevalent.
When you couple this with the impacts of climate change, political instability, climbing poverty and a widening rich-poor divide, we are threatening humanity and the planet we call home. For example, it is estimated that climate change could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.
If we don’t act now to tackle these challenges, their impact could be irreversible. The power is in our hands but as Pope Francis warned: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures it will be used wisely”.
Challenges, such as how to safely house the 900 million people around the world living in slums, lacking access to adequate water, sanitation or housing, or delivering healthcare to over half the population who don’t get all of the health services they need, have never been more prevalent. We need to find a way to use the immense power that we possess for good.
This is our opportunity to introduce positive change. It’s a daunting prospect but it’s far more reachable today than it ever has been. And there is work already being done. The United Nations (UN), for example, has set itself 12 sustainable development goals, including ending hunger, creating safe, sustainable cities and combating climate change. They act as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Using that blueprint we need to push the limits of what is possible with technology. At VMware, through infrastructure virtualization alone we’ve been able to save the planet the equivalent in CO2 emissions of removing over 18 million cars from the road driving 200 billion miles in 2017 alone.
But we recognise this is just one part of the problem. No one company can change it all – acting in isolation solves only part of the problem. The blueprint set out by the UN needs a foundation on which to succeed.
Over the last four decades, we have made amazing strides in our development and use of technology – creating a foundation that allows us to do more, faster. From that foundation, we can build the tools we need to create a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world. There’s no doubting the power of technology – whether it’s for good or for bad – but, increasingly, it is the duty of technology companies to make sure that it is used as a force for good in the world.
And that’s the beauty of technology. It doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything. That part takes all of us – how we apply the technologies that were once available only to a select few to the greater many – extending and deepening the lives of everyone.
Whether that’s mobile banking to increase women’s economic empowerment in rural communities; solar-powered pumps delivering clean, safe water to villages; using blockchain to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of immunization programmes in some of the world’s poorest areas.
It is our job to take those capabilities and apply them where they are needed most.
Intuitively, we associate technology with progress—we generally believe that “better, faster, smarter” leads to improvement, efficiency, and enrichment. And this intuition is helping us search for new ideas, the really big ones, the ones that can change the world. This big change is closer and more achievable than we might think. By 2020, it may cost less than a cup of coffee to develop a full genome sequence and investments in health systems could prevent 97 million premature deaths by 2030. The impact on life-expectancy and quality of life these will have cannot be underestimated.
Today, we have four technology ‘superheroes’ that will help us bring about positive change in the world:
- Mobile– provides unprecedented reach
- Cloud– delivers previously unimaginable, infinite scale
- AI – enables us to mine massive amounts of data in real time and use those insights to create entirely new business models
- Edge/IoT– connects the physical and digital worlds in a way never before possible – bringing technology into every dimension of human progress
Alone these these technologies are powerful. Together, they will reshape every aspect of society and have a transformative effect on quality of life around the world.
In fact, they already are. Technology has helped source alternative, greener forms of energy, support ground breaking discoveries in medicine, connect rural communities, open up career opportunities and clean up our oceans. But this is only the start and we must continue to show what technology is capable of helping us achieve.
There is a huge amount of amazing work already going on around the world that we can draw inspiration from.
What can society as a whole do?
Technology is capable of doing great things, if used in the right way. Without us, technology is a neutral force. With us it can do extraordinary things. But to reach the extraordinary takes all of us. It takes our values and our commitment to our families and our neighbours and our communities, our love of every human on the planet, from every modality of life, to create a better future.
We are not powerless in the face of the problems we see today. We are not powerless to fix them. No generation has ever had more power than the one we are in now, and no generation has had a chance to change things faster. The pace at which progress is possible has accelerated drastically. Aided by the “superhero” technologies, every individual has the tools, potential, and reach to build a better world.
We all have a stake in determining the course of technology innovation and whether it delivers on its full potential. When Milton Freeman said “the sole purpose of an organisation is to make profit”, I don’t think he was banking on the possibilities and opportunities technology can bring to society. It’s our responsibility to do well, and do good in equal measure.
The message to our future selves should be “there’s nothing you can’t do”. Technology has played its part in getting us here, let’s just hope we’re not too late in making the world a better place than when we found it.