Innovating for Good
Saturday, April 4th, 2022
7 min read
I consider myself to be hugely fortunate to be doing the job that I am!
Not only from the perspective of working within a global team of truly innovative and amazing people who are constantly in search of creating ‘the new’ and challenging or disrupting the norm, but also from the perspective that I am personally empowered and supported to search out and identify truly global problems and then help deliver world-changing solutions to those who need them.
Between my work on technology which protects some of the world’s most endangered species from human and environmental threats, to helping customers accelerate their transition towards sustainable energy and technology solutions to reduce their carbon emissions, I’ve been in the privileged position of driving these ‘impact’ issues during my time within Cisco.
However, as someone who is constantly thinking about the future, it is not just an opportunity to innovate and enable new business opportunities through developing and building new technologies but a responsibility on all of us as technology leaders and innovators, to remember the real-world cost and impact to lives if we fail to realise our potential as wider agents of change. The technology that we design, build and deploy to users globally every day has an impact felt far beyond their intended primary design; it has the ability to transform lives in profound ways beyond its initial use, for good and for bad.
Within our Emerging Technologies and Incubation team we have made it a core part of our ‘innovation mission’ to put sustainability at the heart of all that we do. From hackathons to customer design partnerships, it is part of our team’s DNA. But, more than that, we are also all driven individually by the mindset of how can we perhaps ‘offset’ some of our impact on the world around us using our tech for good? How can we do our bit for more ‘sustainable innovation’ - that for every business, customer or partner that we can help, we also ask ourselves if there is a way in which we can take some of that thinking, innovation or technologies and somehow leverage it as a way of helping address other global problems?
When we work on solutions to make our cities smarter, we also consider what technological aspects of that solution could we potentially reuse to help perhaps support a regional or local community healthcare initiative, or connect a remote education facility impacted by an environmental disaster. If we are helping to enable hybrid workplaces through our collaboration technologies, could the same technology be used to help reduce the loneliness of some of our most vulnerable people in society through creating more authentic, meaningful connections to others? If we are unlocking the potential of devices and data at the edge of networks, can we enable users in the most remote developing communities to create new applications which help to empower their citizens? This mindset often comes from the team’s grassroots, feeling that they can and should think differently about how their technologies might be applied to different problems beyond the primary business intention.
To me, sustainable innovation means that if we can solve some of our customers’ biggest problems, chances are very often that we can help solve some of the world’s bigger societal and environmental problems through reusing the same technologies in completely different ways. One of the many benefits of working within Cisco is the ability to take days out of our work calendar to give back to our local communities and causes which are important to us individually, known as ‘Time 2 Give’. Often this leads people to use their technical expertise, or professional knowledge to solve or support wider societal causes by deploying our technologies to help those most in need.
There are many examples of this in action. Through our work within the Connected Conservation Foundation, I was hugely inspired to experience first-hand how the same technologies that we might deploy in some of the world’s major cities to use AI to detect everyday objects such as cars, bikes or people could be harnessed to help security services detect threats against endangered species in the remote regions of South Africa; or, in Spain, how our team have been using standard WebEx collaboration technologies and tools to help reconnect some of the most vulnerable in society through their ‘Deleting Loneliness’ initiative; in the UK, how we can bring some of our expertise around data to help support tackling hunger in some of our poorest communities with Trussell Trust. These are just a few examples of some of the amazing work which our team has been a part of.
The circular benefits of this are incredible; by answering the call on using our solutions and technologies in tech for good projects, it has helped us to re-evaluate our approach to making technology simpler, more usable and accessible to a wider range of people and communities. Why does this matter? Well, if we can enable people in those remote locations who are non-IT users to easily unlock the power of our technologies and solutions without needing to provide specialised support or resources then it has massive implications for how Cisco and our partners support solutions in-the-wild by reducing the need for IT specialists to have to travel to support deployments when they arise.
It is sometimes easy for engineers and technologists to forget that in this seemingly always-on, always-connected world that not every deployment, customer or user has the luxury of ubiquitous, reliable connectivity or the technological experience in some of the remote environments which we have worked in; that some communities lack the fundamentals for enabling technology to function as we might intend or design; however, the opportunity is for us to step back and ensure that we rethink the way in which our technology is utilized by very different user groups. It requires us to reframe our solutions through the window of not just how someone would use this if they are not an IT expert, but also someone who has potentially never seen or used a computer before. These insights are not just useful within their ‘tech for good’ use cases, but also as part of the feedback loop back into our products and solutions with customers or partners.
As a company, Cisco is committed to its purpose to power an inclusive future for all; from helping to reduce both our customers and our own impact on the environment through game-changing net-zero targets, through to how we can bring the power of Cisco globally to tackle issues such as homelessness and poverty in our communities, Cisco is continually leading the way in the tech industry on these most important topics.
Chuck Robbins and our leadership team have consistently demonstrated that it can’t always be about the dollars, industry announcements or sales opportunities – and it’s certainly not what retains key talent in a team like ours. Importantly, it's also not what attracts new, creative minds into the company or our organisation – it has to be about more than that; something perhaps more intangible, where an individual feels that their impact is felt far beyond one or two projects for the next 18 months. It causes us to ask ourselves something more fundamental: What do we want our legacy as innovators and thought leaders to be, not just with our customers, partners or the technology industry, but also for our communities, our people, our friends and family?
So, the next time you are thinking of how to solve an immediate customer problem or are developing technology within a project, take the time to think about how your solution, tech or people can have a secondary impact, be recycled and be reused in contributing towards tech-for-good. What do you want your innovation legacy to be? You might not know it yet, but the world might be depending on it.