Ask people what they think “tech for good” is and they will all have a different answer. As a sector within the UK digital economy, tech for good is still emerging and, yet, according to a landmark report by Tech Nation, the UK’s tech for good companies raised more than £1 billion in venture capital in 2018.
Following the money is as good an indicator as any of the tech trends about to take off but, with new and growing funding prospects in the equation, it’s fair to be sceptical of companies that claim to make the world a better place, while turning a sizeable profit.
Whether avoiding corporate tax by design or influencing democratic elections unwittingly, internet companies, in particular, appear to have lost trust among users of all ages. A recent report from Edison Research revealed that Facebook’s users had dropped by 15 million since 2017 in the US alone.
Meanwhile, a new generation of entrepreneurs have been taking note of the fact that it doesn’t always pay to “move fast and break things”. The tech for good phenomenon is in some ways is another hype cycle and yet – whether you are a prospective employee or potential investor – there is something magnetic about an enterprise that brings together the holy trinity of a well-designed product or service that is financially self- sustaining and sold with a commitment to providing a net social, environmental and economic contribution to society.
Also referred to as the “profit for purpose” movement, there is every indication that, over the next five years, tech for good will prove itself to be more than just an economic anomaly, a passing fad, or a tick-box exercise in corporate social responsibility.
In Scotland, where businesses have a history of being well-networked – whether through pitching competitions or government-backed challenges – entrepreneurial trends can take hold quickly and tech for good is already making its impact felt on our venture financing, public procurement and even on our workforce expectations.
Colin Hewitt, founder of Edinburgh-based cash flow forecasting software Float, has been open about his decision to turn down traditional venture capital in favour of growing an angel- backed and customer-funded business that keeps him in a position to steer “a sustainable company, that serves its customers by bringing them value and serves it’s employees by valuing them as individuals”.
Close geographic proximity and a vibrant start-up scene have led to Scotland’s tech for good founders learning from, and collaborating with, their peers to do things differently – whether that translates into going the extra mile for their customers, providing flexible working arrangements for staff, or procuring pay-it-forward office equipment.
Leith-based mobile app and web development company GearedApp recently teamed up with electronics accessories company Power a Life. It now powers its laptops with mobile charging banks from a company that also provides children in Zimbabwe with solar lights to do their homework.
Anti-money laundering software providers Amiqus, also headquartered in Leith, recently partnered with ProxyAddress to pilot a platform that could enable local authorities to provide vulnerable people at risk of homelessness with a virtual address, so that they can continue to access vital services.
On the face of it, a cash flow forecasting business, an app-development company and a compliance firm providing online ID verification may not seem like obvious examples of tech for good, but it is in their holistic approach to running a business.
The way in which they choose their funding, treat their staff and value their customers is perfectly aligned with the economic goals of Scotland’s National Performance Framework. Namely, to build an economy that is “environmentally sustainable, inclusive and of benefit to all our people and communities”.
With a Scottish Stock Exchange and new Scottish National Investment Bank on the horizon, there is big potential for Scotland to play a leading role in measuring the value and support institutions which can deliver on a basis beyond profit, providing businesses already invested in Scotland’s prosperity with the domestic platform they deserve to thrive.
- Alisdair Gunn is founding director of Framewire, member of the BIMA Scotland Council and strategic adviser to pre-seed investors Seed Haus. Framewire is an independent, Scottish-based, advisory practice providing expert advice on technology, data and digital services to value focused businesses, governments and academia.