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My expanded interests in technology for the wider world

I wanted to be a creator; someone who put things into the world for the greater good.

I started with engineering research, and hope that I did do some good here — I worked on anti-cancer drugs; car catalysts to minimize NOx and SOx in car fumes; and fuel cells as a source of clean energy.

However, the world threw me a curve-ball, and against my better instincts, I found myself in the world of IT. I worked on diverse projects, such as implementing office automation for a large electricity generation company in the U.K. I can’t say that any of this was aimed at making the world a generally better place for anyone, apart from the employees of the company I was working for, but it paid the bills.

Due to another curve-ball, I became an industry analyst. I had found a job where I could at least try to do things for larger groups of people, working with end user organisations to help them understand how technology could best support them in their aims. However, to my mind, it was still all pretty constraining: Organizations had a business imperative, which boils down to “How do we make as much money as possible?”

Technology for better lives

With my own small industry analyst house, Quocirca, I gained more freedom to do what I wanted. This has allowed me to get back to where I wanted to be.  In the early days of Quocirca, I had a meeting with Microsoft, which led on to me working alongside it on its “Unlimited Potential” campaign.  Originally to be called “The Next 2 Billion,” Unlimited Potential let Microsoft look at how it could get its technology into the hands of 2 billion more people on the planet. The work had a couple of problems. It was purely looking at Microsoft, and I didn’t feel that it was actually tapping in to what was really needed out there in the real world. The campaign moved to being more inclusive of other technology vendors, and also looked at how local groups of people could use technology to just make them better at what they were already doing, rather than dragging them into the ‘new’ intelligent cities — and so replicating all the problems that happened as the industrial revolution depopulated the agrarian areas of the West and led to major poverty and problems.

Likewise, with Cisco, I provided input to try to ensure that ‘intelligent communities’ were included in intelligent city work.  As seen with the activity the Sri Lankan government has undertaken to make the whole of the island ‘intelligent,’ leaving people within their existing community adds far more value to the overall country economy and well-being than dragging them into the cities.

I also wrote on how technology was being used in different communities. For example, Maasai warriors started carrying mobile phones to alert their shepherds when they saw a lion, and make sure the flock was moved to a different area. This cut down on the number of sheep killed by lions, and so the number of lions the Maasai felt that they had to kill to protect their flocks. A side effect meant that the lion population was maintained, to the good of the tourist industry.

Local entrepreneurs in South America were buying mobile phones and airtime and then allowing others who could not afford a full contract themselves to use the phones for single calls. A small amount of profit could be made on each call.

In India, early-stage internet of things architectures were becoming apparent. Dot-matrix displays could be set up in small towns stating when the travelling doctor would visit next. Details of how to book an appointment could be included — a simple text message. The patient could then be sent reminders as the date became closer — cutting down on missed appointments and wasted time.

All this seemed to get me noticed, and I was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). This 260-year-old institution works to enrich society through ideas and action.

The RSA stands for everything I believe in. It is looking at how the world can be made into a better, fairer place; in how those who are the ‘haves’ can better help those who are the ‘have less.’ It is not aimed at being a condescending group of elites just helping out those less fortunate: It is a two-way approach accepting that we all have as much, if not more, to learn from those who may not have much in what many would see as possessions and wealth as they have to learn from us.

It also moves with the times. Projects and discussions going on within the Society are looking at areas such as what can be learned from Millennials and their approach to work, ideas and life.

For all of us, the aim of our working and personal lives should surely be to try and leave the world in a better situation than we found it. At times, I wonder whether this vision gets lost in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and in the immediacy of what is put in front of us that we see as problems.

There is nothing better than to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while — look at the world through their eyes and ask yourself what would make the world better for that person.

Just once in while — say, once a day — do this: Empathize with someone else. The homeless person you see when you leave the office; the person struggling with a child and an old stroller; the thought of the refugee having to flee their home and try and find shelter somewhere else; the farmer in Nepal trying to find a way to optimize their yields of rice. Then, if you can think of a way to make their life easier, try to do something to make it so.

If only 10% of the world did this on a daily basis, that would be 263 billion good actions per year.