Divided, but not conquered
From the personalisation of computing in the 1970s and the explosion of the internet to the growing danger posed by climate change, global phenomena have always provided challenges and opportunities for us as a planet. Earlier this year, Oxfam starkly laid out the latest worldwide problem besieging us: the global wealth divide has never been bigger.
The same week Oxfam’s report was released, England cricketer Stuart Broad landed himself in hot water after tweeting “I've heard if you earn minimum wage in England you're in the top 10% earners in the world”. The accompanying hashtag, #stayhumble, drew the ire of the masses, but Broad was right. When you take a step back and consider it, the extent of the global wealth divide is staggering.
It’s a difficult issue to discuss, with most of the western world nestled in the top 10% of the world’s earners. But the fact remains that there are few global issues more significant than this unequal distribution of wealth.
It poses a risk to the future of innovation. When so much of the world’s wealth is tied to so few, we risk stunting the world’s creativity: investment fuels invention and entrepreneurship, but less and less money is available to fund it.
Choked by Twitter
The threat to innovation was evident this week as social media behemoth Twitter dented the prospects of a pioneering new mobile app. Meerkat started making waves in February as users began adopting its service, which enables them to stream video live from their mobile device. The app integrated closely with Twitter’s social graph, allowing users to follow their friends on the social network and automatically tweet notifications when they start a live stream. But then, without warning, Twitter blocked Meerkat’s access to its graph. And it quickly became clear why.
Twitter had bought rival service Periscope earlier this year and announced the deal days after it cut off Meerkat. Periscope officially launched this week and, in the process, effectively killed off Meerkat’s chances to become the long-term leader in the new personal live-streaming space. It doesn’t matter that Meerkat hit the market first and gained traction organically on its own. Periscope will ultimately win the day, such is the size of its publicly traded – and deep-pocketed – parent company.
Despite Twitter’s railroading of a promising service, technology has a crucial role to play in redressing the global wealth imbalance and helping to foster innovation on a global scale – and we can already see the seeds of change being sown.
I’ve talked before about sites like Kickstarter, and the rise of crowdfunding is indicative of the world’s need to innovate its way out of disaster. The concepts and products funded on these sites, like the Pebble watch, might not change the world, but they’re playing an important role in piquing the public’s interest. Platforms like Seedrs take crowdfunding a step further and enable individual investors to own equity in the companies they’re funding.
But more needs to be done. Tech startups must find a way to redistribute some of this cash so more people can create opportunities for themselves and society. Traditional methods like taxation are not adequate ways of allocating funds back to the grassroots. Increasingly, companies are finding ways to sidestep such processes – despite being caught out.
Opportunities and danger
Of course, it’s just a minority of businesses that shirk corporate responsibilities. But not only is there an opportunity for companies to flourish if they take their responsibilities a step further – there’s a real danger of failure for those that neglect them. For businesses to succeed they have to operate with a degree of self-interest. But to succeed and provide a world that’s fair and competitive, they’re going to have to work out how those self-interests can help everyone. Because innovation will benefit everyone – whichever side of the divide they sit. Businesses that understand their responsibilities and get it right are going to succeed, because ultimately the world will dispense of the ones that don’t.
Finding the most powerful outcome to the global wealth imbalance is the biggest challenge facing our planet today. Technology is just one method of attacking the issue, of course, but it’s an important one. The spread of technology has made everyone aware of the issue. The more the world is connected, the more the world knows. And ultimately, it will be technology that will find the way to redress the balance.
Increasingly, technology will allow individuals to amass the same power that a company has. It won’t be expensive and it will provide us with the means to do a lot. The cost and infrastructure of companies will come down dramatically. And that’s the key: instead of trying to get the top to be fair, we must allow the bottom to compete. Technology will do that. It will equalize the world.
We might be 1% of the way towards challenging the 1%, but it’s an encouraging start.