What do people expect of
“Tech for Good”?

“Tech for Good” can mean many things to different people. This article explores how public understanding of such a concept shapes expectations and assessment of performance to date.

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.

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.

 

Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.

 

As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.