29 Apr 2021

Tech for good and impact innovation to solve the world's biggest problems

Carlos Sentís, Founder and CEO of the World Innovation Alliance & WHF International Development Programming Board Member
Tech for good and impact innovation to solve the world's biggest problems
Photo: Romain Tordo/Unsplash

With less than 10 years left to achieve the 2030 vision of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; close to 2 billion people still live in extreme poverty, 235 million people expected to require humanitarian assistance, 125 million girls are sold for sexual exploitation, 200 million people are currently unemployed, 40 active wars and violent acts kill hundreds of thousands and turn millions into refugees, air pollution kills 4.6 million citizens and hundreds of deadly terrorist attacks are perpetrated every year. 

As we face the negative effects of converging economic, social, political and moral crises, the world needs unprecedented collaboration and action to implement tangible solutions to deal with climate change, market disruption, racism, discrimination, inequality, war, loss of privacy, limits to our freedoms, nationalism and deglobalization movements that threaten our wellbeing and prosperity.

With fake news confusing us, trade wars weakening our economies, cyber attacks threatening our privacy and finances, extreme fires and deforestation endangering our wildlife, and human rights violations making life a living hell for hundreds of millions more, we need global cooperation to implement effective solutions to solve our biggest problems, achieve the UN Sustainable development Goals and improve the lives of as many people as possible. 

We all seem to agree in the importance of education but, according to UNESCO, there are more than 260 million children that cannot go to school, and many more have limited access to proper education all around the world. The Pandemic has only worsened the situation. Especially for young girls and people in disadvantaged situations. 

The convergence of new technologies is only accelerating the massive transformation we were already experiencing before COVID. It is estimated that we are going to face more change in the next 10 years than in the previous 100, and, According to the World Economic Forum, up to 50% of jobs worldwide will change due to automation and new technologies, forcing an estimated 1.8 billion people to drastic upskilling or reskilling to adapt to the new job market. 


Reasons for optimism

As overwhelming as these problems may be, there are many reasons to be optimistic. 

First, because, in many aspects, the world is much better than before. From higher life expectancy and reduction of the child mortality, the massive advances in literacy and education, the reduction of poverty and violence, the institutions, legal systems and civil rights that previous generations fought so hard to conquer; to the scientific breakthroughs that have made our lives so much better: there is a lot to feel grateful for. 

Second, because we have more human power than ever before, we are more educated, more capable and have more resources and technology at our disposal than ever. And, for the first time in history, a big part of the world's population shares the same vision and willingness to contribute to a better future under the SDGs framework.  

Third, because the collective effort to develop new technologies is leading to an explosion of innovation that opens infinite possibilities for development and creates scalable solutions that can dramatically improve the situation of millions of people with a very limited cost.   

Technology and innovation provide us with unlimited potential solutions for our biggest challenges, but no solution can be implemented without multi stakeholder collaboration, without political will, without financial support, without social participation, without ethics or without control. 

The fundamental rights, security, and liberties of billions remain at stake. Global movements are demanding our leadership less words and more action, activists from all ages and citizens all around the world demand action, and not just words. But this is not only a political problem. And we all need to play a crucial role in the solution. It is time for all of us to assume responsibility and use whatever resources, capacity and influence we may have, to improve our lives, and improve the world. 


Disruption and Technology 

The world is, indeed, changing. And the speed of change keeps accelerating. The convergence of new technologies leads to a cascade of disruption that will affect every aspect of our lives, societies, economies and political systems. 

A single technological breakthrough like the personal computer, the mobile phone or the Internet, was able, in itself, to change the entire world. As we approach the Singularity, when  technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization, we see how dozens of exponential new technologies surge at the same time, creating a combinatorial effect of millions of potential solutions, and unlimited unintended consequences that we are yet to begin to imagine, and very far from being able to comprehend. 

A myriad of new technologies is emerging simultaneously and creating unlimited combinations unlocking a potential never seen before, fueled by unlimited connections and data points recorded every single minute on the Internet. 

Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, biotech, Neuroscience and brain computer interfaces, Drones, Self driving vehicles, 3d printing, hyperloop, private space race, Blockchain solutions, decentralized systems, cryptocurrency, the fintech revolution, NFTs, XR (AR and VR) leading to a new metaverse economy, the explosion of Healthtech and personalized medicine, Facial recognition, biometrics, a world of IOT where anything can be connected to the Internet, Holograms, chatbots, exoskeletons, Quantum Computing, Cloud, and, of course, Artificial Intelligence. 

Generative design allows us to create combinatorial solutions of all the possible options for a given problem under restricted conditions to find the optimal output, Cloud Labs democratizes science allowing anyone to do experiments by demand through automated labs that can be located in the other side of the world, and solutions like Health Nucleus, that provides you with 150 Terabytes of information about your health applying almost every test and medical examination available to detect problems way before they manifest themselves. 

The possibilities are absolutely overwhelming. All these technologies, and many more, combined, impulsing each other, with the power of all the information of the Internet, all the interactions of humanity, with more than 3000 satellites, 30 billion IOT sensors, 1 billion surveillance cameras, 3 billion smartphones, 300 billion emails sent daily, 657 billion photos taken per year...

All these new technologies can be used for any area of life, business and public service. We can run a combinatorial process to see each of those new technologies with the problems we need a solution for, or think of the potential applications for any industry, or any aspect of our lives. 

Drones can be used to shoot beautiful aerial images, to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in one day, to deliver blood in crises, books to remote areas, clean rivers or locate survivors. Robots can become our new toys, they can take away factory jobs, they can save victims of a fire, accompany lonely elderly, cook or deliver medicines to patients to avoid human contact to prevent the spread of a contagious disease. Nanotechnology can be used to create clothes that cannot get dirty, or to target cancerous cells in the body. And AI... well, even though there are some limits to what AI can do, the reality is that there are almost unlimited applications that are revolutionizing every industry and aspect of our lives. 

And this is just the beginning. It is estimated that in the coming years, the 4 billion people that remain without Internet, will be able to access the net thanks to initiatives like Starlink, by SpaceX, a satellite internet constellation of thousands of mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit, working in combination with ground transceivers to provide massive access to Internet.

Thanks to the Internet, for the first time in history, we have access to the accumulated knowledge of all Humanity, and even language is not an issue anymore, since translation tools are now extremely accurate, so we are more educated, and, also, we have the information we need, and the people we need to connect with, to find and apply new solutions at our disposal. 



There are limitations to what the current technology is able to accomplish, there are problems that these new technologies create, expose or multiply, and there are extraordinarily difficult moral questions we need to ask ourselves. We need tech for good and ethical technology. We need fast, informed and fair regulations to govern new technologies so we do not stop progress, nor we allow promising innovations to create new and even greater problems at a global scale that could have been avoided. 

The tendency of humanity towards unifying cultures and following movements and trends can very well lead us to violent protests and war in many countries in a very short period of time, even in developed ones. We have seen the speed at which movements spread and so does hatred and aggression. 

Meanwhile, we have more than 30 million cyberattacks per year, and the question is not if you will be attacked or not anymore, but rather, how much you and your organization will lose because of the dozens of targeted or undiscriminated attacks that you will suffer in the short to mid term. 

We not only live under the devastation caused by the COVID pandemic and the threat of future epidemics, but also under the threat of biowars and chemical weapons. We see how fake news, reinforcement algorithms, the silos we live in and the radicalization provoked, in many cases, by political leaders that create division for their personal gain, leave us in a situation of grave danger that we need to acknowledge and analyze carefully to decide the best strategy to move forward.  

We face a really severe global economic crisis that will connect with the dramatic change in the job market created by new technologies. It is estimated that 50 percent of jobs will be replaced due to automation and robotization, and, even if some of those jobs will change for new ones, we are not ready for the speed at which jobs will be lost, creating huge social pain, seed for instability and violence. 

We need a reskilling and upskilling revolution at scale to be able to keep valuable in a market where a robot or an AI tool can write an entire book, compose a symphony, win a videogame, detect an illness, design a building, buy and sell stocks, simulate scenarios to find the best possible political decision, audit a balance sheet, conduct a surgery or where self driving cars will force millions to adapt and change careers. For that, we need a new education system, massive online and offline skills capacitation, free access to practical education for prosperity and economic growth for everyone.  And we need it fast. 


Impact movement and purpose driven economy

The key to solve and prevent these problems is the model and the strategy. We have the resources, the knowledge, the skills, the tools, the science, the information, the infrastructures, the funding and the organizations we need to address all these problems and more. We have and we are enough to deal with these enormous challenges, but we need to change the approach to problem solving. 

Every problem can be solved through innovation, science, technology, political reform, education and collaboration. But we need strategy. And motivation. 

Profit is key. 

Millions of organizations and individuals want to be a part of the solution but oftentimes don't know what they can do, how to do it, or they don't have the right incentives to do so. We have been taught that there are only two options. Or making money or giving money. Or for profit, or non for profit. Leaving a huge space of opportunity in between, of what we can do to create an impact in a way that is economically or professionally beneficial for those involved in the solution. 

We see an “impact generation”, a generation of all ages that is extremely concerned about the environment, equality, human rights, education, health and justice and our common future, and that would like to contribute to make the world a better place. More and more people are starting to become change makers and advocates, and most organizations have realized that sustainable development giving back to society is not an option anymore. 

This social action is part of a wider invisible but omnipresent trend, and evidence of the “improve the world” movement, the largest social movement in human history. It is the movement of movements that started with civil rights and peace, and now it expands unstoppably in every nation under the umbrella of the UNSDGs.  

We gravitate towards a purpose driven economy. An impact economy, where impact is at the core of every organization's activity, because the precise reason you can make money, is by solving an actual problem that makes the world better. 

But we all need to pay the bills. And making an impact can be a good business. 

The UN promises that achieving the SDGs brings a 12 trillion dollar opportunity. Even the investment sector is turning rapidly to impact investment, especially after Larry Fink, CEO BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, announced that sustainability would be a top decision making factor in their investments, looking for opportunities to maximize value creation and reduce negative effects of their activity. Many have followed, maybe after realizing how important it is to generate a positive impact, or maybe just to make sure their reputation survives the social pressure for environmental protection and social justice. Either way, it is a positive trend. 

It is not about deciding between making money, being evil and destroying the world, or being good and giving away money to charity. Not anymore. There is a growing space in between, where companies and individuals can develop, be profitable and grow in a sustainable way using their resources to improve the state of the world with their activity. A space that's taking the lessons from CSR with the new approaches of the fourth sector and for-benefit enterprises to find the most effective strategies to help firms, large and small, understand how advancing impact does not need to mean sacrificing growth and sustainability. 

The gig economy, the sharing economy, the smart cities, and the circular economy concepts are proof that we are gravitating to a new era of business, one that leverages the power of the technology, the collaboration between individuals, the resource optimization and the sustainability at the core. We are about to create an impact economy, where the core business of companies is to solve problems and improve things and make a profit for it. And the opportunity is massive. 


Impact Innovation models 

Technology will be crucial to face the challenges ahead. Sometimes, though, what we need is not fancy high tech, but a new way of looking at a problem, or an innovative perspective on how to use what we have to get to our destination. 

We can all become much more impactful if we ask questions like: 

What is the biggest contribution I can do to the world and society? How can I better leverage my resources to provide value in critical areas? How can I benefit economically from doing social impact so I can focus entirely on an activity that has as its fundamental goal to solve a problem? What are the most ambitious KPIs I can set for myself and my organization? What area can I contribute with the most? Is it Health? Poverty reduction? Education? Environment? Human Rights? What are the corporate and institutional best practices, case studies and project examples that I can use as an inspiration? What public and private organizations can we partner with to help others? How can we empower our employees, customers and users to create a larger contribution together? Is there any technological platform or scalable solution that we could implement? Can we use our supply chains, assets or resources to solve a problem without investing too much money, time or effort? How can we unify different initiatives into a comprehensive umbrella project that maximizes efficiency and results?

At the World Innovation Alliance we have spent years designing and compiling impact maximization models to effectively address our common problems. Frameworks to optimize the way individuals and organizations create a positive contribution in a way that is also beneficial for those who take part. 

The power of crowdsourcing: Breaking down big problems into smaller tasks and distributing them to allow everyone to become a part of the solution. Tasks can have investment, sponsorship, donations or rewards provided by public and private organizations, as well as individuals. The tasks are distributed and communicated globally, informing all types of partners and citizens about the need for a specific solution. Everyone can work collaboratively on it. Organizations like XPrize and Hult Prize crowdsource solutions, normally through start-up competitions. But this model expands way beyond, since it can allow for collaboration between all kinds of actors, uniting efforts and resources. 

Multidisciplinary collaboration: Bringing together experts of different fields, ages, countries and backgrounds, to find and apply specific solutions for problems. Different perspectives can bring new solutions, innovations and opportunities of collaboration that are normally inaccessible if we only work with specialists in one subject. 

Crossing borders: Digital and physical Exchange programs between students and professionals of different countries, races and religions, to not only collaborate on SDG action. The benefits? Fight hate, racism and all forms of discrimination, foster our shared Human Values, protect Human rights, build bridges, and create valuable connections with extraordinary individuals with whom we all share so much, from all over the world, that can help you live a more meaningful life, and find future career development opportunities in other markets.  We are proposing a Global Digital Erasmus programme to EU and international partners to develop this. 

Impact tourism: empowering up to 1 billion travellers to create a meaningful contribution as part of their trips in exchange of rewards, like training people without access to education in exchange of a recognition as tourism ambassador of a country, or getting a hotel night in exchange of cleaning a beach or providing technical support to implement a solution for water management in a local community in exchange of vacation days from your organization. 

Volunteer day optimization: Defining the maximum possible contribution the employees of an organization could do in one day, working independently or in groups, based on their skills and expertise. For example: Programmers can spend the time of volunteering coding a software to help cancer researchers to do their job more effectively based on the suggestions and needs introduced by health experts working in that field. 

Public - Private - Social Collaboration: Not only bringing companies and institutions together, but developing projects effectively through an executive branch responsible for specific KPIs, and defining clear calls to action for citizens that get rewards in exchange of their participation to solve problems. 

Skills for growth programmes: Free training on skills for prosperity, including coding, entrepreneurship, sales, public speaking, marketing and resources to develop careers and find economic opportunities regardless of the situation of the student. Governments can provide these courses with an official recognition to attract more citizens. From WIA we are developing an open university with this content, and will deliver both online and offline, with special focus on people in need, children, refugees and unemployed. 

E-commerce and E-services: Helping disadvantaged communities to sell products and services online. More than 5 million Africans are already selling services online and finding better prosperity through this model. They provide valuable work in exchange of an income that is very difficult to create in their local market. 

Impact Assessment: Focusing on the problems that affect the most negatively to the largest amounts of people, and the solutions that have the biggest potential and probability of addressing the issue successfully and with the lowest risk of negative consequences. 

Viability Assessment: Focusing on the most feasible solutions that require the least resources, investment, technology, political support, time and human power to implement. 

Global Centralized Projects to avoid duplicities, Virtual simulations to optimize solution finding, Reverse engineering the path from the solution to the current state, Impact Investment, microcredits... 

We can find, design and apply solutions for almost every problem. But we need to coordinate efforts, optimize the way we use our resources, find the right incentives and allow everyone to be a part of the solution. 

We all have a role to play. 

Technology and innovation can help us along the way. 

But everything starts within. 


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