A game plan for technology companies to actually help save the world

Smartphones, computers and social media platforms have become indispensable parts of modern life, but the technology companies that make them and write their software are under siege. In any given week, Facebook or Google or Amazon does something to erode public trust in them. Now could be a moment for the industry to make good on Bill Gates’s promise of technology to do good, by “unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings” and improving the world – or Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of building a “new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.”

Around the globe, countries and societies are falling behind on reducing social inequalities and meeting goals for economic development and environmental sustainability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is issuing increasingly dire warnings about the effects climate change will have on human life on Earth – the beginnings of which are already unfolding.

I lead a major research initiative called The Digital Planet at the Fletcher School at Tufts where we study how technology is changing lives and livelihoods around the world. Here is an outline of how technology giants or nimble startups could help make Gates’s and Zuckerberg’s promises a reality.

Identify a big hairy problem

There is a long list of global problems to combat, including hunger, drought, poverty, bad health, polluted water and poor sanitation. One that’s connected to all the others is the recent bombshell news that climate change is accelerating: Over the next 20 years, Earth’s atmosphere will reach average temperatures as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consequently, extreme weather and natural disasters, food shortages, inundated coastlines and the near-elimination of coral reefs will likely happen even sooner than previously anticipated.

The scope of climate change gives companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon excellent opportunities to find specific approaches that would have meaningful effects.

Trace the root causes

There are, of course, many elements driving climate change. Consider the agriculture sector, which produces one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Farms emit the largest share and could benefit from a range of technologies, such as data analytics and artificial intelligence. As a bonus, innovating in agriculture could help feed more people.

Identify how technology can make a big difference

Technological tools could help farmers collect and use data to manage their crops more precisely in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions – such as using less fertilizer and plowing and planting fields more efficiently. Specifically, better data on soil and plant health could help farmers know where they need to increase or decrease irrigation or pesticide and fertilizer use. These practices save farmers money and increase farms’ productivity, generating more food with less waste.

Recognize how you can make money from it

If companies are to get involved, there needs to be an opportunity to earn money – and the more, the better.

One estimate suggests that making changes in farming and food practices that enhance productivity, promote sustainable methods and reduce waste could produce commercial opportunities and new savings worth US$2.3 trillion overall worldwide annually.

Our research team, in work that is ongoing, has estimated that of that $2.3 trillion a year, $250 billion could come from the application of artificial intelligence and other analytics for precision farming alone – $195 billion of which would be in the developing world, with $45.6 billion in South Asia and $13.4 billion in East Africa. Other estimates for the effects of AI and analytics are less specific, but still within the same range – between $164 billion and $486 billion annually. There is indeed money to be made by technology companies interested in developing climate-friendly, productivity-improving interventions in agriculture.