Forget the haters, tech is here to save you

On the eve of our THINKTECH Showcase, our Chair Terence O’Rourke talks about the positive impact technology can play in solving the world’s biggest social issues.


by Terence O’Rourke

The brilliant cartoonist Steve Cutts satirised our use of technology in a now famous illustration that depicts modern humans as the walking dead; emaciated, hunched zombies staring hungrily into their glowing smartphones.

His piece is now a milestone in a growing narrative where technology is portrayed as bad for society. It joins reams of newspaper articles describing how technology isolates us, makes us lonely and even makes us stupid.

It is easy to criticise the present, to be nostalgic for better times in the past, indeed much of the modern political narrative echoes this.

Except, in my experience, the exact opposite is true.

Technology has played an enormous part in overcoming some of the world’s biggest problems. I am constantly amazed at how 3D design technology is used in construction to bring affordable housing and shelter to those in serious need or how technology has helped improve healthcare for billions of people across the world and how innovative broadband connectivity is revolutionising access to education for some of the most underprivileged people in the world.

But it is not only large abstract social innovations on the other side of the world that are helping the society. Smaller, but scalable, home grown ideas in Ireland are currently disrupting civil society and how public and social services can be delivered on a local and national scale.

Take iScoil for example, an online learning community that offers young people a route back into education on their own terms and at their own pace. Ireland sees over 1,000 young people drop out of school before their Junior Cert, and studies show that 43% of those are still unemployed one year later. iScoil is proven to re-divert these young people back into education with nearly all graduates returning to school or going towards post secondary school educational activity, with subsequent much better job prospects.

Or Space Engagers, a wildly innovative project that aims to gamify digital space mapping to tackle a number of social issues, homelessness among them, but not exclusively. The innovators behind Space Engagers are constantly surprised by the usefulness of their own technology by unlikely clients.

Irish based FoodCloud is making an international success of their innovative technology that links charities to food suppliers to cut out wasted food and wasted resources. The group has received huge international acclaim for taking a tech based approach to solving a problem many have tried before but never found the secret ingredient.

And social innovations are not just for start-ups. The national charity for older people in Ireland, Alone, is developing a new app-based befriending service to help older people connect with each other and find support to ease loneliness.

These projects are all funded by THINKTECH, a pioneering €1 million fund to build bold ideas for a better Ireland. THINKTECH, is a collaboration between Social Innovation Fund Ireland and Google. org, the philanthropic arm of Google, together with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community & Local Government.

The simple idea behind the Social Innovation Fund is to make it as easy as possible for those with a social innovation to be paired with donors, who share their vision and their commitment to solving a social issue, whose funds are then matched by Government to help make the impact of the grant go much further.

Technology’s role in improving our lives is unquestionable. And it will continue to grow in its importance in helping solve the biggest crises facing humanity. Maybe it is time to stop giving it such a hard time and embrace it wholly in our hearts, our hands and our plans for the future.

The THINKTECH Showcase is on 8 June 2017 at Dogpatch Labs, where each of the four Awardees will showcase the impact of their projects; personally, I will be watching out for zombies.

Terence O’Rourke is Chair of Enterprise Ireland , Chair of Social Innovation Fund Ireland, and a director of the The Irish Times Ltd