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On the frontiers of Impact tech: 21st century moonshots for people and the planet

ImpactAlpha, July 2 – Reversing climate change while ensuring that people thrive is the 21st century’s biggest challenge. Tech breakthroughs like lab-grown protein, mobile credit and insurance, and genome editing for vaccines will be key.

“The speed and scale of the transformation we need—at the pace of the Carbon Law—has no historical precedent,” write Manuella Cunha Brito, Ludovic Sinet and Benjamin Tincq of Good Tech Lab, a Paris-based research firm (laying down the carbon law: exponential climate solutions makes it possible to peak emissions by 2020 and halve them every decade thereafter, a reduction of about 7% per year). “Science, technology, and system entrepreneurship could be our wildcards.”

Their report, “The Frontiers of Impact Tech,” maps 180 trends and 500 projects delivering against the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals with “impact tech” – the intentional use of science and technology to benefit people and the planet.

  • Impact map. The report catalogs tech advances for all 17 SDGs and many of the 169 sub-targets. For No. 16 (Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies), for example, Good Tech Lab rounds up breakthroughs in “civic tech.” Taking aim at target 16.7 (Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels) are blockchain-based signature certification tool Mudamos (Brazil) and phone-based action platform Grassroot (South Africa). For No. 2 (Zero hunger), the report tracks “ag tech” solutions for target 2.3 (double the agricultural productivity and incomes of smallholder food producers) including digital farmer marketplaces and content platform including M-Farm (Kenya), WeFarm (UK) and Digital Green (India).
  • Tensions. Impact tech innovators have to juggle impact depth vs. scale, low-tech vs. deep-tech, innovation vs. replication, platforms vs. applications. Impact tech takes many forms and success requires a deep understanding of the problem and context. Corporate impact efforts can offer scale, while social enterprises may go deep. Moonshot thinking: all of the above. Historic examples include the Internet and GPS, Wikipedia and the electric light bulb. 
  • Dark side. Mitigating tech risks requires diligence from entrepreneurs and investors, and standards and regulations. One concern: algorithmic discrimination. Crime prediction software has been biased against people of color. AI recruiting tools have discriminated against women. Engineers, researchers and activists are organizing a global response around fairness, accountability and transparency principles.
  • On the beat. Follow “Impact Tech” on ImpactAlpha.

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