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June 18, 2015updated 30 Aug 2016 12:23pm

Do technology companies really care about us?

It's no longer enough for big tech companies to stick a 'CSR' page on their website.

By Alexander Sword

Technology companies in the modern era are generally at pains to stress that their advances will be to the benefit of society. John Chambers, outgoing Cisco CEO, summed up this idea when he commented recently that the day he fell in love with technology was the day he realised it "can transform a business", and that over time "he realised it could change people’s lives."

Social enterprise is becoming big business. In the tech world, the Nominet Trust 100 publishes an annual list of ventures that are improving the world through technology. Elsewhere, investment firms such as Abundance channel investment to responsible companies.

It’s no longer enough for big tech companies to stick a "CSR" page on their website and sit back and let revenue roll in. But unfortunately for them, this pledge to society can sit uneasily alongside their often simultaneous promises to deliver profits to shareholders. While the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they certainly can be, so that many are, perhaps understandably, sceptical or cynical about corporate claims that they have our best interests at heart.

Hitachi is one company that wishes resolve this paradox, with the global launch of its Social Innovation strategy. According to Hicham Abdessamad, EVP of Global Services at Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), the strategy is not just marketing:

"The Social Innovation business has been around within Hitachi for, I’d say, five or six years. The main premise of it was to solve some of the world’s biggest problems in an area where we feel we have differentiation, leveraging our technology, our vertical expertise. It has also some sort of responsibility to society in it, a genuine care for society at the same time.

"It’s that social, civil responsibility coupled with leveraging technology to solve community’s problems. We’ve been doing it in Japan for quite some time in various different areas, and now we’re trying to globalise social innovation, because IoT came and sort of validated that strategy. Now everything we do is all about social innovation, because we feel it’s a greater cause, and it’s also a great way to leverage everything we make. It’s a solution, or solutions."

Every technology company claims to want to do good, however. Why is Hitachi different? Hicham suggested that the answer might lie in Hitachi’s Japanese heritage.

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"It’s been always our DNA as a Japanese company and Japanese culture. If you think about Hitachi in Japan, there’s a close relationship between the government, the people of Japan and Hitachi. Contributing to hospitals, contributing to rebuilding Japan after the earthquakes, obviously one of the biggest employers there…so certainly the society, the social side of it was always there. I think now it’s carrying over with maybe even a greater scope outside of Japan."

Abdessamad claims that companies outside of Japan have, however, been receptive to the ‘Social Innovation’ ideal.

"I think when they hear it they know we’re genuine. It’s not a tagline, we’re not here to make profit. Obviously you’ve got to make money, otherwise you won’t stay in business and you can’t help anybody. But certainly, there is definitely this need to make a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s public safety, connected cars or smart hospitals, whatever you want to call it.

"That’s why we’re not going to pursue consumer-driven solutions that allow your TV to talk to your refrigerator to tell you something. We’re not that interested in that because it’s not going to make a huge difference in people’s lives and there are other companies that are going to do that. We’re going to focus more on healthcare, public safety, telecommunications, things like that that are much more impactful."

With the world changing fast, the leadership to adapt our societies to it has to come from somewhere. Some countries are seeing stronger leadership in the technology revolution at the government level than others. However, we may see more and more companies giving social goals higher billing in their strategies.

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