Yesterday, we posted a blog from Cassie Robinson at Tech For Good on the ways in which we can use technology to find solutions to social problems.
In this second post Cassie explores the more fundamental issues around what ‘good’ and ‘good tech’ are. For example, who is tech aimed at, and how do they use it? What is its purpose? And is it useful?
What does it mean to use technology for good? What is “good” technology? These are questions that we consider often at Tech For Good Global and we haven’t settled on one answer. We think it’s important to continually ask these questions so that we can keep a critical eye on this growing field whilst also championing and connecting it.
As highlighted in our previous post, tech is doing good in many ways. It can help to redistribute power, give agency to people, help people make more informed decisions, create ways for people to connect, participate, address health or care needs and save energy. It can make life saving information and resources more discoverable, data can change a story about an issue and the culture that is developed around making technology can help to transition whole institutions.
We think that all sounds brilliant and hopeful and yet we know there are often other sides to those stories or unintended consequences created by new technologies or existing technologies being applied in new contexts . We’ve created some principles at Tech For Good Global that we use as a set of live questions and filters and with a community of organisations like Doteveryone, Nesta CAST and Bethnal Green Ventures, alongside us, we hope to keep evolving these. We’ll go through these principles below, but first of all, here is an overview of what we include in “tech for good”. We have given examples of organisations that are doing things in those defined communities but we do know that there are many more. We know there are also other ways to segment things, into issues for example, like health, ageing etc or practices like social investing, open source and placemaking. The main purpose of this is just to show the broad way we think about “tech for good” at Tech For Good Global and give an indication of all the ways in which we are trying to connect the dots and help build the field.
Onto the principles as they currently stand:
1) Tech for who? Is it for the 99% and not just the 1%? Is the technology accessible and useable by the many, or does it only really benefit an already privileged segment of society? Maybe the first user group are the people who can afford the technology and this is a necessary focus to build something sustainable but if this is the case we want to see a long-term strategy publicly shared that commits to making it work for the many.
2) Has it been designed to address an issue or need? Or maybe to instill a sense of wonder and awe? We don’t need more crap in this world, more stuff, more consumption so we are always keen to tell stories of technology that is being applied to a social problem or real human need. That being said, we also know joy, awe and wonder are all important so we don’t only want to feature stories about “austerity” tech. We just really aren’t fans of technology that perpetuates the same consumerist behaviours as if the world around us can cope with that.
3) Does it give power and agency to people? In our experience, just because you are in a ‘good’ sector doing tech doesn’t mean that you are making ‘tech for good’. For example, a tech platform that makes it easier for charities to collect more money is not inherently tech for good, in certain scenarios it’s settling for an imbalance of power, not giving people what they need to help themselves. But what about technologies that mean the charity needs less money in the first place because the tech helps create solutions. We think that is totally tech for good: technology that ties in with social structures, or needs, to change the status quo. We believe in technology that transforms, not entrenches.
4) It doesn’t have to be about scale, but it does need to be bold. You might be being bold by keeping something small and simple or by deepening the work in one place rather than looking to spread it.
5) In the same way that it doesn’t need to be about scale, it also doesn’t have to be about the “new”. Some of the best tech for good examples are existing tools and platforms just being used in new contexts or as simple solutions to real user needs.
6) How is it made? What is the provenance of it? We don’t expect everyone to be where Fairphone are at, but we do like to feel that people are aware of the provenance of their products and are constantly working to improve things.
7) Have you thought about assisted digital needs? Does your tech for good product/service work for people who have assisted digital needs? or do you have an assisted digital policy in place? We love this post by Laura James at Doteveryone about designing for the furthest first.
8) Do the founders and team add to the ‘good’? Are the ‘good’ principles reflected throughout the team behind the tech for good, including any investors? Are your activities as transparent as possible?
9) Are the people who created it aware of any unintended consequences? Putting something new out into the world often has ripple effects and we love to see and hear about people’s awareness and ability to critique this. Do you communicate the way your technology will have an impact?
10) We want to bring to life ‘tech for good’ in the broadest sense, from institutions to start-ups to charities. But we always have a special focus on telling stories from the user perspective, rather than just the founder or the technology.
We are currently thinking about how we add in principles about security and privacy without starting to sound like one of the “mitigators” and also how we champion open source (which we really believe in) and yet recognise that there are organisations we love, who are doing great work, but haven’t found a business model yet that means they can be fully open and still survive. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these.