At Davos, Will World Leaders Support the Key to Social Progress?

Technology is changing our world with unprecedented speed, but many worry about the human cost of these advances and question how rapidly evolving breakthroughs in some areas may undermine social progress in others. It's a concern worthy of examination.
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As global leaders prepare to gather at the 46th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, I've been musing on the topic of their forthcoming discussion: Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The premise of this anointed age is that human progress is now fully oriented around science and technology, when tools that are small, cheap and more powerful than ever have transformed entire systems of production, distribution, consumption -- "and possibly the very essence of human nature."

What are the social implications of this revolution? Technology is changing our world with unprecedented speed, but many worry about the human cost of these advances and question how rapidly evolving breakthroughs in some areas may undermine social progress in others.

It's a concern worthy of examination. One need only look at the ubiquity of social media, for example, to see that technology gives and takes, connecting us like never before while also splintering our attention and separating us.

But as someone who works at the nexus of technology and social change, I'm far more encouraged by the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to alleviate human suffering than discouraged by its risks. "In each generation we seem to face almost insurmountable hurdles," observed Forbes contributor Greg Satell, "but we emerge living longer, richer, cleaner, healthier lives." Despite the frightening outlook one gets from the daily news, global incomes are rising, while poverty continues its decades-long decline, emissions in the US are dropping and even violence is on a downward trend, leading Foreign Policy magazine to crown the first 10 years of the 21st century as the best decade ever.

Why? "The answer, obviously," notes Satell, "is that we are able to create solutions faster, through technology and innovation, than problems emerge." The population explosion that threatens our world also holds the potential to save it, through more opportunities for collaboration and innovation, more scientists and entrepreneurs who can fuel the growth of technological breakthroughs. And with each passing year, companies are, gratefully, recognizing that they must assume a much greater role in facilitating this growth and accept more responsibility for pushing forth social progress.

Take youth unemployment, which on a massive scale can radically destabilize countries. According to ILO, 60 percent of young people in developing regions are either unemployed, not studying, or engaged in irregular employment. Countries like Africa, with an exploding youth population, are unable to respond to this crisis of a disenfranchised generation, with only three to five million jobs projected to be created for the 10 to 12 million youth on the cusp of adulthood. But digital tools may be able to reshape business models that foster employment, and companies can play a part in guiding these solutions.

The Social Collective is an example of a technology solution to a global social crisis that brings together corporate support with social entrepreneurism. A for-profit startup launched by the Cape Town hub of the Global Shapers Community, which won the Global Shapers Community 'Coca Cola Shaping a Better Future Challenge' at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2014, The Social Collective is a digital tool that provides monitoring and evaluation so that nonprofits can understand the personal and professional development of individuals and analyze their employability. It also enables donors, policymakers and the private sector to track skills development and shape the details around the needs of job creation for given regions and countries.

A joint study conducted by Alcatel-Lucent and GSMA in 2013 showed that amidst the high unemployment rate of young people in developing countries, 92 percent of these youths nevertheless have access to a mobile phone. As reported by EngageSpark, even with a need for skills and information, 94 percent of young people in Ghana are interested in being entrepreneurs, and 43 percent of these potential entrepreneurs say they would benefit from taking business courses.

Skills training via mobile phones was more appealing than in-person training; 66 percent of the surveyed youth in Ghana were willing to use mobile phones for training. "Youths were willing to pay for valuable mobile employment services across all four countries," the report notes. "18.8 million youths could have access to mobile employment services by 2018 with a predicted market size of US$171.1m."

Technology is responding to these realities. Start-ups based around mobile services for personal development as well as job search and job applications, targeted to young people around the world, are on the rise. Some address literacy and basic entrepreneurship skills, others link up unemployed youth with employers via SMS and voice technology, still others leverage social media to create online platforms for recruiters and job seekers.

There seems to be a growing consensus amongst world leaders that innovation is one of the keys to solving youth unemployment, along with the other global issues we face, from climate change to public health and beyond. But as some countries continue to exact austerity measures, public research and development funding has been dramatically reduced, cutting off important pathways to the breakthroughs we desperately need to solve our problems.

I hope that the distinguished thinkers gathered at this year's Economic Forum will agree that the way to Master the Fourth Industrial Revolution is by embracing the promise of technology to pioneer social progress. Support for this effort is needed at every level of society, so I look forward to even more cooperation between governments, companies, entrepreneurs and nonprofits to pursue innovations that cure what ails our world.

For the second conversation in our Purpose@Work series -- a discussion designed to explore how we can infuse a deep sense of purpose into our work -- we're going to focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

How are you using technology to elevate purpose in your organization, community, or project? Let us know at or by tweeting with #PurposeAtWork.

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