The Adappt team. Source: Supplied
Technology's agenda of unrelenting disruption is changing the way we take private cars, share accommodation and review restaurants. But is it changing the values of big corporates, who exist to make a buck - or $500 million?
Technology is often seen as a race of who can innovate the fastest. Who can create the smartphone with the biggest display, who can get you the taxi the fastest, who can create the most unobtrusive wearable technology. This breeds a culture of secrecy and competition - often ruthless and unforgiving - as well as an onslaught of 'jerk tech'; apps and technology designed specifically to make money and to encourage our most selfish impulses.
But perhaps it doesn't have to be this way. The 'jerk tech' trend, which consists of check-ins, selfies, frat house entrepreneur egotism and joke apps that make millions of dollars, is being met with somewhat of a backlash in the form of tech for social good.
Corporate social responsibility is of course not a new concept, but the advent of apps means companies can tackle global issues with more impact and legitimacy - and for less cost - than what was previously possible.
Take Samsung. In 2012 Samsung Electronics Australia partnered with the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) to launch Adappt, an Aussie social-purpose app development program designed to encourage young Australians to use technology as a tool for creating positive social change.
The app building competition, aimed at Australians 12 to 25, announced its five 2014 winners in early December. One of the winning teams is Kangka Merri Nurndine (or “talk, hear, forever”) an app created by three Indigenous Mornington Island teenagers who want to preserve their culture.
The Android app was built in one Melbourne app-building weekend - the team's first trip outside of Mornington Island - and features Indigenous stories, songs and translations so they can be shared and preserved for generations, in a format that teenagers will actually find engaging.
"For our young people of the Lardil, Yangkaal and Kaiadilt populations on Mornington Island to grow strong and healthy, they need to have access to their culture, history, language and dreamtime stories," 19-year-old Shakara Tody says.
"This is what makes us unique, proud and strong. We are losing our language. I feel bad because my Mum is Kaiadilt and I don't know the Kaiadilt language like she does. But I have a Samsung Galaxy and lots of apps on my phone. She would be proud of me for doing something like this for my culture. Maybe we would end up with a whole dictionary of the Indigenous languages and stories in this country in our app!"
Another winner is Better Practice, Better Care - described as 'Urbanspoon for doctors' - an app designed to assist young LGBTQI youth in locating friendly and supportive general practitioners around Australia.
One of the app's developers Jacob Thomas cites recent research that shows a significant gap in the Australian healthcare system when assessing and assisting the health needs of LGBTQIA youth, including disclosure of identity-specific health needs, concerns of confidentiality breach, and a reduced standard of care. Thomas hopes the app will help identify GP services that self-identify as safe and friendly practices so that slowly the statistics can improve.
“By creating Adappt and giving young people a platform to learn new skills and make a positive social impact, it’s our hope that we’ll help inspire the next generation of socially-driven entrepreneurs and technology professionals," Richard Noble, head of corporate affairs, Samsung Electronics Australia told Business Spectator.
The Foundation for Young Australians' Nishan David says Australia has 3.9 million young people who all know how to use apps, sometimes to the point of obsession, but they're hesitant to build apps themselves.
"I don't really get it; they're all digital natives, they've all grown up around this stuff. And they've never had anyone say 'hey, what if you use apps for social change," he explains.
"I almost feel like this partnership between FYA and Samsung is a bit of an anomaly. It's a dream marriage between the technology giant and a non-profit dedicated solely to young people. And the partnership means we can literally give the technology to the young people too so they can keep building and keep up-skilling."
David said he hoped other corporates would look at Samsung's example and copy it.
Spruiking social innovation
Japanese multinational Hitachi is one of the world's biggest companies but was recording record losses in 2009 when it decided to change tack. New management decided to pursue a fresh strategy of large scale social innovation - a program of contributing to society through smart cities, apps and inventions.
Neil Evans, general manager Australia and New Zealand with Hitachi Data Systems told Business Spectator the company's values haven't changed but its outcomes have.
"Technology has already enabled significant change in the way we live and work but the world is at a turning point where technology will underpin the way our society operates – change that simply wasn’t possible a century ago," Evans said.
"In this globalised environment people need to find a more logical and sustainable way of living and Hitachi is focused, passionate and well positioned to drive this change.”
The company is working on man-made leaves, 50 cent folding microscopes, solar powered desalination plants and robots who teach children with special needs. There's an underlying desire for profit of course - government contracts are lucrative things - but it's refreshing to see a company talk about the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices in a way that may really change the world for the better.
Apple too is realising the broader benefits of social good, turning its App Store RED for two weeks to help fight HIV/AIDS and raising US$75 million in the process. Importantly, the company managed to get third party content creators - big ones - to opt-in to supporting the campaign, with all in-app purchases going to charity. Over the two weeks Angry Birds players could perfect their bird-flinging with (RED)’s Mighty Feathers and challenge themselves to a bonus golden egg level, while Garageband offered 300 exclusive loops with all proceeds going to fight the disease. The result was a win-win; good PR and karma for Apple and vital money in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Uber faux pas
And what about start-ups? Uber is struggling to reconcile its aggressive, market disrupting approach with respect for the social context it's operating within.
It took a sexual assault controversy, outrage over comments it would track journalists and an ever-growing list of PR faux pas' to compel Uber to show a more socially responsible face, albeit a pretty lame one.
Consistent outrage over its methods of acquiring customers from its rivals has led to a quick response. There's a partnership with the 'No Kid Hungry' initiative, with the addition of a 'Donate' button in the app which would automatically add a $5 donation to each ride - from the user.
Tech start-ups as a general rule put themselves and their business first, and perhaps for that they can be forgiven - at least until they reach a level of funding and scale that they can be held to the same standards as everyone else.
Apps are an easily scalable and shareable way of shaping the world we live in. Just as the architects of the world built Melbourne and Sydney with skyscrapers and iconic bridges, app developers are constructing the places we spend an increasing amount of time in. Some developers are choosing to elbow their way to the top of the App Store, but others, perhaps ones that can afford to, are doing so with an eye to social good.
Questions remain over whether companies like Samsung, Hitachi and Apple are genuine with their values and if their drive to do good is driven by altruism, or economic sense. In most cases it's a bit of both.
But a phone filled with apps to donate to others, to preserve a dying culture or to improve the health of LGBTIQ Australians is a better outcome than a phone filled with selfies, entitled rants and voucher codes.
And as consumers we're able to drive a demand so that the next tech giant is more about social conscience than selfies. Now that's a pretty powerful thing.