The UK can lead the ‘Society Tech’ revolution

'Helping less advantaged regions become innovative ecosystems'

Since 2006, the move towards net zero within the financial services space has broadened to 450 companies from 45 countries, representing a combined £90trn.  

Now, it is time to address the ‘S’ in ESG.  How can we apply innovative technology to solve challenges in life expectancy, shelter, resilience, nutrition, purpose, inequities, or urban decay? What business models help us to achieve impact at global scale?

The term ‘Society Tech’ can be used to describe the systematic application of technology, finance, and entrepreneurial energy to solving social problems at scale. Society Tech addresses 40% of global GDP, roughly £23trn a year. It includes healthy ageing and care, future of work and learning, affordable housing and finance, and accessible transport.  

How do we help the 15 million people in the UK with care needs? One approach is to match them with the over 25 million people in the UK that want to volunteer. This is the challenge that British start-up onHand solves via a mobile app. There is no commercial exchange between volunteer and care-recipient, but onHand makes money from employers, who recognise that employees who volunteer become happier and more productive. Volunteers in the UK contributed time worth £20bn in 2021. Could a British volunteering company become valuable? Canadian volunteering firm Benevity is already a ‘Unicorn’, valued above $1bn, suggesting the potential is there.

Britain has a world-class urban regeneration sector, with iconic projects such as London’s King’s Cross. Regeneration of cities and towns is at the heart of environmental, social, and economic progress. The UK can turn British cities into hundreds of ‘talent magnets’, places that excel at attracting, growing, and retaining talent of all types. The UK could then export its regeneration capabilities globally. With residential real estate worth £8trn in the UK and £232trn globally there is potential to create waves of Unicorn-scale firms.

With remote work and fibre enabling highly compensated employment almost anywhere, Society Tech should reach deep into the UK’s 7,000 cities, towns, and villages. The 164 higher-education institutions in the UK can cornerstone local ‘Living Labs’.

Other societal models anchored in Europe and with potential to scale globally include Dutch expertise in providing care, rewilding, bike-centric ecosystems, and flood management, or Spanish capability in fibre, infrastructure, wellness, and the Mediterranean lifestyle. British finance could work with European centres of excellence to form additional Society Tech clusters, using London as a global launch pad. 

Fintech could offer a useful template. Whereas in 2012 UK fintech investment was £140m a year, last year it passed £8bn. The UK fintech sector was valued collectively in 2021 at £242bn, with 33 Unicorns.

How big an effort would it be for the UK to similarly scale up Society Tech? It takes 100 start-ups to create a Unicorn.  For a goal of 30 UK Society Tech Unicorns, we need 3,000 start-ups, and over £15bn in venture capital investment. This is over 20 times the £670m invested in venture impact investments in the UK in 2020.

Through the ‘S’ in ESG, the UK can create another powerful venture-capital vertical, focused on solving high impact social problems. We can help less advantaged regions become innovation ecosystems comparable to the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle. We can partner with colleagues in Europe and become a jumping point for globalization. We can ultimately incubate a future wave of FTSE 100 companies.