Lessons For Tech Firms From Past Revolutions

Every revolution is accompanied by huge societal upheaval. That’s as true of the current technological revolution as it is of the industrial one that preceded it. Like its predecessor, this revolution affects every aspect of our lives: the way we work, the way we get around, communicate and consume information. This upheaval has been tremendously positive – making our lives easier and in most cases transforming our experiences for the better. But it also causes uncertainty for many people and disrupts the equilibrium of social order. As this disruption increases, who of our political leaders is doing enough to invest in our welfare? Do we need someone new to champion the social cause?

Who better to answer this challenge than those who have the resources to step in. As the revenues of Google, Facebook and Apple soar into the hundreds of billions, they find themselves with deeper pockets than many countries. So, perhaps, it’s time for these big companies, those new arbiters of society, to take us through this transitional period and contribute more positively to our daily lives.

This concept of businesses with a social cause is nothing new. In fact, we can see a model for the socially-responsible company in the Industrial Age. Take William and James Lever, the brothers whose soap business developed into the consumer goods giant we now know as Unilever. The Lever brothers did more than look after their workforce, they built a village for them and their families to live in, with all the amenities, attractions and cultural institutions a community needs to thrive.

Quaker industrialist George Cadbury, motivated by his religious beliefs, also took a strong interest in the welfare of his employees with the creation of his own model village, Bourneville. As did Joseph Rowntree, of the confectioner Rowntree’s, with the establishment of New Earswick in North Yorkshire. Times were tough for workers in the 1800s: the Industrial Revolution meant a dramatic improvement in productivity, but standard of life didn’t necessarily blossom to the same degree. And altruistic activities, like those pioneered by the Lever brothers, Cadbury and Rowntree’s, worked to counteract this societal imbalance.

The Victorians undoubtedly operated under a very different commercial landscape to today – where digital technology has completely transformed how companies make money and grow – but there are some crucial parallels. Modern companies, just like Victorian forbears, have a choice to make between benevolence and unfettered profiteering. New technology will always have some negative effects, as it did in the 19th century, but the companies who profit from it have the same responsibility to offset the damage they create.

Uber is a case in point. The company’s stated aim – ‘to make transportation as reliable as running water’ – is an admirable one. Uber has made getting a taxi easier, cheaper and more enjoyable. But at the same time, the world’s most valuable startup has left plenty of people by the side of the road. And many more are set to lose out in the near future – as Uber gets closer to making driverless cars widely available, it will leave its entire workforce jobless. Uber has already been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. The perils of the gig economy, which can leave those who depend on it vastly underpaid, has been well-documented. But Uber’s apparent endgame, to fully automate its service, is bound to damage its reputation even more. Clearly Uber isn’t the only company pushing to make autonomous vehicles a reality, and when the technology becomes widespread, it could have the upshot of massively reducing congestion in cities.

Right now though, companies live and die by how consumers perceive them and Uber is just one of many huge tech companies that could be using its power to contribute to society more overtly.

However, it would be wrong to say that tech companies don’t give back at all. Cloud computing giant Salesforce, currently valued at over $55 billion, launched its sister charitable organisation, Salesforce.org, to leverage “1% of Salesforce’s technology, people, and resources to improve communities around the world”. It’s a simple model which, according to Salesforce’s website, has generated $160 million in grants and 2 million hours of community service to date.

Companies like American outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, which has social responsibility built into its business model, has paved the way for charitable business activities in the modern age. In the same way that the industrialists of old invested in the welfare of their workforce, as opposed to simply focusing on financial gain, a pragmatic way for modern businesses to give back is through dedicating a portion of their companies to something positive.

Each company is unique. But every business, no matter the size, has a shared obligation to make sure it doesn’t do more harm than good. Two hundred years ago, when machines first caused shockwaves in society, we became polarised in an unprecedented way. As ordinary folk exchanged low paid agricultural work for higher wages in the mills and factories, a new breed of worker was born – under the heel of business owners at the top. The shift we’re seeing today is different, but the same principles apply. No matter how socially conscious governments claim to be, business interests dominate, so business ought to give back.

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