Rajesh Rai - Cofounder | October 29

Tech Godzillionaires: Let’s End Poverty Together

17 October 2020 is designated as the international day for the eradication of poverty by the United Nations (UN). 

No Poverty is the first “sustainable development goal” of the UN and their goal is to end global poverty by 2030.  However in 2021, we will see the first increase since 1992 in the number of people who will fall into extreme poverty and the main reason is COVID-19. 

The UN’s message for the international day for the eradication of poverty 2020, starts with the stark statement that it is a moral outrage,“ in a world of economic and technological means and financial resources that millions of persons are living in extreme poverty”.

In 2015, the UN estimated that 736 million people lived below the international poverty line, put at US $1.90 a day. This represented 10% of the world’s population. This number had fallen in 2018 (and has been falling since 1992), where almost 8% of the world’s workers and their families lived on less thanUS $1.90 per person per day.

The World Bank in their 2020 publication, Poverty and Shared Prosperity, report that 25% of the world’s population lives under US $3.20 per day and 40% of the world’s population, almost 3.3 billion people, live below US $5.50 per day. It is estimated by the World Bank that in 2021 as many as 150 million more people will fall into extreme poverty, mainly because of the pandemic. 

The causes of poverty and its eradication are manifold. The World Bank comments “Confronting conflict and climate change will also be critical to putting poverty eradication back on track”. The UN identifies social factors that perpetuate poverty, “persons living in poverty experience many interrelated and mutually reinforcing deprivations that prevent them from realizing their rights and perpetuate their poverty. They include:

  • dangerous work conditions
  • unsafe housing
  • lack of nutritious food
  • unequal access to justice
  • lack of political power
  • limited access to health care” 

In March 2020 the Forbes World Billionaires list reported just before COVID-19 would take global centre stage, that the personal wealth of four of the ten wealthiest people in the world came from tech. The combined personal wealth of the four was estimated at around $305 billion.

Seven months later as the tsunami of COVID-19 swept the globe, Forbes reported that seven of the top ten richest people in their billionaires list were tech related. The combined personal wealth of the seven was estimated at $712 billion. An increase of around 57%. It is distressing to know the inequity of 150 million people falling into extreme poverty whilst at around the same time the personal wealth of seven tech individuals is increasing by over $300 billion.

So, can any meaningful corollary be gained from the comparison between the tech rich list and increasing poverty? Probably not as the analysis is too simplistic, but these headline figures cannot be ignored when asking whether the tech industry can do more to end poverty by 2030. 

The pandemic has accelerated the advance of the digital age. In April 2020 McKinsey reported that in just 8 weeks, the world vaulted 5 years in digital adoption. According to Jeremy Rifkin, the technological revolution had in fact started in 2008, when we entered the current Industrial Age. The era of the “the internet of things”.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of 21 bestselling books, which include “The Third Industrial Revolution”“The Zero Marginal Cost Society” and the “Green New Deal”. He is a pioneer of the sharing and the meaningful economy.

It his view that the second industrial age peaked in July 2008, when crude oil reached a record price of $147 per barrel. The collapse of the financial markets sixty days later was just its aftershock. 

He postulates that industrial revolutions occur when there is a convergence of three emerging technologies: communications technologies, new energy regimes, with new modes of transportation. This convergence changes how we manage power and move economic life. 

By way of example, the paradigm which made way for the second industrial revolution started in the USA. which saw the convergence of telephone technology, allowing communication at vast distances (later radio and television), with cheap oil and transport technologies. This changed how we managed power and moved economic life from the era of steam to oil.         

The dawn of the 21st century woke up to the emerging world wide web communication technology that has dominated communication since. With it, we have seen a nascent digitalised renewable energy internet, which is now converging with automated GPS and driverless air, road water internets. One super internet that will manage and move economic life riding on a platform called the “the internet of things”. The internet of things is an example of how technology can help engage with the social issues that perpetuate poverty. 

The internet of things monitors real time activity with sensors capturing information and data. Rifkin likens this new internet to a global nervous system monitoring the known natural world all linked to the internet of things. IBM estimates that there are presently a billion sensors capturing data. By 2030, there will be a100 trillion sensors that will create a global neural environment.

The internet of things platform is not a centralised platform that is proprietary, but works best when it is distributive and collaborative. It is designed to be laterally scaled not vertically integrated. Because of these qualities, it plunges marginal cost, giving rise to a sharing economy and a meaningful economy that has the capacity to democratise knowledge, manufacturing, music, television and even ownership.

It is inclusive, participatory, and can engage directly with the social factors the United Nations regards as perpetuating poverty. The United Nations recognises those who are most closely affected by factors that perpetuate poverty, including climate change impacts, those fighting hardest to tackle these factors but are given very little recognition for their efforts. They should all be recognised and supported in their fight against poverty. This technology has the capacity to do that. 

Governments and international communities need to keep track of the pace of these emerging technologies and ensure their positive impact is promoted and to safeguard against their potential to exploit. Two previous industrial revolutions between the 18th and 20th centuries, was accompanied by extreme social inequalities, ravages of empires, climate change and so on.

Network neutrality, equal access, protection from undue political and corporate influence, protection from cyber crime, data and privacy issues, corporate structures that can reflect technological capacity to promote participation from all its stakeholders are all matters that require close scrutiny by governments and the international communities. Otherwise, we will create more “Tech Godzillionaires”, whose social impact will ensure we have little chance of achieving the United Nations objective of no global poverty by 2030.