How tech, big and small, may be saving the planet after all

Much is said – including here – about tech’s negative impact on society. But what if, whilst GAFAM’s greenwashing continues, thousands of smaller enterprises – and even some of the biggest ones – were working to literally make the world better, with tech?

This was our takeaway from changeNOW, the third edition of an ecology-focused conference which this year managed to fill Paris’ grandiose Grand Palais, principally with startups and associations set on using tech to help climate change, conservation, water quality, recycling and more.

The trend even seems so strong that TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher remarked: “20 years ago, an event like this would’ve been filled with hippies; now, it’s full of startups!” Indeed, Tech for Good France, an association exhibiting at changeNOW, says 500+ tech for good startups are currently active in France alone.

alexandre anima

So much so that, as Anima’s Alexandre Cadain (above) said, “there is competition in the ‘for good’ community“, with startups clearly trying to ‘out-good’ each other with cleverer planet-saving ideas than the last guys. Furthermore, “AI is used as a competitive lever” in this jostling, added Cadain. And examples were rife at changeNOW:

  • Anima uses it, in conjunction with the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), to observe and analyse satellite images so that natural disasters can be anticipated and potentially avoided
  • Microsoft – the only GAFAM company present at changeNOW – has a $50m fund called AI for Earth, which benefits ONGs like:
    • OceanMind, which uses AI to detect illegal fishing
    • Wild Mind, an image directory of endangered species which can use AI to detect YouTube videos of animals like whale sharks, notably to ask their publishers for research money
    • Clean Water AI, which uses edge technology to load mobile microscopes with the algorithms necessary to detect dirty water
  • Healthcare is already massively benefitting from AI, as a panel with the OECD‘s Karine Perset and Stéphane Guinet of Kamet Ventures explained. Whilst the latter has put millions of cancer cases through AI analysis in order to improve humans’ current 17% detection error rate, the former has noted that one particular AI is currently developing treatments for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

mike panel sun

But it’s not just about AI, of course. From pitching startups (above) to exhibiting companies from all sectors, there were also somewhat more traditional – but none less effective – attempts to change mentalities on display at changeNOW:

  • Microsoft is not just counting on AI to save the planet; it’s also trying to set an example to its fellow tech giants. It’s pledged to go carbon negative by 2030 (it claims to have been carbon neutral since 2012), and to rely only on sustainable energy sources by 2025. I.e. tomorrow…
  • Tech for Good France has obtained a meeting with the French government to encourage its financial support for startups to be more reponsibility-focused 
  • Climathon is essentially a green TED; a franchise of conferences that unite startups, citizens and local authorities around the challenge of making their cities greener. The number of conferences organised worldwide has doubled to 250 this year, founder Niels Rot told us; proof if proof be need be that “tech applied to solving climate change is becoming a business” 
  • Back Market, a booming French startup currently expanding throughout Europe – it just opened in the UK – is a marketplace for reconditioned (repaired) gadgets, principally smartphones. Launched two years ago, its buyback service, where you trade in a used smartphone for a slightly less used one, has never been growing faster, the company told us. Could we finally putting our attraction for shiny new toys behind us? 

I hope we’ll never have to talk about ‘for good’ one day, because ‘for bad’ will no longer exist“, said an optimistic Cadain onstage at changeNOW. We too would like to believe in the idea of tech doing no bad one day. One day…

PS: This was BT’s first official press accreditation. Onwards and upwards! & thx to event PR Joanna Kirk 👍🏻

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