Give your 2020 tech startup vision a higher purpose

Well, we’re a few days into a new decade. Now the 2020s begin, but to be honest, I’m still bewildered and concussed by the political and cultural blast waves that detonated throughout the final years of the last decade to give much thought to the next ten years that stand before us.

I’m now living in the seventh decade of my life. Moments like these make you stand still, not lamenting or wishing for time-travel back to those yearned-for days of past as this really is little more than nostalgic comfort food. No, it’s about thinking about what I’m going to do to shape my future in the next decade. Looking back ten years to 2010, it is difficult to understand how we got from there to here, but it is easy to see why we are punch-drunk.

Only yesterday, Facebook was just a way of tracking down old friends, rather than an existential threat to our liberal democracy. Only yesterday the prospect of Scottish independence seemed unlikely. Only yesterday we would have dismissed the idea that foodbanks, homelessness and poverty were deep fault lines in a civilised society. When a true retrospective of the third decade of C21st is written, I hope the dystopian future I fear never materialised.

At the beginning of the last decade, the 2010 Nobel physics prize was awarded to University of Manchester University academics Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a material made of a single lattice layer of carbon atoms that had remarkable abilities to transmit heat and electricity while also being extremely strong. Ten years on, nothing much has emerged from graphene, but we continue to rely upon tech to offer a vision of a brighter future.

Tech doesn’t always deliver, but recall that a little over 50 years ago we were just putting a man on the moon, and in 2020 we can instantly stream a personalised gallery of TV shows, so can tech help create and sustain a bright new decade? As the 2020s dawn, for me, optimism is in short supply.

The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together and hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy.

Similarly the Internet. The architecture of the Internet is about choice, that’s where the resilience and ubiquity comes from. On the other hand, the business of the Internet is about monopolies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google. FAAMG – the acronym for the big five tech companies coined by Goldman Sachs, are bringing sociocultural evolution at scale and at full speed with such significant network effects that they are creating infinite financial returns for their investors.

Like you, I love and use this tech (not Facebook, due to lack of trust), we voluntarily choose to engage because it’s better, cheaper, faster than doing it somewhere else – but also because they are now part of our ‘normal life’. But then, I think abut my privacy and cynicism kicks in and suddenly, the monopoly isn’t about serving us, it’s about how innovative tech startups have turned into corporations serving their investors.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we were told back in 2010 that the web and social media had brought us to the threshold of a new and almost utopian society. The technology available to all democratised society. In reality, this delusional optimism in which the democratising potential of tech driven social media was to be empirically disappointing.

Going back a decade, the hit movie of 2010 was Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, which dramatised the relationships between the founders of Facebook. What in 2010 seemed like a dark take on a new tech and social phenomenon now feels like a prescient foreshadowing of a decade that was to come – a decade that ended with Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg called to appear before a Congressional committee to defend his company’s behaviour and practices.

Investors move and energise today’s tech, and what capitalism values, our world does more of. In the last decade tech has become an integral part of what we might call a ‘normal life’, but is this true? Now, no matter where we stand on the socioeconomic ladder, the future of the ‘normal life’ doesn’t look so certain. In the developed world our current form of capitalism is failing to produce an increasing standard of living for most of its citizens. It’s time for an upgrade.

Our economic system must shift to focus on bettering the lot of the average person. Capitalism – and thus tech investment – has to be made to serve human ends and goals. We could create an entirely new parallel economy around social good driven by tech. Most of the entrepreneurs and technologists I know are champing at the bit to work on our problems. We can harness the country’s ingenuity and energy to improve millions of lives with tech.

We’re in a slow-moving crisis that is about to speed up. Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about our ability to hold this debate, and come up with honest answers. Yet there is something reassuring about this, a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all, and history still argues, on the whole, for optimism.

Don’t get me wrong, the digital transformation since 2010 has helped improve our lives, whilst also creating a darker, sinister side, but on balance calls for the deployment of more technology, not less. So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment. To be alive in the tech-rich 2020s is probably to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.

The search for new opportunities and ideas is at the heart of human progress, but what is the best way to carry out that search with the help of tech? The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on tech innovation in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.

The question becomes what matters to us beyond money, and how can tech help us achieve this? How can we change tech so that it focuses on what humans really want and not the needs from capitalism – for the many, not the few.

Doing this decade retrospective, there is one key issue that stood out for me: data. This was the decade when we became obsessed with taking 10,000 steps a day. According to science, the health benefits are moot but that didn’t stop firms like Fitbit and Garmin coaxing us into wearing fitness trackers packed with accelerometers and sensors. These data-harvesting devices track our locations, our heart rates, our sleeping patterns and our exercise habits. Who gets the most use from this torrent of data – individuals or the tech companies – is debatable.

What was the best tech invention of the decade? For me it has to be the Amazon Echo ‘smart’ speaker, although I’m torn with cynicism again because it represented the moment when tech finally broke through the last barrier protecting our privacy – our homes. Alexa exploited our fatal attraction to convenience, and what data insights it provides to Amazon.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow. Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry, at the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, and internet giants are becoming the new banks.

So we enter the 2020s free from any delusions about tech and social media. Concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before – the blight of industrialisation was decried in the C19th by Luddites, Romantics and Socialists, who worried about the displacement of skilled artisans, the spoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.

Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Tech unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety, when its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several emerging technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of pessimism.

However, maybe my pessimism is overdone. I’ve spent the last two weeks immersed in books, benedictine and time away from my screens, and become unduly sceptical. After all, worries about screen time should be weighed against the substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible.

On the doorstep of a new decade, humanity is simultaneously continuing history’s greatest technological evolution and in the throes of grave social and ecological crises. As the climate and environmental crisis accelerates and population inequality rises, it has also never been more clear just how much the world’s wellbeing will depend upon the decisions of tech entrepreneurs.

Will we harness tech for benevolent ends, prioritising investment in sustainability and social good? Or will we chase the quickest financial gain, opting for the pursuit of breakneck growth over righting the ship?

If tech is to help fix the world, it must first halt a worrying trend – blitzscaling. The aim of this strategy is not to drive innovation or develop impactful new technologies but to sell the next round of investors on an impressive growth rate, thereby increasing the company valuation and making the existing investors richer. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The increasingly evident dangers of ‘hypergrowth equals valuation markup’ philosophy surely means the startup innovation ecosystem has to reject it, upstart entrepreneurs should not hop on the bandwagon, and instead focus on impactful socially responsible innovation.

There has never been a better time for tech entrepreneurs and investors to make a huge impact, with a moral imperative to empower businesses that can have a positive impact on humanity. We must start funding and supporting more entrepreneurs building solutions to problems like poverty, affordable healthcare, mental health and wellbeing, climate change, and deliver sustainable development goals.

These ‘impact startups’ can generate economic opportunity and returns, but if we realign the innovation focus around building companies with a positive social impact, and not just focus on near term financial gains, the better. So start a fire, enthral an audience, begin a movement, seize an opportunity, redefine the rules and shape our future. The more you understand of the world the better you can answer its challenges and how your tech idea can make a contribution.

We are all to some extent culpable for this misalignment of the innovation startup ecosystem, complicit in building and reinforcing the current environment. I know my own organisation can do more to inspire and empower entrepreneurs building impactful businesses, and in 2020 we will. I hope others will choose to do the same. It’s a balance of pessimism versus progress, but when we focus exclusively on profitability, tech loses its humanity.

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