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How small businesses will save the world

There is a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein on the invention of the atomic bomb that goes, “It has become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”

For committed technophobes it makes for a great sound bite. But just because it sounds good, doesn’t make it true. Technology is just another tool, with no more intrinsic morality than a boiled egg. We take a look at the small businesses using technology as a tool for social good:

The decision by small business owners to use technology to solve global problems is fast becoming a movement. It’s led by a new breed of entrepreneurs trying to develop meaningful technologies that can help us solve some of mankind’s most pressing problems. And it’s called ‘Tech for Good’.

Companion

The latest example of this ‘Tech for Good’ trend to hit the mainstream press is an app called Companion. Developed by a small group of University of Michigan undergraduates, the app uses social, mobile and GPS technology to create a system whereby friends can virtually walk one another home after a night out – without the inconvenience of actually having to walk each other home.

Companion works by allowing individuals to connect digitally to their peers and family as they walk home alone and tracks their progress, sending alerts to nominated friends if the journey takes too long. Or if the app recognises that you have suddenly started heading in quite the wrong direction.

It’s a great idea that addresses a very real personal safety issue, particularly for young women. It is free to download and hundreds of thousands of people around the world have already installed the software on their phones since it launched at the beginning of September 2015.

Businesses with a social conscience

While it is easy to see Companion as a fortunate one-off that unwittingly tapped into a huge and very human need to feel safe, the truth is that businesses with a social conscience at their heart are quickly attracting consumers in vast numbers. They’re fuelled by the desire to continue to enjoy the luxuries of consumerism, but without the nagging sense of guilt.

Back in 2013, a global consumer study by investment company, Globescan identified these ethically driven customers as ‘aspirational consumers’. And they found a lot of them – some 2.5 billion (or one third of the global consumer class) in total who were self-identified by their love of shopping (78%), coupled with a desire for responsible consumption (92%).

That optimistic, young entrepreneurs and technologists are capitalising on this global trend for socially minded and openly transparent businesses is more than just a happy coincidence.

In fact, the last couple of years have seen countless instances of technology actually unleashing our innate humanity – from the popularity of GoFundMe to raise money every kind of cause, to socially responsible fashion brands like TOMS who appeal to consumers by donating to charities from every sale they make.

As a result, capitalisation for social enterprises has reached an all-time-high, with UK investment funds established by the likes of Big Issue Invest, Telefonica’s Wayra and Nesta, all geared to supporting the development of these nascent Tech for Good businesses.

Hubbub

A recent home-grown success story is Hubbub. Launched in 2010 by ex-human rights lawyer Marisa Leaf, Hubbub is an app and digital platform that combines the convenience of a home-delivery service with the quality and integrity of ethically minded local butchers, grocers and artisanal producers.

Leaf has said her motivation to start Hubbub came from a desire ‘make people’s lives better – because that was what I had spent my [legal] career trying to do’.

In just five years, the business has gone from representing two shops in North London to a network of independent, high quality food businesses, comprising of over 30 shops and servicing more than 5000 customers every week. For Leaf’s customers, buying locally and sustainably no longer has to come at the cost of convenience. It also signals a sea-change in traditional distribution models that puts independent businesses on a level playing field with their corporate rivals for perhaps the first time since the industrial revolution.

It’s a peer-to-peer sales model that has been successfully replicated by several innovative social enterprises globally. One example is the Ricefields Collective, established in 2012. Originally conceived as a method for raising money to help indigenous people of the Ifugao region of the Philippines stay on their ancestral lands, the founders turned to Kickstarter to raise funds to launch their first line of hand-crafted knitwear accessories. Their goal was to raise an initial £16,000 to support volunteer work. Quickly however, the campaign went viral, raising close to £49,000 in a matter of days – 296% more than the initial goal.

While today, the Tech for Good movement is still very much in its infancy, the field remains wide open for small business creators with vision and a sound ethical proposition to grow and flourish. It’s a trend that presents a viable, technology-driven alternative for the future of global business as a force for good – as well as profit. Einstein would be proud.

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