Five companies – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft – together make up 7.5% of the total value of all publicly traded companies in the world. Each of these companies reaches over a billion people, in many cases with multiple touchpoints, and has developed deep access to and insights into over half the world’s population. These companies, collectively known as “Big Tech”, are arguably among the most powerful in human history and increasingly critical parts of the global economy and society, particularly in the ongoing transition to a digital era.
Given their multi-pronged success, these companies are seen as the benchmark to emulate across industries, however, their true power may well stem from their ability to unlock the collective power of individuals, across politics, commerce, or finance. Individuals own 75% of the world’s wealth and control an even larger portion of its ultimate spending and are therefore critical to bringing about positive change in the world with the power to fund the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the climate transition, and a better future for all. Big Tech’s unprecedented access to half the world’s individuals, and its potential to digitally include the other half, positions these companies as potentially the most significant “Forces for the Good” in the world, driving sustainability, inclusion, and development globally at scale. For these companies to unlock their full potential however, they will need to fully align profitability with impact, creating business cases for doing good that leverage the power of their platforms.
This Month’s Sign of the Times looks at Big Tech’s current positioning and their future potential as a force for good, and why this might not only have benefits but is likely an imperative.
Context: Funding the Future Requires Unlocking the Individual
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was launched in 2015 to “end poverty and set the world on a path of peace, prosperity, and opportunity for all on a healthy planet,”i laying out 17 interrelated Sustainable Development Goals focusing on five factors of people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. While real progress against the 17 goals has been made, the world was far not on track to meet the goals even before the impact of the global pandemic, which has set efforts back across several goals, in some cases by years.
Given the fundamental geographic mismatch between regions with the greatest development need and those with the financial resources to finance them, the SDGs today face a large and growing funding gap. Only about US$1 trillion of the c.US$3.2-US$4.2 trillion in annual global spending aligned with SDG targets is being made in developing countriesii. However, a recent report (contributed to by members of the Sign of the Times team) has estimated that the actual funding required by developing countries is c.10x that of current spending, for a total funding gap of up to US$100 trillion over the next decade.
Given the enormity of this gap, it is increasingly clear that the world is not on track to fund the SDGs. However, a cursory look at the world’s wealth and output indicate that it has sufficient capacity to close this gap.
As of 2020, the total sum of the world’s gross liquid assets exceeded US$400 trillion, the vast majority of which (>85%) is under the stewardship of financial institutions. While the finance sector clearly has a The priorities and preferences of the world’s 7.8 billion people as investors, consumers, and citizens will ultimately decide which of the world’s challenges are addressed and which ones are not. critical role to play in directing funding, the vast majority of their funds are being managed, administered, and allocated on behalf of 3rd parties, the ultimate owners and beneficiaries. Indeed, 64% of the finance industry’s assets are owned by individual households, and 36% are owned by governments including central banks, sovereign wealth funds and public finance institutions).iii When the value of illiquid assets such as real estate is included, individual household’s share of wealth rises to 75%.
Global output tells a similar story. Consumption represents over 70% of annual global output of c.US$90 trillion, nearly 80% of which is in the hands of individuals. This amounts to US$49 trillion of annual spending, equal to over 12% of the world’s total stock of total liquid assets.
Most of the the world’s capital and an even larger proportion of its annual spending therefore is in the hands of private households, and ultimately controlled by individuals. As customers of financial institutions and corporations, individuals have the power to make choices regarding their investments, spending and savings and this is set to be a powerful lever for change as individual awareness and activism increases. As consumers, individuals can fund and defund products, services, activities, companies, and entire industries in line with their priorities and preferences.
The choices of the world’s 7.8 billion people as investors, consumers, and citizens will therefore ultimately decide which of the world’s challenges are addressed and which ones are not.
Acting collectively, individuals have extraordinary power as change agents, demonstrated with great effect in politics and social movements, and are likely to exercise this power in finance and business, too. While individual choices can aggregate into powerful collective impacts, a platform that aggregates, coordinates, and amplifies the millions (and potentially billions of individual choices) becomes powerful itself. Social media and Big Tech platforms are the prime candidates to play this role.
“Big Tech’s Potential to Empower Collective Action
Big Tech companies have created digital platforms with unprecedented global reach that provide deep insights into the behaviour of individuals consumers. With literally billions of people connected to one another, communicating, transacting, and sharing information, these platforms have already emerged as significant vehicles for politics, not only in democratic countries during elections, but also as tools of communication and coordination in revolutions, as witnessed in the Arab Spring, and in the daily competition between politicians for the attention of the people.
Given that individuals collectively own the majority of the world’s wealth, these platforms have the potential to upend business and finance too, given that it will be through them that consumers align around major global issues that drive how their money is invested and spent.
If Big Techiv takes full ownership of the power of its platforms, it has the potential to play a decisive role in the world meeting the SDGs, creating mass inclusion and achieving a managed transition to a more Given that individuals collectively own the majority of the world’s wealth, Big Tech’s platforms have the potential to upend global business and finance sustainable future. Given its unique position, Big Tech’s own engagement as a force for good in the world, driving sustainability and inclusion, will be an important factor in determining whether, when, where, and how the world’s greatest challenges will be addressed, funded, and ultimately solved by the power of collective action. However, today, Big Tech is losing its image as a force for good. In some cases, the image is quite the opposite of good, with governments calling for its regulation or break-up and payment of ‘fair’ taxes, and consumer advocates criticizing it over data usage and privacy, censorship and misinformation and fake news, leading to accusations that tech giants are dangerous and even ‘evil’.
For tech companies to reach their potential as a force for good in the world, they will clearly need to address these issues of both perception and substance. Examining Big Tech’s current positioning in this regard gives rise to a number of observations:
- Deep Consumer Access Has Created Unprecedented Value. As of Q3 2021, six of the ten most valuable companies in the world are technology companies, and the world’s five most valuable tech The world’s five most valuable tech companies (valued at US$8.7 trillion) are worth nearly six times as much as the five most valuable financial services companies (valued at US$1.5 trillion) companies (valued at US$8.7 trillion) are worth nearly six times as much as the five most valuable financial services companies (valued at US$1.5 trillion).v These valuations are a reflection of the access these platforms offer to individuals, the level of engagement that they elicit and the depth of the insights they have into people’s behaviour resulting from the data that the gather. The use of business models that efficiently leverage these assets has proven to be extraordinarily profitable, with the five Big Tech companies having amassed over US$600 billion in cash-on-hand, providing them with extraordinary financial firepower for investments.
- Nine out of Ten Global Internet Users Currently Reached by the Leading Tech Companies. With The world’s major tech platforms reach c.4 billion unique social media users, over half the world’s population 4.0 billion unique social media users, over half the world’s population is reached by major tech platforms. Among these, Meta’s Facebook has 2.8 billion active users, Alphabet’s Google maintains a global market share of internet searches of over 90%, Apple tracks over 1 billion iPhone users globally, Amazon represents half of all US e-commerce, among other things, and Microsoft reaches over 1.2 billion users with its software applications, allowing these companies to generate unprecedented amounts of data on their customers. Moreover, their customers are typically significantly better educated and wealthier than the global average, providing the Big Tech with significant indirect power and influence through their insights and access.
- Public Opinion on Big Tech Shifting to Negative, Creating a Need to Re-position for Good. While the services provided by Big Tech are highly valued by their users, there is a negative shift underway in the public perception of the companies themselves. Key drivers of the shift include the concentration While Big Tech has traditionally thought of itself as a force for good, the last decade has seen this shift against them driven by concerns over privacy, fake news, their use by foreign powers in elections, their profits and taxes and a lack of responsiveness to divided publics of monopolistic power among major platforms, increasing concerns over privacy and the use of personal data and social media’s role in spreading ‘fake news’, with many platforms caught between accusations of inaction towards misinformation and accusations of censorship in this regard. During the 2016 US Presidential election social media platforms were also used as a vehicles for foreign interference, being used to spread misinformation and for targeted voter advertising.vi More recently, the same platforms have been criticized for allowing COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation to spread widely used, all of which has driven increasing government attention with a view to limiting or even breaking up the power of companies that widely perceives themselves to be a ‘force for good’ in the world.
- Big Tech is a Leader in Operational ‘Force for Good’, Comparing Favourably to Other Industries in Terms of Engagement. Big Tech companies have been early adopters of ESG practices and policies and have also excelled at corporate-level sustainability initiatives. The 2021 Capital as a Force for Good Tech companies have traditionally set high standards for how they treat, reward and train their employees, promote employee diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing. and they have done well in setting sustainability targets, measuring and reporting outcomes, engaging with broader stakeholders report has benchmarked the broader ESG and sustainability engagement of 100 of the world’s largest financial institutions. Comparing the initiatives and policies of the five ‘Big Tech’ companies against this database reveals that tech leaders have more comprehensive sustainability and stakeholder engagement programs than the finance industry leaders examined by the Capital as a Force for Good initiative.
While public commitments to sustainability appear to be universal, all tech industry leaders follow this through by setting sustainability targets, measuring and reporting outcomes, and training their employees accordingly, initiatives that have less the universal buy-in from finance industry leaders. Similarly, in terms of stakeholder engagement, Big Tech companies also lead the way with regards to employee diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing, and are indeed widely known for their employee benefits and perks.
- Big Tech Companies are Corporate Climate Change Leaders. While the power consumption of the big five tech companies is significant in absolute terms, data centres account for around only 1% of global Big Tech companies account for 0.04% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, but have almost all achieved carbon neutrality in their operations and accounting for almost 30% of all corporate renewable power purchase agreements electricity use. Collectively the emissions from the big five tech companies totalled 13 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2019, or only around 0.04% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, these companies have adopted increasingly stringent and ambitious corporate policies on addressing emissions. With the exception of Amazon, Big Tech companies have all achieved carbon neutrality in their operations, and Google has recently eliminated it legacy carbon footprint, making it the first major company to be effectively carbon neutral for its entire operating history, with Microsoft having established a US$1 billion fund in pursuit of the same objective.
As part of this commitment, tech companies have also become the world’s biggest corporate purchasers of clean energy, setting targets for clean energy’s share of their total consumptionvii. In 2020, the big five tech companies procured 7.2 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity, accounting for almost 30% of all corporate renewable power purchase agreements, or around 3.5% of all global renewable capacity additions.
- Big Tech Has Not Yet Strategically Unlocked the Potential of its Platforms for a Broad Impact. Despite all its achievements, Big Tech is not a conscious investor in the world for good in the terms that is now being defined among a new and rapidly evolving set of broader stakeholders, including other industries such as finance.
Maximising a company’s or an industry’s impact as a force for good requires the creation of business cases that align profit and purpose, leveraging key assets and capabilities to deliver impact at scale. For many decades of corporate history, purpose was an asset that Big Tech could claim to be driven by. In the rapidly spiralling set of challenges facing the world, purpose is also under scrutiny and is measured increasingly by its impact on the world’s biggest issues.
The asset management industry’s shift to sustainable funds is a good example, with sustainable funds capturing up to 45% of all new money inflows into the industry during 2020, strengthening the overall competitive positioning and performance of managers with comprehensive offerings.
SpaceX provides an example of how businesses can leverage their core platforms and assets to branch out into related products and services with high impact potential, with its satellite internet constellation Despite all its achievements, Big Tech is not yet a conscious force for good in the terms that are now being defined among a new and rapidly evolving set of stakeholders, including other industries such as finance Starlink aiming to provide universal and affordable internet access in developing countries.
Few Big Tech companies have commercial projects of a similar scale and scope, an exception being Alphabet’s Android, the company’s open-source mobile operating system. This system with over 70% global market share (rising to c. 90% in developing countries), has created generations of affordable smartphones that have enabled digital inclusion across the developing world, while generating an estimated US$20 billion annually for Alphabet.viii This is both a powerful tool for entrepreneurs and digital inclusion and source of substantial profits for Alphabet.
- The Bar to Private Sector Leadership is High. Business leaders in other industries have been increasingly proactive in engaging on topics relating to inclusion and sustainability, raising the bar for other private sector businesses seeking to be seen as a force for good. The finance industry, particularly its leaders, are playing an increasingly important role in addressing key issues facing the world, including climate change, financial inclusion, and inequality, and are repositioning their businesses in the process. The 2021 Capital as a Force for Good report captured some of the scale and breadth of the current engagements by 100 of the sector’s largest companies:
- US$9.5 trillion committed to the SDG and sustainable finance more broadly to 2030, with c. US$2 trillion deployed in 2020.
- Multiple US$1 trillion commitments by individual institutions to sustainable finance (by 2030) – up from 0 last year
- A >10x increase in the assets committed to net zero since 2020 (to US$88 trillion – a number that has grown further to c. US$130 trillion following COP26)
- An increasing focus on neglected SDGs committing billions to to target goals which were believed to be unfundable by the private sector, including:
- c.US$40 billion committed for Zero Hunger by nine institutions last year
- c.US$38billion committed for clean water and sanitation by 12 institutions
- c.US$27billion committed for life on land (including biodiversity) by 9 institutions.
Repositioning Big Tech as a Force for Good
So, while Big Tech has clearly been an early adopter of ESG and remains a corporate leader in important areas like carbon emissions, it has not yet reached its full potential as a Force for Good in the world, largely on account of these companies’ exceptional impact potential. This potential is closely tied to both the global reach and influence of these businesses as well as to their digital nature of their platforms.
While Big Tech players are increasingly addressing and incorporating sustainability throughout their operations, including in their supply chains, the highest impact businesses are those that can build businesses or business models that are directly tied to ‘doing good’, for example, by impacting at scale one or more of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In Big Tech’s case, their massive platforms equate to an equally massive impact potential. This would see it move its initiatives from the realm of charity into the realm of revenue generation and to more consciously leverage its assets for impact.
There are a number of interlinked levers available to Big Tech that can be used to drive both business growth and deliver impact at scale, positioning tech leaders as global forces for good in the process. These include the following:
- Empowering Individuals for Collective Action. Big Tech’s ultimate opportunity as a force for good lies in its ability to empower and unlock individuals to make different choices as consumers, investors, citizens and voters, who collectively can bring about change at a global scale. Big Tech’s platforms provide the necessary information, communication, and coordination to allow this collective action, and can therefore mobilise the voices, the votes and the funds required to underwrite a more sustainable and inclusive future. Given that most platform’s business models are closely tied to user engagement, the empowerment of individuals makes good business sense for technology companies, too, providing an opportunity to build deeper relationships and (gain further insights/valuable user data).
- Driving Global Inclusion and Participation. Big Tech is already deeply entwined with the world’s existing online population and its opportunity is to be the driver of low cost, reliable access for the rest of the world, if only to expand their customer base.The ongoing transition to the information age in many parts of the world is at an advanced stage, with people, communities, corporations, industries, and governments increasingly connected, digitized and tech enabled, driving a new wave of innovation, wealth and opportunity. However, nearly half of the world’s population today remains offline, creating a significant digital divide between those with and those without access, a divide that will only deepen further as essential services like education, healthcare and financial access are increasingly digitized.
- Exercising Broader Stakeholder Influence. Beyond their clearly established influence on their users’ hubs, Big Tech are among the most admired, emulated and listened to, and sometimes feared private corporations on the planet and can use this to influence policy and practices that make an impact for good. Technology is the “biggest lobby sector in the European Union, ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, or chemicals, spending over US$100m annually there (and multiples more in the United States), giving them the ear of legislators and a powerful voice in policy discussions. Further Big Tech platforms increasingly mission critical to private sector corporations, with over 40% of businesses describing their dependence on digital platform companies as ‘significant’, providing Big Tech with considerable influence in the corporate world too.
These three levers together provide Big Tech with the levers to make a globally outsized impact on sustainability and inclusion. However, in addition to scale, maximising impact is also a function of focus, selecting a defined series of themes and issues, and developing powerful businesses cases to support them. What an effective force for good business looks like in practice varies from company to company, of course, and depends on the nature of their platforms and competitive advantage. The table below provides potential examples that the Big Tech companies could pursue.
The list above is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. It is also worth pointing out that some of the above are actually already being done by Big Tech, albeit on a scale that can best be described as ‘pilot-level’. For these companies to be global leaders as a force for good, they will need to do so at a scale that has a global impact, and fundamentally transforms their businesses in the process. Developing a business case is critical: Apple’s ConnectED program has donated US$100 million worth of teaching and learning solutions to 114 underserved schools in America since 2014. This is effective philanthropy, which also creates future customers. However, there are tens of thousands of schools in developing countries with even greater and more desperate needs. Supplying them with similar resources would cost billions and would be unlikely to develop future customers given that the minimum US$1,000 price for an entry level Apple computer makes it unaffordable for most people in these countries. Having an impact on the developing world therefore cannot be feasibly done with philanthropy alone. Developing a business case for this though may call for a re-engineering of the product and the business model if not the wider eco-system that makes it fit-for-purpose. Big Tech has the product, services, talent pool, capital and influence potential to make a huge difference.
Big Tech is under challenge, slowly losing its position of trust, but it is perhaps the decisive player that could fund the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and help the world transition to a more sustainable global model.
Ultimately though, whether Big Tech becomes a global force for good is a question of values. Technology like any tool is values-free and can be used equally for ‘good’ or ‘evil’. There is no intrinsic necessity that the issues that Big Tech promotes for collective action will be noble ones, and no reason to believe that tech companies may not exercise their influence to the detriment rather than the benefit of other stakeholders (something they have been accused of doing in various US Congressional hearings and broadly in the media too). If the primary goal is simply to maximise engagement, tech companies will be agnostic to the content on their platforms and work to maximise this variable. Indeed, when left solely to an algorithm, Facebook ‘s content recommendations push users to whatever is compelling, often leading to social and political extremism as well as fake news. xi
To date, Big Tech has sought to define their businesses as tech or social platforms, and has struggled to take Ultimately, whether Big Tech becomes a global force for good is a question of values a stance on the content – ‘good’ or ‘evil’ - that sits on them, resulting in their being at the receiving end of a backlash in public opinion. This is taking them to territory they had not imagined; they are being tainted with the content itself, unsurprisingly in hindsight, and in some cases are now being seen as certainly not a force for good. While the resulting external pressure may provide an impetus to companies seeking to become a global force for good, it is likely to remain an incomplete answer since such an approach takes its cue from the market rather than a set of values built on beliefs, behaviours and embedded in the culture.
Further, thanks to the highly concentrated power of the Big Tech companies – with Microsoft and Google together control 99.8% of the US office suite market, Google controls 87% of global search, and Facebook controls c.44% of global The world has moved far beyond the Tech industry’s current practices in setting the benchmarks of what good looks like in being a ‘force for good’ social media – they remain much less susceptible to consumer pressure than companies in more fragmented industries. Monopolies and near-monopolies don’t last forever of course. Over the long-term customers (and regulators on behalf of customers) may well effectively impose their values on Big Tech, just as they do on politics, and are beginning to do so on other sectors products and services.
Therefore, while Big Tech may have the opportunity to have a meaningful positive impact in the world, they will ultimately need to proactively choose to do so, prioritising the issues they want to promote in the world. These companies would, and do, argue that this is exactly what they are doing. However, the world has moved far beyond their current practices in setting the benchmarks of what good looks like in being a ‘force for good’.
Big Tech’s opportunity is that it can select and prioritise its own values and resulting initiatives, informed by the demands of stakeholders, particularly customers, suppliers, government, communities, employees and especially shareholders. Taking a position on a given issue can often come at a cost of course, just as Big Tech suffered a backlash from US conservatives, including legislators when Facebook suspended the accounts of President Donald Trump following the 2021 US Capitol attack, and Amazon, Apple, and Google effectively banished Parler, a service his supporters had used to encourage and coordinate the attack, by denying it web-hosting services and a place in their app stores. Over the long term however it is increasingly clear that meeting the UN SDGs and managing a transition to a better future is not just a moral, but also a business imperative, and therefore one around which global stakeholders can align.
Big Tech is the latent force that can work with the individual – who as a collective is the most powerful player in the transition to a more sustainable world – to drive mass inclusion, empowerment, peacefulness, prosperity and freedom. Not doing so likely carries an outsized penalty in a world where the very platforms Big Tech provides are creating a more conscious, demanding individual across the world.
- United Nations, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 (“UN SDG Report 2020”)
- Source: UNCTAD 2014 estimates adjusted for inflation
- Endowments and foundations own less than 1% of global liquid assets
- as of June 2021, Tech companies include Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook. Financial services companies include JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, ICBC, Ping An and China Construction Bank
- Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/03/22/all-the-ways-trumps-campaign-was-aided-by-facebook-ranked-by-importance/
- See: https://www.kamilfranek.com/how-google-makes-money-from-android/
- Source: Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobbycontrol
- See: https://techmonitor.ai/boardroom/power-of-tech-companies