How Business Can Guide Technological Progress

Dean Jon Levin writes about the business opportunities and responsibilities that come with technological advancement for Stanford Business magazine.

April 18, 2022

Last September, I was appointed to President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. When PCAST was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, it was focused on helping the country recover from the Great Depression. Today’s focus is on how science and technology can create solutions to address economic prosperity, national security, public health, and climate change. Or, in the words of President Biden: “What next? How can we make the impossible possible?”

At Stanford GSB, we are asking the same questions — and technology plays an undeniable role in answering them.

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Business has a greater opportunity to develop and deploy technology to improve people’s lives and a greater responsibility to mitigate its potential harms.

Today, we are experiencing a revolution in data and computation, new communication technologies whose adoption accelerated during the pandemic, and potential breakthroughs in biomedicine and clean energy. These advances can transform lives around the world. They also come with risks: the potential to exacerbate societal inequities, displace workers, or degrade human and political interactions.

A key insight of modern economics is that the direction of technological change is a societal choice. We often think of this choice as one of policy; indeed, for many years after WWII, the federal government controlled the majority of national R&D spending. Today, business accounts for almost three-quarters of national R&D. As such, business has a greater opportunity to develop and deploy technology to improve people’s lives and a greater responsibility to mitigate its potential harms.

In an era where business decisions drive technology, the GSB’s leadership hinges on the research of our faculty, the way we teach students, and the impact of our alumni. Our strategy emphasizes preparing students to shape and guide technology responsibly, enabling our faculty to translate their ideas into practice, and collaborating across Stanford to marry the university’s technical and scientific expertise with GSB management, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

A few examples illustrate some of the exciting activity going on at the GSB. In 2019, we started the Golub Capital Social Impact Lab to improve the effectiveness of social sector organizations through technology and social science research. Professor Susan Athey, the lab’s director, has led teams working on charitable giving, healthcare, education, and financial inclusion. This spring, she is teaching these methods in Designing Experiments for Impact, part of the GSB’s Action Learning Program.

Paulo Somaini, an associate professor of economics, recently proposed revisions to the methods used to allocate donated kidneys that could significantly shorten waitlists. Professor Gabriel Weintraub, who teaches Data Science for Platforms, helped Chile design its COVID public-health policies. And Associate Professor Daniela Saban, who teaches our core class on optimization and modeling, has partnered with companies to improve their market designs. She recently helped a major dating platform increase matches by 30% — a great example of technology for good.

Last month, in the GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Startup Garage students presented technology-based solutions for everything from postpartum depression to the speed of clinical trials and methane emissions management for farmers. The intersection of healthcare and technology is a particularly active area. We are also seeing cross-disciplinary teams in areas ranging from biotech to workplace inclusion and sustainability.

A cross-disciplinary approach is especially important when it comes to incorporating ethics and social responsibility into applications of technology. Faculty members Neil Malhotra, Greg Martin, and Ken Shotts, who teach our Leading with Values core class, increasingly incorporate technology into case studies. We have been partnering on faculty research, courses, and executive programs with the new Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, which seeks to bring ethics into frontier applications of data and computation.

At a recent PCAST meeting, President Biden urged us to “imagine the future and to figure out how to make it real and improve the lives of the American people and people around the world.” His words capture what we hope for at the GSB, what we strive to accomplish in supporting our students and faculty, and what we can bring to the world.

This letter from the dean was published in Stanford Business magazine in April 2022.

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