As organizations embrace next-generation technologies to drive their social impact strategies, this article explores three use cases for social good: virtual learning, precision agriculture, and mobility infrastructure.
Social impact is an increasingly important business measure as companies look to become social enterprises.1 Organizations have a unique opportunity to use technology for social impact when adopting strategies that create social and business value—be it the ability to expand access to education, enhance food production, or create safer and more equitable cities and communities. While it may apply tremendous pressure on businesses and engineers to meet these social expectations, technologies like the cloud could help with the challenge. Innovative new infrastructure combinations2 that combine 5G, the edge, satellites, and other technologies with the cloud are coming together for transformative potential. In fact, in one of Deloitte’s recent surveys, more than 80% of executives surveyed said advanced connectivity is important to capitalize on advanced technologies (artificial intelligence or AI, edge computing, and data analytics).3 The question is, how to unlock the technology’s potential?
When combined with other new and emerging technologies, cloud could arguably help social enterprises with several government, business, and social challenges (figure 1).
Addressing these pressing social challenges requires architects4 to innovate in the real world in areas such as virtual learning and work, precision agriculture, and transportation mobility where the stakes are high and the need is real.
Before the global pandemic, organizations were reimagining digital education. Analysts expected the e‑learning market to grow from US$200 billion in 2019 to US$375 billion in 2026.5 Learning institutions were exploring digital education and ed-tech strategies that connected parents, teachers, peers, administrators, and mentors with the student across integrated, personalized, and continuous learning experiences.6 Universities were embracing digital platforms for hybrid-learning models combining on‑campus and online learning to drive skills, mentorship, and intern opportunities.7 In adolescent and secondary education (K-12), institutions had embraced digital solutions to create smart classrooms and parental-engagement apps for the youngest students, but not digital and remote learning.
The pandemic changed all of that. People across the globe were forced to embrace virtual learning almost instantaneously and at scale. Beyond the technical challenges, this change—inflection point, really—highlighted existing inequities related to high-speed internet access and collaboration tools. Both are essential for K-12 virtual learning, an enabler for diverse and personalized digital learning strategies across higher education, and a lifeline to remote work for recent graduates.
In response to the pandemic and its effects, the government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which included roughly US$30 billion in education relief for states, K-12 schools, and higher-education institutions (including student grants).8 Telecommunications and technology providers donated money, discounted mobile hot spots, enabled cloud video solutions, and provided physical devices to students9 to support distance-learning and to standardize digital classrooms.10
Organizations with existing cloud-based platforms had an advantage when ramping up remote learning.11 By combining the cloud with wireless and wireline solutions, education institutions can better expand K-12 access to the roughly 3 million US students without a home internet connection12 and the 16.9 million children who lack high-speed home internet to support online learning13 (figure 2).
The long-term stakes are high if children are left behind. Early research related to remote learning during the pandemic shows disenfranchisement comes at a tremendous cost—a third of math progress can be lost, and low-income students are disproportionately affected.14
Ultimately, cloud and other network technologies can unlock internet access and allow for the instant access to software and services needed to teach the world, and:
There is no easy answer to rethinking the student, educational institution, and technology relationship. As described in The future(s) of public higher education,15 there are five potential models that can be considered for the future of public higher education. These are the Entrepreneurial University, Sharing University, Experiential University, Subscription University, and Partner University. These models can contribute to a vibrant, innovative, and efficient public higher education system.
When speaking of Land O’Lakes’ 150 million acres of productive cropland, Beth Ford, president and CEO, said, “ … unreliable or nonexistent high-speed internet in rural areas keeps these [data-based, precision agriculture] tools out of reach for many … we will work to address this need and help farmers remain profitable and sustainable.”16
This sets the stage for smart agriculture tools. Smart agriculture was a US$11.45 billion business in 2018 and is expected to expand to US$30 billion by 2027 with increased focus on livestock monitoring, disease recognition, farm resource consumption, efficiency, and productivity.17 Agricultural robots make up US$6.5 billion of that industry and are driving innovation in field mapping, aerial data collection, planting and seeding operations, and more.18 The rise in the use of satellite data, agricultural IoT,19 and edge computing is giving technology a life-or-death role to play in agriculture. These tools are being used for monitoring and optimizing food sources and water supply, given rising populations and the risk of climate change.20
The US government has set up a US$9 billion fund for rural 5G coverage. Of this, at least US$1 billion is expected to be reserved for 5G to quickly collect and process satellite data to support precision agriculture21 with a focus on making farmland output more bountiful and profitable,22 and enabling “smart farming” that has the potential to create more than US$10 billion in business value in the United States alone.23
Taking it to the next level, by teaming cloud-native 5G networks and edge solutions with cloud storage and computing, enterprises can advance to more distributed computing. As a result, farmers can move from using reactive networks able to analyze limited data to intelligent edge computing across IoT and artificial intelligence services as well as back-end data analytics.24
Ultimately, cloud, IoT, edge, satellites, drones, wireless, and wireline technologies can come together to enable more data processing across the network, allowing farming organizations to:
For additional resources on precision agriculture strategies and technologies, see:
The short-term promise, however, is limited and technology strategies for social good could be better served by focusing on mobility infrastructure more broadly.
Perhaps one of the most exciting, yet illusive, social impact technology use cases is the autonomous vehicle that could save thousands of lives29 by using location, health, vehicle, weather, similar data, 5G, the edge, and the cloud to create safer and smarter experiences. Yes, the long-term potential is exciting. The short-term promise, however, is limited, and technology strategies for social good could be better served by focusing on mobility infrastructure more broadly. Deloitte’s Future of Mobility research has estimated that data traffic associated with mobility and transportation could grow to 9.4 exabytes every month by 2030,30 likely making the cloud a critical component to manage this type of infrastructure.
Urban mobility and transportation infrastructure powered by a network of the cloud, IoT, the edge, and wireless/wireline technologies can help across safety, emissions, congestion, convenience, access, and equity.31 To begin to imagine the potential for carbon reduction, for example, look at what just one US city was able to accomplish by implementing “smart” traffic signals. Not only did commuter travel time reduce, but the vehicle idle time dropped by more than one-third.32 The reduced idle time is significant, given that the transportation industry is the greatest contributor to carbon emissions at 28% with light-duty vehicles (59%) and medium- and heavy-duty trucks (23%) as the biggest contributors.33 Another city implemented a cloud-based command center to analyze data and insights across mobility, construction waste, and public safety across city resources used by 1.2 million tourists annually. It reduced energy cost by 20% and operational costs by 40%. Additionally, it saved 900,000 euros (roughly US$1 million) annually for waste management and 10%–27% in terms of mobility through an electrical vehicle-charging network across bikes, kiosks, buses, etc.34
These technologies have the potential to take mobility initiatives related to sustainability and public safety to the next level. Imagine being able to:
In deciding technology-for-social-impact strategies that tap into the cloud, one consideration should be the cloud’s carbon footprint. Data centers are massive consumers of electricity—thought to currently account for 2% of total global consumption with the potential to rise to 8% by 2030.35 The technology, media, and telecom sector is facing pressure on energy efficiency and sustainability; 72% of organizations are starting to feel the pressure to demonstrate how their energy-management measures address climate-related risks, and 74% have raised their reduction targets.36
When moving to the cloud, aim for a zero-sum game that reduces the organization’s existing data center footprint. Shared cloud hardware can achieve 80%–90% improvement in energy consumption,37 raising 5%–15% hardware utilization in a physical data center to up to 80%–100% utilization in the cloud.38 This is possible when all of the hyperscalers are investing in their carbon neutral/negative strategies related to their cloud-enabled data centers and computing infrastructure. These strategies include a focus on data center energy efficiency, clean energy credits, use of recycled plastics, and more.39 For example, one cloud provider was able to reduce energy use by 40% (15% overall energy use) by using artificial intelligence to predict computational load and better manage data center cooling and performance optimization.40
5G brings with it the promise of peak data speed, ultra low-latency, improved reliability, greater network capacity, high-definition mobile video streaming, distributed information networks, and more.41 When combined with cloud, edge, and other technologies, it can provide distinct opportunities to tap into a powerful infrastructure for social good. At the heart of many of these challenges is reliable wireline and wireless internet access that is hampering, for example, the nearly 11 million people (approximately 3.3% of the US population) who live in rural and “less urban” areas42 in broadband dead zones.43 These pressing social challenges require architects44 to innovate in the real world in areas like virtual learning and work, precision agriculture, and mobility. To manage the access challenge, the US government has had several initiatives focused on rural broadband and wireless connectivity including a US$9 billion 5G fund for rural connectivity,45 a US$137 million investment to bring high-speed internet to homes and businesses over the next decade,46 and a $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Nonetheless, new technology innovations provide a range of opportunities to find the right solution for a given scenario.
The 5G and cloud combination in particular is an exciting one for its ability to deliver:
When moving to the cloud, aim for a zero-sum game that reduces the organization’s existing data center footprint.
As organizations look ahead to new, sustainable growth opportunities; inside to reconfigure and transform their operations; and around to leverage their business ecosystem,48 they should consider measuring the business value of the social impact.49 With cloud strategies, that starts with creating the business case, continues on to defining the technology strategy, and ends, hopefully, with a more sustainable business and world.
Cloud is more than a place, a journey, or a technology. It’s an opportunity to reimagine everything. It is the power to transform. It is a catalyst for continuous reinvention—and the pathway to help organizations confidently discover their possible and make it actual. Cloud is your pathway to possible.