Social issues have always been the preeminent force behind innovation, and technological innovation is no exception. After all, what is the purpose of technology if not to meet a human need, serve human interest, or accommodate human values?
The connection between social issues and technological innovation, however, has perhaps never been more important or apparent than it is today. But how, exactly, are the challenges of the historical moment today reflected in the technology of the present–and the future?
In an era of increasing alarm over the issue of climate change, technology is leading the way in the effort to rescue the planet and save humanity in the process. At the forefront of these efforts is the use of digital technologies to facilitate environmental education and communication.
For example, the rising generations, those who will inherit the environment, and its problems, are often at the center of the environmental activist movement. Technology, and the awesome power of social media has provided both a platform and a voice for young people.
Such technology enables young activists to disseminate their message across the globe and win allies to their cause. At the same time, such platforms illuminate for the world’s leaders and decision-makers, including global entrepreneurs and government legislators, the urgency and significance of the issue, particularly for rising generations of consumers and future voters.
However, it is not only in digital communications innovations that the influence of environmental activism can be seen. Indeed, the climate change emergency has spurred an entirely new genre of automotive manufacturing: the advent of electric vehicle (EV) technologies. Electric vehicles are imagined as the antidote to the environmental ravages wrought by the standard combustion engine. Thus, the technology has emerged as one of the most powerful weapons in humanity’s war against climate change.
Another significant social issue driving technological innovation is that of healthcare access and equity. For far too long, marginalized groups, including the poor, the elderly, the disabled, BIPOC persons, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have been underserved by the healthcare industry.
However, innovations in health tech are rapidly changing that, promoting access and equity of care for historically disenfranchised groups. For example, innovations in health information technologies are making it possible to access key data on specialized patient populations to facilitate diagnosis and treatment planning. This is a much-needed shift from traditional models of medical research and the traditional archive of medical data, which have historically been based primarily on the study of Caucasian males.
In addition, artificial intelligence (AI) systems in healthcare are speeding and improving accuracy in the analysis of medical images, tissue samples, blood panels, and other medical testing. For patients who have only intermittent access to care, such as those who live in rural areas and can rarely afford to travel to an in-office consultation, the ability to be tested, receive results, and potentially even begin treatment on the same day can be life-saving.
Moreover, the issue of healthcare access has also facilitated the ascendancy of telehealth technologies. Among these innovations include the capacity for secure “virtual” medical consultations by telephone or computer, as well as the proliferation of wearable health technologies to enable patient monitoring and screening from the comfort of the patient’s own home. For elderly, disabled, and rural patients, such technologies may well mean the difference between receiving care or going without it.
The social issue of accessibility is not confined to the healthcare industry alone. Rather, the concept of inclusive design has emerged to inform the development and design processes of enterprises across all industries.
This includes, for instance, the development of consumer electronics designed to be used by those with hearing impairments to the deployment of landscape engineering technologies which allow persons with visual impairments to navigate public spaces through the use of concrete and flooring systems with embedded sensors.
Similarly, the power of the internet has been revealed, shaping our daily lives and revolutionizing the ways we work, learn, and build relationships, and so too has the awareness of the need for universal design in the digital domain. Hence the advent of a host of accessibility technologies to enable persons with sensory and mobility impairments to access the internet, such as screen readers and voice-controlled computers.
Technology and social change have always gone hand-in-hand. In today’s tech-driven world, though, the connection between social issues and technological innovation is more important and more apparent than ever. Indeed, some of today’s most important technological innovations have emerged in response to the most pressing social issues of the moment. This includes the advent of EV technologies to address the climate crisis, the rise of telemedicine to facilitate healthcare access and equity, and the emergence of universal design technologies in the physical and online world to support the access of persons with disabilities to education, employment, and community engagement.