Wearables for good: Why are tech companies altruistic?

Wearable tech is solving huge, global problems as well as smaller 'first world' ones
Why are tech companies altruistic?

Apple ResearchKit, Google Life Sciences, Microsoft HoloLens in universities. Take a look at our Saves The Day section and you'll quickly see how many tech companies are putting people before profits with wearable tech for good projects. Because wearables can be so specific and so powerful, the potential for non-consumer innovation is astounding.

But the world is much more enamoured with cloud-based virtual assistants recommending New York restaurants than life-saving NFC jewellery in India. So why is tech getting into charity and infrastructure and health and research? It's not a simple question to answer but one possibility is this: it's all about the mission and the legacy.

The mission

The same technology that can entertain brats in San Francisco could transform communities half the world away.

One high profile initiative is UNICEF's Wearables for Good challenge which recently awarded $15,000 prizes plus incubation and mentoring to two projects: the medical record storing necklace Khushi Baby and a wearable soap crayon SoaPen. The challenge was co-created by UNICEF and ARM with Frog Design becoming involved later to help the teams focus on design context.

Dominic Vergine, ARM's head of sustainability and corporate responsibility, is heavily involved with Wearables for Good. He thinks big companies such as ARM have a responsibility to address global issues but acknowledges there are business benefits too.

Create things that are not just nice to have, but that people need to have

"For ARM, we know our tech can be transformative in healthcare, agriculture, education and many other fields for both big global and smaller local challenges," he told us. "But we are not health workers, agriculturalists or education experts, so we work with charities, academia and government to understand the needs and see where we can help."

That said, plenty of other tech giants stick to what they know - solving smaller problems for - increasingly - young, urban people living in developer countries. What's in it for ARM?

"We get one another's expertise," explained Vergine. "So a tech company gets to understand new markets and customers and a charity gets to have new tech designed appropriately for their needs."

How appropriate the tech is to what, in this case women and children around the world, actually need is crucial. As Dr. David Swann, reader in Design at the University of Huddersfield and a Wearables for Good finalist with his WAAA! project, told us, the more complex the problem, the smaller the range of potential solutions. "Whereas if you have a very low key problem, like designing an iPad, the range of possible solutions is vast."

From UNICEF's point of view, the need for partnerships like this one is clear but there is more work to be done to sell the concept to Silicon Valley.

"The partnership will enable us to provide faster and more comprehensive help to children coping with the effects of mass urbanisation and increased social and economic divides," Katherine Crisp, head of strategy and innovation at UNICEF UK, told us. "Together, UNICEF and ARM will use their influence to encourage the tech sector to innovate for impact; to create things that are not just nice to have but that people need to have."

The human beings

Disney-themed prosthetics coming soon

You could consider that companies like say Disney, which is involved with UNICEF's Kid Power band and has helped to develop Iron Man and Frozen themed Open Bionics prosthetics for kids, are simply in it for the marketing power. These projects get press, they paint Disney in a favourable light to customers and they tick boxes in corporate social responsibility policies.

But is it possible that innovation obsessed, profit-driven individuals might also care about making the world a better place?

Of course. One shining light is Kickstarter, now being described by some as the future of capitalism. The crowdfunding site doesn't make wearable tech or advise charitably minded projects but it is responsible for some of wearable tech's big hits such as the Pebble smartwatch and Oculus Rift as well as 'tech for good' campaigns.

Its creators have just reincorporated Kickstarter as a "public benefit corporation", a legal change which means they adhere to strict ethical and environmental policies and must run the business in the interests of the public, not purely profits. Its mission is to "help bring creative projects to life" and as Perry Chen told the New York Times recently, the two founders are trying to lead by example.

"As younger companies come up and think about how they operate and how they want to be structured, maybe they won't be so easily swept up by all the usual choices," he said. "Maybe they'll be thinking long term, thinking about how to look after the things they care about."

Another good example of the influence of the human beings who are both leading and running tech companies is the Google Cultural Institute, launched in 2011 to help cultural institutions connect to digital technology. It recently - and altruistically - mapped over 80 rooms of the British Museum in London for indoor Street View, available to view in the app and using a Cardboard VR viewer.

Speaking at the launch of the project, Amit Sood, director of the Cultural Institute said: "It's about access and preservation. But it's very important to acknowledge that the Cultural Institute started at Google as 20% projects of employees who on their weekends were working to bridge the gap between high culture and popular culture. We started in 2011 as a small project with just 17 museums and we didn't really know what we were doing."

And here's that word mission again in relation to this, one of Google's many, many different projects. The list now includes the spin off Life Sciences division which could one day improve and save millions of lives with wearables and tech contact lenses.

"Google was created with a mission to organise information and we've made some progress on that. There's an awful lot of information that's not accessible and useful to everybody that ought to be," said Matt Brittin, Google's president of EMEA business and operations. "That's what this is all about. Everything we do at Google can only work through partnerships, whether it's publishing content on the web, people putting video on YouTube or the cultural sector."

The legacy

VR to be bigger than smartphones

There's the PR value, there's the business proposition and there's the individual ambitions and hopes of the employees powering tech companies. Then there's legacy. Think of any Steve Jobs keynote, and the many CEOs and founders who have tried to emulate him, and look at how they describe their phone or smartwatch or curved 4K TV.

They talk with the kind of cult-creating enthusiasm and absolute self belief which could be reserved for people truly changing the world, saving lives or solving global problems in healthcare or education.

So it's no wonder that the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of the world seize opportunities to not just make profits and sell products in developing countries but create lasting social impact in the rest of the world. When Apple has more money in cash reserves than a whole string of countries, it's time to look to tech to make a difference.

Finally, as a parting thought on wearable tech and lasting social change, here's Palmer Luckey. He invented the Oculus Rift, known to many as simply an exciting gaming accessory but he has much bigger plans.

"A lot of people have talked about this idea of a post-scarcity economy," he said on stage at Web Summit 2015. "And virtual reality is potentially our best shot at a real, post-scarcity economy. It's one thing to try to say that everybody in the world can have everything physically, even though it takes vast resources to create.

"It's much easier to make the bet that everyone will be able to have everything in virtual reality without significant economic cost. Visiting Paris might be better in real life than in VR but all eight, nine, ten billion people on the planet won't be able to visit Paris physically. What matters is what everybody is able to experience."

What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.