How creative-tech can become a catalyst for change

Where there’s discussion about tech, one question inevitably arises: how can tech improve our lives on a very human level? As creative-tech develops, there are a number of entrepreneurs rising to the challenge of creating deeply meaningful products, services and experiences.

Speaking about themes including empathy, charity and education, the presenters at this year’s Creative3 Forum showed us how creative-tech business models can facilitate positive change.

Empathy, Anna Reeves argued as she opened the conference, is one of the most valuable resources we have. Despite its intangible nature, scientists have found that our capacity to show empathy is rapidly declining – a trend President Obama refers to as the ‘empathy deficit’.

Interested in finding out not only why this is happening, but also how we can reverse the trend, Anna is involved in virtual reality (VR) research and is also making the Stand in My Shoes documentary. So far production of the film has shown that due its immersive nature, VR has a profound impact on users.

“VR processes this world entirely differently to screen mediums – your mind actually presses it as a memory,” she explained. “That means the more immersive the world created, the more likely the message is to reach parts of your brain that have not been reached before.”

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To do this, she created a film in which the audience experienced the world in the body of a disabled woman. The 40 people who took part in the experiment felt utterly transformed and experienced immediate empathy for the woman. Anna also pointed to a case study from Alzheimer’s Research UK, where a VR app not only improved empathy for caregivers of patients with dementia, it also prompted memory recall in some patients.

While Anna’s research is ongoing, already it points to completely new ways of using tech to reconnect with and understand our fellow humans.

Thankfully, our empathy levels are not completely depleted, and nor is our innate sense of goodwill. Recognising this, Roger Ein recently launched Bidchat – a live streaming platform that has been described as “a celebrity telethon for the iPhone generation”. It works like this: celebrities, experts and influencers host live streaming sessions on anything from make-up tutorials to social awareness talks and comedy. Users can watch for free or bid to join the stream and chat with the host in real time. After each live stream, a portion of the proceeds from each bid is donated to charity.

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The platform has only been live for a couple of weeks, but already fundraising events and streams on issues such as the election have been held, in spaces including will.i.am’s studio. Actors Charlie and Max Carver have been part of the launch and they joined us to talk about their experiences using Bidchat for the cystic fibrosis #Howl4ACure campaign.

“It was like in some small way we have helped harness the power of social media towards the greater good,” they said. “For us as actors, it seems like a next-generation fundraising and awareness tool.”

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Charity-centric streams are part of a diverse content mix, with additional live streams in areas such as wellness, make-up and comedy ensuring the platform remains relevant to its audience. Monetising digital content is one of the greatest challenges in the online space, but Bidchat has successfully tapped into the idea that when consumers spend, they’re drawn to businesses that distribute profits to social causes.

Outside of the digital realm, creative-tech entrepreneurs are also looking for new ways to design products with positive outcomes for users and the wider community. As the founder of Shark Mitigation Systems, Hamish Jolly develops non-invasive shark deterrent technology. “Being attacked by a shark is very unlikely,” he said. “But the impact on the community is profound.”

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So far he has been involved in the development of a shark-deterrent wetsuit as well as the Clever Buoy – a near-shore shark detection and warning system that uses sonar technology and satellite communication to alert lifeguards when a shark is approaching a public beach – and the Seabin Project designed to clean up our oceans.

“The great ideas actually come when you connect,” Hamish said. “Cross-discipline opens new ideas.” The development of these products has been the result of collaboration with universities, researchers and large corporations willing to fund projects. Without this collaboration, Hamish believes many of his ideas simply wouldn’t have come to fruition.

Like Hamish, Bethany Koby from Technology Will Save Us also develops products for positive social outcomes, focusing on the future of education.

“There is this bazaar relationship we have with tech,” she said. “We are really good at using it but not at producing it. It’s sealed and it’s designed for us not to interact with it, and so we don’t really understand it.”

In response to this, she creates games, kits and wearables that encourage kids to learn how tech works. By building, coding and playing, children start to develop new skills while also indulging their young imaginations.

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Through her journey, Bethany has learned that you must stay true to your mission. Refusing to change the gender-neutral design of her products to satisfy retailers, Technology Will Save Us prefers to focus on educational outcomes for children. “The biggest thing for us is – does it make the experience better for the user?” she said of the design and testing process. “There is nothing like an 8-year-old telling you something is stupid.”

In doing so, Bethany hopes to better prepare children for the future – one where 65% of available jobs currently don’t exist. Her persistence is now paying off, with many retailers including Australia’s Myer jumping on board to sell the mind-expanding gadgets.

Together Anna, Roger, Hamish and Bethany represent a small cross-section of a much larger cohort of creative-tech entrepreneurs invested in using tech as a driver of change. Their talks and business models show us what’s possible, but that’s not to say being an entrepreneurial change-maker is easy.

Creative-tech startups face a number of challenges including funding, scaling and monetisation. In the face of these issues, however, our speakers proved what can happen when an idea for change is placed in the hands of a willing entrepreneur. If they are anything to go by, the future of creative-tech is looking very bright.

To learn more from the presenters of the 2016 Creative3  Forum, see our wrap-up of highlights including investment strategy, scaling a company and the future of video.