Social Change and the Impact of Technology

October 26, 2011 | By More
Mobile phones improve lives of fishermen and their families in Kerala, India

The social impact of the internet and mobile phones on society is becoming as obvious as the need for clean air and fresh water.

Far from just being a communications tool, the mobile phone has transformed how farmers and fishermen from Kerala to Kenya do business and allowed them to secure a better standard of living.  In the Indian coastal state of Kerala, the mobile phone has allowed fishermen at sea to find out the best price for the fish they have caught before they land.  In effect, the buyer is already found before the boat reaches shore, thus getting a better price for the fish.  (read more about the fishermen here)

In Kenya, M-Pesa (pesa is the Swahili word for money) has transformed the lives of millions of people and businesses.  No longer is commerce or any monetary transaction limited to the use of cash or need for a bank account.  Over 50% of the adult population there use the service to send money to far-flung relatives, to pay for shopping, utility bills, or even a night on the tiles and taxi ride home.  All you need now is a mobile phone – and this has transformed the economy even in remote villages.  (read more about their stories here)

Across the other side of the world, the Khan Academy is using the internet to deliver free education globally.  With a library of 2600 videos and 218 practice exercises covering from arithmetic to physics, finance, history and art, they allow anyone to learn what they want at their own pace.

More recently, the world has witnessed how social media and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have been used effectively to create revolutions in Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and many others under the wave known as “Arab Spring”; and more recently in New York, London, Madrid and numerous cities around the world to rally thousands of protesters to “Occupy Wall Street”.  (read more here)

Technologies creating social change need not be high tech.  Simply providing a simple way to pump water from the ground will transform communities.  The World Toilet Organisation (WTO) has 151 member organisations in 53 countries working to provide sustainable sanitation worldwide.

Grameen Sakti has provided not only solar power to over 500,000 homes in Bangladesh as well as a more efficient cooking stove for their village homes and a biogas system for fuel, they have also raised the standard of living for families by giving village women work in their business.  Following the success of this and similar companies, its founder, Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus has also established a sister organisation called Grameen Creative Lab to promote such sustainable social business models globally.

Enabling social change by phone. Used by over 10 million in Kenya where only 4 million have bank accounts.

More innovative social business models have been emerging worldwide.  Ben & Jerry’s, famous for their creative ice-cream flavours, has long been insisting every one of their suppliers practice social responsibility at the same level of commitment as they do – otherwise they will not get the business.  The result is their end of chain suppliers, many in third world countries, get a better price and thus a better livelihood.  (read more about Ben & Jerry’s here)

Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company, has been passionate about protecting the environment, and uses their purchasing clout to ensure their whole supply chain is focused on reducing the environmental footprint – and they use the internet to track the impact of their products from design to delivery.  (read more here)

A San Francisco start-up,, is using the internet to match people who need money in the third world with groups of people in the developed world for amounts as low as $25.  (read more about here)

Over $1.5 million loaned a week around the world

The issue is often not what technologies cause social change, but rather, how you want to use technology to impact social change.

For example, the rich world already has most of the advanced medicines for their society. But in the third world they are unavailable because these state of the art medicines are unaffordable.  Pharmaceutical companies do not want to create a lower price version for fear of being sold back in the rich world at a huge profit by smugglers.  (read more about the drugs issue here).   What if there is a convenient, low cost way to ensure these drugs can only be dispensed directly to those who need it, and so prevent quantities unaccounted for?

Further, with millions of migrant workers from less developed countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines working in richer societies, there is a need to regularly transfer the earned income back to the home towns of these migrant workers.  What if a method is available to conveniently and safely send money directly to the relative who needs it the moment they requested it?  Surely this will directly transform the lives of the villagers back home.   Would you support such a venture?

Social change is not brought about by technology alone.

Social change is driven by those who want to see change; by those who have the disposition to innovate and use technology for improving lives or solving social injustice.

What do you think?



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Category: Social Responsibility

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

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