By Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech For Good Institute
What’s in a name?
At the Tech for Good Institute, we are keenly aware that our name prompts many different reactions. While digital technologies have demonstrated ability to raise productivity, drive economic growth, improve quality of life and advance climate resilience, digital transformation of economies, governments and societies has also been disruptive, inducing shocks and stresses to livelihoods, relationships and communities.
In February 2023, the Tech for Good Institute ran a flash poll to gauge how the concept of “Tech for Good” is currently received in Southeast Asia. The 212 respondents came from six Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and Vietnam. 46% of ten respondents strongly agreed or agreed to the proposition that technology and the digital economy have thus far delivered on its promise for Southeast Asia. Almost as many (37%) stayed neutral. Despite, or perhaps because of, the pace, scale and ubiquity of the digital economy, many are still watching if the benefits outweigh the potential negative consequences of digitalisation.
There are many ways to interpret this small poll, but one insight might be in the followup question. We asked what “Tech for Good” might mean to the respondent, to glean a sense of the expectations to which “Tech for Good” is being held. “Doing no harm” resonated least strongly with respondents. This suggests that meeting baseline expectations for responsible corporate behaviour was likely necessary but not sufficient to constitute making a positive impact.
Conversely, seven in ten respondents associated “Tech for Good” with driving transformative impact and solving complex societal problems. Indeed, since digital technologies fundamentally operate by collecting, storing and processing data quickly and accurately, this capability is uniquely suited to facilitating decision making, supporting coordination, and addressing information gaps and asymmetries. Yet, these complex problems, sometimes dubbed ”wicked problems”, also have strong cultural and social dimensions. Technology may enable and scale solutions, but systemic change also requires shifts in goals, mindsets, practices and behaviours.
Against this tall order, digital technologies can also add or create value on top of economic growth in other ways, such as enabling efficiency or managing risks and harms. In our poll, preventing harms associated with the digital economy did not resonate strongly as evidence of “Tech for Good,” while more than half of the respondents associated “Tech for Good” with facilitating growth through optimising efficiency.
Technology has changed the way we live, work, play and interact. Now, the bar has been set high for technology to advance society and solve complex problems. The OECD defines digital economic activity as “reliant on, or significantly enhanced by the use of digital inputs, including technologies, infrastructure and data.” Digitalisation may be considered a key transition of this decade, but digitalisation is not an end in itself. Its full impact will be realised in aggregate when deployed in service of other urgent transitions locally and globally, such as a shift to low-carbon economies and enabling inclusive, sustainable and equitable growth.