Tech’s big chance in the painful reordering of society

6th August 2020

Is the fall of traditional industries an opportunity for a golden age of innovation?

James Steward, Director, Tech Practice

In last week’s congressional grilling of Big Tech’s big cheeses, the temperature reached melting point rather rapidly.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google (FAAG) have “wielded their power in destructive, harmful ways in order to expand” declared Congressman David Cicilline, the Democrat leading the hearing.

The congressional attack comes at a time when our fundamental reliance on tech has soared due to the pandemic, leading to the net worth of the Big Tech titans skyrocketing.

Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index states that seven of the world’s 10 richest people (including Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, etc.) derive the bulk of their fortune from technology, with a combined net worth of $666 billion, up $147 billion this year.

While our tech godfathers seek new places to store their enormous piles of cash, the news for us mere mortals goes from bad to worse.

In the UK, reports have indicated that the end to the furlough scheme could lead to 10% unemployment, putting more than three million people out of work. Early signs suggest the UK economy would take three years to return to its 2019 size.

Amidst this consternation, sentiment towards the tech industry has in fact dramatically increased over the last few months. Technology continues to form the bedrock of our virtual lives, while its executives – noticing an opportunity to overcome previous reputation challenges – rushed to support the fight against the pandemic.

With tech’s renewed commitment to offer its support in these challenging times, a potential new dawn for the industry and the nation stands before us.

When the furlough scheme is finally halted, we are going to see potentially thousands of businesses fail across a range of struggling sectors.

As industries such as retail and hospitality battle for survival, this is tech’s opportunity to think more broadly about its role and help define a more prosperous future.

The vast accrued wealth of Big Tech’s leaders can help the UK – and other nations in which they operate – rise from the ashes, demonstrating the positive advantages of technology, leveraging its value to drive change, equality and recovery.

This is tech’s big moment: an opportunity for a renaissance, centred around innovation.

As our reliance on tech continues to expand, there is a clear opportunity for the industry to help plug employment gaps, retrain the unemployed and offer widespread tech enablement to turn around struggling businesses.

The UK is already one of the world’s centres of technology, showing strong resilience despite the disruption, with London-based companies raising £3.2bn since the start of January, more than Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Tel Aviv combined.

As the likes of Zuckerberg and Bezos seek ways to invest their enormous wealth for good, this is the prime opportunity to make a real and lasting difference.

A union of innovation

Instead of putting Big Tech’s bosses in the stocks at a time of crisis, what about a more productive conversation about targeting their wealth towards recovery?

As part of carefully regulated consortiums – alongside government, industry, and social bodies – the UK and other nations have the chance to emerge stronger from this unrest.

This will clearly be no easy feat. And ethics would need to be integral to ensure the tech giants don’t establish an iron grip over society.

However, if it can be achieved with strong principles at the core, there’s hope for a much brighter picture before us.

In the Congressional hearing, Bezos, who continues to face the wrath of anti-competition lawyers, stated: “I love garage entrepreneurs—I was one. But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do.”

Bezos is right. And something that big companies, like his, could afford to do – and remain incredibly profitable – is to help set the world straight following this economic and social disaster.

As businesses continue to think carefully about their purpose and perception in a fractured world, this concept seems a worthy cause that will go a long way in stemming the tide of government and public criticism towards Big Tech.

As my esteemed colleague, Susie Dullard, astutely points to in our recent report on the role of purpose in a changed world: “what was once a box-ticking exercise in being seen to be doing good has become a near-on mandatory need to respond to the expectations (of) society”.

I hope this is a window into the future and not just a whimsical contemplation.

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For more musings on how tech companies can grow and protect their reputations in these disruptive times, why not check out our recent tech report – Riding the New wave of Disruption. Or drop me a line: [email protected]