Better tech business from alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals

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Hey Dudes, I know entrepreneurship can lead to corruption as well as to good things and technology / digitalization is absolutely no silver bullet per se. But you can call me a sucker, I do believe in the relentless power potential when those two combine.

An example to make it more clear what I mean: platforms, the platform economy. Nowadays it is becoming almost a dirty word and when you say that you do ‘something’ in platforms and matching humans to work, more and more people at parties start treating you as a pariah (ok, ok, I might get a little bit carried away there, but just trying to make a point here!). Everyone starts to talk about people being exploited by tech-companies that earn big bucks. Think about companies like Uber and to get an idea of what I mean. Now shift your focus to the other side: people in less stable economies that can get matched to remote work for rich Western organizations against rates that they could only dream about in their local environment. This work usually is not about low-income work that robs western locals of their job to outsource it to low income. No, this is about high-skilled knowledge work that has worker shortages all over the globe. So no one gets robbed, motivated workers from emerging economies can entry the ballgame and those rich global organizations are happy to pay because they finally have a solution for some of their ‘war on talent’. That is network economy also.

Do you want to be only capitalizing on your skill or do you want to do better than that?

Above example underlines the fact that there is always a choice. When you can do something very well, or more specific, when you are capable of developing (and diffusing!) a powerful technology, you can focus on turning this into the biggest buck possible or you can focus on earning enough with it and do some good while you are at it.

A clear trend is showing that professionals want to be more focused on making an impact as long as they earn ‘enough’. It is clear that those organizations that focus on making impact will find it more easy to connect to the right ecosystem of motivated people. But it is hard as a business to stick to a plan the moment the money lures you in or the moment change of leadership has to pull through. Think about the original Apple years where everyone felt clearly that this company was about breaking free and changing status quo from a creators’ perspective. But they had the rare opportunity to show twice what happens when you move from the founders’ vision into a leadership change. It turns into corporate money talk quickly and original vision and principles are left. Similarly Facebook is changing and Google is also moving away more and more from their initial purpose.

SDG’s as a framework to lead a better tech business

Sticking to your guns is easier when the frame against which your ideals develop is articulated and reproducible. In my practice, while performing inspiration sessions or design thinking workshops with clients, I like to use adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) as a framework.

What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Overview of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, for more information please refer to

The SDG’s consist of 17 commonly described goals that are to be met to get this world into a sustainable mode. This is both on environment as well as on social injustices. I would simply advocate the fact that every tech business adopts at least one of the goals that is closest to its solution, market and overall brand. When you clearly articulate the fact that supporting this goal is as important as earning money, a reproducible frame of reference starts to exist within your organization that can hold over leadership generations and endless product increments.

Isn’t that where our BHAG or MTP is for?

Yes of course, and no not completely… Having a clear entrepreneurs’ dream translated into a BHAG or MTP is very important as a guiding light for your organization. But those will usually last a few years before they change. (And change to your BHAG and MTP is not a bad thing there, but more on that another time). When the market changes around a BHAG or the previous MTP is more or less fulfilled should you simply end your company? No, certainly not! So you have to move into a new phase. Chances are that your company has evolved as well and that the founding dream could still hold a lot of clout. But as companies grow, so do stakeholder interests. So it is not uncommon that a company loses its edge (like I mentioned Apple and Facebook) when the old goals had to be translated into the new reality and the founding dream was not tangible enough to give clarity and boundaries. Those people that have worked in a business that was taken over and where ‘the dream’ just became a poster on the wall next to the reception area which was only repeated at the companies New Years’ reception will know exactly what I mean.

This is where a framework like the SDG’s comes in very handy for an impactful company. It overarches the BHAG-periods and gives tangible meaning to the founders’ dream. It makes it reproducible into various generations of MTP and/or BHAG.

Making it short-term practical: linking your solution to the SDG’s helps managing the externalities of your operations

Basically, the Sustainable Development Goals are dreams in itself. Dreams of a humanity that wants to come out better on the other side. Linking your entrepreneurs’ dream to the well documented dreams that are somewhat accepted by the whole world will do wonders for your operations. Linking to a known framework will overcome all subjective language. People on all corners of the world can suddenly grasp the exact direction of doing good that you want to impose with your business. This means that all kinds of matching value networks are opening up to become partners, the right customers are drawn more intensely to your brand and workers will be easier to find (although ‘easy’ in finding talent is always the wrong word).

You will always have your subjectively articulated dream. And that dream should always be translated into a brand-specific goal for the next couple of years. These are very important assets for internal operations. Employees can find their personal motivation based on these important internal drivers. Product design can be managed based on the goal you as a company want to achieve. Available resources can be assigned based on that purpose as well. But how does that internal language translate into external communication?

Dream heavy, build lean, grow fast

Let’s say that you are building drones that are capable of planting seeds in complex situations. Your work-force is motivated to tinker with the technology and dreams of a green earth that has your brand name connected to it. But choosing whether or not that drone technology will: 1. be optimized and finetuned to be used to plant trees and manage life on land (SDG 15) or; 2. to plant crops in high-altitude, hard-to-reach locations to support steady food supply in overflowing countries and thus focus on ending hunger (SDG 02) will make a difference.

Both SDG’s will attract a completely different Value Network (support environment of NGO’s, lobbyists, investors, subsidies) and core customer base. This will help enormously in finding your tone of voice, building a network and managing your input of resources.

And although this is a hardcore example of a technology that will likely focus on NGO’s and government procurement as major channels for road-to-market and funding, also in lesser extreme links to SDG’s it is important to attach your product to the correct scene of investors, subsidies and core customers. Think about a very simple example of digitizing paper workflows in administration. Do you develop your algorithms purely to help save large corporations a lot of office supplies or do you focus on saving paper-usage and thus trees (SDG 15 again)?

And now what?

Same as with a lot of frameworks and theories that help make your business get better, it is just a matter of starting to use it but not to over-do it. Focus first on trying to pick one of the goals to adopt as an organization. When you have that SDG picked that the team agrees upon, then just make it known. Start putting it in your strategy slides as a footnote. Start putting it in your investor deck as a foundational brick underlaying your BHAG.

Try not to make it too big too quickly. Your founding dream and existing goals stand firmly, do not change that. Just start using the chosen SDG as a communication aid to the outside world and allow it to become a piece of material that the conversion is made of that makes your entrepreneurial dream into a tangible Transformative Purpose. Allow yourself time to start investigating in the proper network yourself and to let that network in. You will start seeing a difference sooner than you expect!

And when you appear to be in a market where no one cares about this stuff, maybe you should be an another market altogether…

(The content of this publication has not been approved by the United Nations and does not reflect the views of the United Nations or its officials or Member States)

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