How Business Can Harness Digital Technologies for Greater Social Impact

How Business Can Harness Digital Technologies for Greater Social Impact

In today's world, businesses are increasingly recognizing the need to enhance their social impact, instead of leaving this role to government, humanitarian organizations, and social enterprises. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sees private enterprises as key protagonists in achieving sustainable and equitable development.

In this article, we first set out why the private sector should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve these goals, and then dive into the pros and cons of the use of digital technologies to accelerate achievement, using SDG 8 as a case study.

Incorporating Social Impact into Business Mission

Social impact refers to significant positive changes that address sustainability, social injustice, and development challenges. The United Nations SDGs serve as a framework for organizations to align their social impact efforts. These goals, adopted by all 193 Member States of the UN, outline a path to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect the planet by 2030. By embracing the SDGs, organizations can shape their strategies, identify business opportunities, strengthen stakeholder relations, and contribute to the greater good. The SDGs provide a common language and shared purpose, fostering collaboration across sectors to achieve sustainable development.

Digital Technologies and their Transformative Potential

Digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data mining, simulations, blockchain, social media, and so on, hold both immense potential and dangers for achieving the SDGs. AI enables machines to learn, reason, and problem-solve, offering valuable insights and automation. Big data mining allows organizations to analyze vast datasets, uncover patterns, and make informed decisions. Simulations enable the modeling of complex systems, aiding in understanding and finding innovative solutions. Yet information, communication and technology accounts for a growing proportion of carbon emissions every year, despite increased efficiency (thanks to the Jevons paradox). Privacy and misinformation concerns, as well cost and expertise barriers provide reason for hesitation.  Yet, as the case study the range of technologies used to address decent work shows, there is sound reason to feel optimistic about the potential of these technologies for the future.

The Pros and Cons of Adopting Digital Technologies to Promote Decent Work (SDG 8)

Digital technologies, such as social media, ethical consumption apps and platforms, worker apps and platforms, blockchain, and remote sensing technologies, are increasingly adopted to promote decent work. These tools are particularly valuable for businesses with obligations under modern slavery legislation or sustainability and due diligence laws that are required to monitor, report and address working conditions in their operations and supply chains.

Social media has emerged as a powerful tool for raising awareness about worker rights and connecting individuals facing similar challenges. Additionally, social media serves as a platform for warning others about potential abuses and promoting education on labour rights. However, as is well known, social media is prone to misinformation and may not always provide reliable information. Furthermore, accessing authentic information can be challenging due to the use of aliases by workers and fear of being identified.

Ethical consumption apps and platforms have been developed to provide consumers with information about companies that address labour abuse in their operations and supply chains. However, Limoncelli (2020) argues that these apps have limitations and may not effectively curb labour exploitation. They can be based on questionable assumptions about consumerism and often prioritize entrepreneurship over addressing labour abuse. To truly influence labour laws and ensure due diligence by companies, consumer pressure alone is not sufficient. Larger buyers like state entities and big brands need to take responsibility for monitoring their value chains and undertaking thorough human rights checks prior to sourcing from suppliers to ensure they offer decent working conditions.

Worker apps and platforms have been developed to share information with workers and enable them to report working conditions. These apps serve various purposes, including rating recruiters and employers, facilitating access to conflict resolution and compensation, providing information to workers, and supporting communication among workers. While these apps can help detect instances of labour abuse, they face challenges in terms of data quality, integration with corporate systems, and potential risks to workers' privacy and safety. It is crucial for organizations to ensure that workers benefit from using these apps, protect workers' privacy, and involve them in the design and implementation of these systems.

Blockchain technology, with its secure and privacy-enhancing features, also has potential as a tool to address labour exploitation. It has been examined in sectors like fashion to reduce labour abuse and ensure the integrity of worker contracts. Blockchain can play a role in identifying irregularities in working hours and ensuring the security and integrity of worker contracts. However, addressing labour abuse requires more than just technical solutions. Social and economic dynamics contributing to worker abuse must also be tackled.

Remote sensing technologies, including CCTV, satellites, and geo-tracking, have been used to detect labour abuse in various contexts. Remote sensing, combined with on-the-ground surveillance, has been applied to identify modern slavery in the fishing industry. However, privacy and data protection concerns arise with the use of these technologies. Victims of labour trafficking should not be treated as powerless individuals whose data can be collected and stored without considering their rights and well-being. The use of drones, in particular, raises significant privacy concerns and may further harm victims.


In conclusion, digital technologies have made significant contributions to addressing labour abuse. Social media provides a platform for awareness-raising and support among workers. Ethical consumption apps and platforms can inform consumers about responsible companies. Worker apps and platforms facilitate communication and reporting of labour abuse. Blockchain technology ensures the integrity of contracts and transactions. Remote sensing technologies aid in detecting labour abuse. However, these technologies come with limitations and challenges that need to be addressed. It is crucial to involve workers, protect their privacy, and consider the wider social and economic dynamics to effectively combat labour exploitation.

Overall, then, digital technologies have the potential to address the United Nations SDGs and accelerate social impact. By leveraging and combining technologies, organizations can drive innovation, improve efficiency, and create sustainable solutions to global challenges.

Learn more in our Online Short Course

For those interested in learning more, check out our FutureLearn course: ‘Advancing Social Impact with Digital Technologies’.  The course equips individuals and organizations with the knowledge and tools to understand the role of digital technologies in achieving the SDGs. The course is case study based, allowing you to learn about the potential of digital technologies to address each of the SDGs in turn by studying practical examples. As more businesses and organizations embrace digital technologies in a way that prioritizes social impact, we can move closer to realizing a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future for all.


All images for this blog were generated with Dall-e AI. 


Professsor Shelley Marshall

28 July 2023


28 July 2023


Related News

aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.