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28 October 2015

Future Proof: Digital Transformation Requires a Stronger Social Narrative

Written by: Satyen Dayal, Senior Director at Edelman

Energy, Technology, Trust

As ever, it was a film that spurred my interest in the world of drone technologies. Although in this instance, it was less about the future potential of the tech, and more its demise. This drone obsolescence did not happen because a new, better or disruptive innovation entered the market. The machines were laid to rest because they serve no purpose in a future where even humanity’s most basic needs could no longer be met.

The particular scene that inspired this post came from the opening of Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is an ex-astronaut turned farmer who captures a decommissioned Indian Air Force surveillance drone with a plan to “give it something socially responsible to do, like drive a combine”. In this dystopian future, ravaged by the impact of climate change, nations no longer have the resources to spy on one another. Instead the “outstanding solar cells” and circuits of this drone would be put to serving mankind’s most pressing challenge: Global famine.

All spoilers end here. I urge you to watch this film if you haven’t already. It has courted both controversy and significant praise. Two scientific journals recently recommended that Interstellar be shown in school science classes.

As much as I loved the film I found myself at odds with one of its underlying themes. But that’s a post for another day (although it is not just because I believe an end to spying is a good thing). It’s this idea of giving the drone a ‘social purpose’ that caught my attention. In many ways this relates to my last post about the French taxi drivers.

The technological or digital transformation that is currently shaping business and society needs to be future proofed with a stronger social narrative. By this I am not simply suggesting that we shoe-horn CSR or sustainability messages into all communications about technology change. As my colleagues within Edelman’s Business for Social Purpose team will no doubt tell you, tech must demonstrate industry leadership on a range of social issues.

Interestingly, this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer pointed us to a few areas where tech brands struggle. Specifically, when asked about the behaviours that build trust in tech and the industry’s performance against them, the biggest gaps included: Embracing sustainable business practices (18 percentage points), keeping families safe (18 percentage points), transparent reporting on social responsibility (20 percentage points), supporting good causes (20 percentage points), and protecting customer data (22 percentage points).

Interesting still, this trust deficit is significantly lower in areas where those ushering today’s digital transformation offer a more consistent message about their technology leadership i.e. making my life easier (4 percentage points), and developing intellectual property (2 percentage points).

The big challenge is not convincing the world that digital transformation is necessary. The world needs to know that those who deliver this change have its interests at heart.

Having spent many years working on positioning around security and privacy for tech and telecoms brands, I’ve been encouraged to see confidence grow as firms more readily to speak out on the issues. There still may be a long way to go, but people are now more aware of the risks and still placing their trust in tech firms to do the right thing.

Some would say this trust is blind and on the whole they might be right. I believe that now the debate is it out in the open, the increased scrutiny must ultimately be viewed as a good thing for the industry and its customers.

For these reasons I very much empathise with a cautionary approach from tech brands on social issues – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The problem is that this might just be delaying the inevitable, and when these issues start to bite harder, it can come at a greater cost.

One thing to keep in mind is that like security and privacy, many of the other social issues facing tech brands are often industry or society-wide problems where no individual or company can truly hold the high-ground. Engagement and partnership offer a more proactive route to navigating the challenges.

One starting point for proactive engagement is the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference COP 21. Nick Hay who leads our UK Clean Technology efforts notes that this will be crucial moment for clean tech innovators to offer big commercially viable ideas. I agree, and through my personal experience with a range of tech firms know that it’s not just clean tech innovators who are thinking big when it comes to climate change.

Beyond COP, and as more digital transformations take root, we must be prepared to effectively engage in a debate around a full spectrum of social issues. Not only because the future of tech depends on society’s ability to overcome these problems, but in this future, technology’s role will surely be to prevent them from happening again.

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