At this year’s WIRED conference, technology entrepreneurs were dialed in to how they might tackle world issues.
Over two days of sessions in London, speakers celebrated technology’s latest developments in fields ranging from healthcare to finance, from energy to art. Throughout the event, the notion of ‘humane tech’ emerged to describe the ways in which technology is being used to improve the state of the world. Increasingly, technology startups are harnessing the latest advances, including virtual reality and mobile technologies, to solve societal problems and tackle real issues.
Alexandra Ivanovitch, founder of Simorga, presented the company’s mission to develop VR apps that combat prejudice. The work follows research from BeAnotherLab which demonstrated that racial and gender biases can be reduced using virtual reality. When a user experiences the world as someone else, essentially swapping their body for a different one, empathy increases and bias decreases. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has created a similar experience in which participants encounter racism while embodying someone else. The project’s mission is reminiscent of Sandy Speaks, the chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to educate people about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a world where 26% of countries are described as ‘not free,’ technology is increasingly coming into play to empower citizens. Sam Gregory, human rights advocate and Program Director at WITNESS, spoke of the need to arm citizens with the right tools to become activists. WITNESS’s ObscuraCam and InformaCam, developed in cooperation with privacy collective Guardian Project, were born from this mission. The former helping users to blur faces in videos and photos, and the latter helping users to safely share eyewitness videos in an encrypted format with a trusted party.
Another human rights issue that technology can seek to tackle is access to education. With approximately 250 million children globally failing to learn even the basics, there is scope for teaching through a range of technologies. In a session presented by the XPRIZE foundation, social entrepreneur Lucrezia Bisignani introduced SEMA, which uses mobile game-based learning to teach children basic math and language skills in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to social issues and human rights, technology is being used on a broader scale to fight climate change, which has been described by President Obama as an “issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.” The sustainable projects presented at WIRED combine forward-thinking ideas with advanced tech to combat this issue.
Chris Lejeune, founder of Obscura Digital, shared his ‘Racing Extinction’ project which used powerful projections to blanket the Empire State Building with images of animals facing extinction, spreading the message and raising awareness of climate change. The event generated over 1 billion global media impressions.
Bertrand Piccard also inspired with his experience flying Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered plane to fly around the world. “When we speak about the goals for climate change, it’s quite easy to reach them,” Piccard said. “Today you can divide by two the carbon dioxide emissions of the world with these types of technologies.”
Renewable energies that transform the everyday were another key focus. Daan Roosegarde presented his Smart Highway project, which uses solar-powered road lights that charge during the day and glow at night. Daniel Becerra’s BuffaloGrid similarly uses solar energy to provide a power solution to off-grid communities. Jessica O. Matthew’s Unchartered Play seeks to democratize energy access with products powered by kinetic energy, such as a ball that can power a light or charge a phone after being played with.
It’s proven that consumers value brands that are engaged and socially responsible. Eighty-four percent of consumers seek out responsible products whenever possible, and 90% are more likely to trust a company that backs social causes. A survey by SONAR™, J. Walter Thompson’s proprietary research unit, found that 88% of UK and US millennials and generation Xers believe brands need to do more good, not just “less bad.” Philanthropic projects are recognized by consumers and can reignite the values of a brand, reengage its audience and offer true solutions to world problems.