This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Tech4Good. Would love to know what you think — and follow me to get updates about the next installments!
Technology…the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it. — Max Frisch
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to Tech4Good projects. If there were, we wouldn’t need guides like this one 🤓. There are many challenges to face, and many barriers to overcome Helpfully, there are a number of project guides, process checklists, and tools out there to get you started in specific Tech4Good-related areas.
Three Tech4Good Challenges
We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. — Douglas Adams
Working in the Tech4Good space can be a complicated, confusing, sprawling endeavor, with many opportunities for misplaced priorities, misunderstood contexts, and bad actors to derail the best intended programs. What’s more — the challenges of working in this space are often difficult to diagnose and can be even more difficult to root out.
These are a few of the concepts that have been helpful in articulating some of the more common challenges in Tech4Good-related projects.
1. Framing of the Problem
Perhaps the most pervasive problem in Tech4Good — is this a problem that necessitates a tech solution, or rather a tech solution in search of a problem? The Tech4Good landscape is littered with tech-solutionism examples, where a single “silver bullet” is poised to be applicable across any/all long-standing challenges. Examples include telecenters, mobile phones, laptops, blockchain, and now AI and Machine Learning.
Beyond the technologies themselves, the *framing of the problem *is challenging depending on *who *is doing the framing. Challenges are rarely solved when the solution relies on the expertise of a benevolent outsider, importing (or “parachuting in” for a short period) to render their assistance and quickly move-on. What’s more, there are cultural sensitivities that often get under-prioritized or even ignored — leading to situations ripe for exploitation of one form or another, even with the initial conditions set with the best of intentions.
2. Hype Cycles
The Hype Cycle is the experience we have with a new technology where at first it generates incredible enthusiasm as a solution to problems, followed in turn by disillusionment when it doesn’t solve those problems, and finally over time normalizes to a moderated but not unrealistic potential opportunity.
This concept is great for understanding how to interpret enthusiasm for a new tech trend without being a wet blanket (blockchain, 3D printing, drones), but also on how/when to start appreciating the sustained use and maturity too (SMS, mobile apps, etc.).
The challenge in Tech4Good is not simply to recognize that the Hype Cycle exists in the minds of stakeholders, beneficiaries, and teammates — but to also be allergic to the hype itself.
The task of the Tech4Good professional is to use that interest and investment in a new technology or idea and to be able to move as effectively as possible to a more realistic and productive phase of development alongside partners in a way that allows for local and national organizations to build out their own capacity in their own fashion.
3. Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost is essentially the value of opportunities not taken when at a fork in the road. Borrowing from the world of economics, I have found opportunity cost to be incredibly helpful as an explanatory concept in a variety of settings: from the attendance numbers of a nutrition training by new mothers to the slower growth of smartphone adoption around the world.
It’s helpful when thinking through the cost-benefit of decision-making and why we make decisions in the way that we do.
For example, though our nutrition training may have been free and even provided a phone credit stipend, it was not greater than the opportunity cost of finding someone to watch your other children or take time off of work.
It’s not enough that something is beneficial on its own — it has to be beneficial compared to other possible opportunities not taken, and that can often be much more challenging to be assured of.
Six Concepts for Doing Tech4Good
There are a number of general principles to keep in mind when planning, consulting, carrying out, and sustaining projects in the field. These principles essentially revolve around thinking of people first, of listening and doing everything you can to understand your environment, of not leading with technology first, and of understanding the impact of any tech-related intervention.
1. People Come First
This is the mantra of Tech4Good, and for good reason. It’s incredibly easy to forget that solutions ought to be designed around individuals (and ideally by those individuals), and that the technology exists to serve human-centered outcomes. It has needed to become a mantra because so often while project objectives remain good and true, it is easy to lose focus on the people-centered aspect of a project and resort to technical problem-solving.
It’s helpful to remember that ICTs don’t in and of themselves generate value — it’s the people using information, making decisions in marketplaces, benefitting from actual services where the value is created.
It’s always back to the people.
It’s important to remember, as well, that the core objectives of the field worker don’t change with modern technologies. The work continues in empowering people to make a difference in their own lives for themselves and their communities.
2. Know the _ (Context, User, Product, etc.)
This is where tech4good-professional-as-anthropologist kicks into high gear. More than understanding the technology, it’s important to observe and understand local context, power structures, information and communication practices.
Allow yourself to start with a clear understanding of the information ecosystem in a given place and its constraints. How is information — broadly defined — produced, valued, exchanged and consumed in a given context? How do various cultural, class, gender, age, linguistic, economic characteristics of an environment influence how people use information?
But none of this comes without listening, without understanding, and without knowing what’s happened, what’s happening, and what could happen.
3. Don’t Lead with Technology
Don’t lead with technology — instead, lead with needs.
One of the first mistakes we often make, and that derails us from a people-centered approach, is by focusing on the technology solution first, and then inserting that “solutionism” round peg into the square hole of the problem. Tsk tsk.
One helpful way to avoid this is by giving yourself the exercise of defining the problem and its terms without invoking technology.
By defining the problem without technology, you’re ensuring that it doesn’t get tangled up as the “end”, and stays rightfully in the space of being a means to an end.
It should never be about the technology. Technology isn’t the thing, it’s the thing that allows you to do the thing.
4. Sometimes — Be a Wet Blanket
One of the challenges when working in Tech4Good is that the Tech4Good professional has the burden of being realistic about the limitations of technological innovation. This realism may run counter to the enthusiasm for tech solutions that are held by project stakeholders, and beneficiaries of the intervention.
It’s a nuanced role, because you’re often expected to be the cheerleader for technological innovation, but you’re also expected to balance that role with narrowing considerations around data privacy, security, sustainability, local investment and value-add, digital divide, etc.
What’s more — it’s not always sexy! You might very well know that the most effective technological innovation is going to be sending SMS messages on a regular basis. Not even on a fancy centralized tech platform, but literally a process in place for a manager to send and receive texts. It’s not going to win awards, but it might be the best solution. And in these cases, sometimes it’s hard to argue for simple solutions that work over hyped examples that taking up all the space in headlines like AI, drones, and blockchain.
So yes, you might be the wet blanket of the group that highlights the limitations of an approach or investment as opposed to an unmitigated cheerleader. But it’s ok — you have to sometimes be that wet blanket! It’s part of the job, even if it’s sometimes misunderstood.
5. Use Principles Where Available
I’m a fan of checklists in Tech4Good. They can be great reminders, and helpful building blocks with teams to ensure a common vocabulary.
One of the better launching pads for checklists in Tech4Good to come along recently are the Digital Principles of Development (digitalprinciples.org) from the Digital Impact Alliance. While the nine principles themselves are fairly straightforward, the resources, organizations, and case studies that they point to are invaluable as a starting point and a great checkpoint to refer back to:
Design with the user
Understand the existing ecosystem
Design for scale
Build for sustainability
Be data driven
Use open standards, open data, open source and open innovation
Reuse and improve
Address privacy & security
A second set of principles that I’ve found to be quite useful when working with organizations are the Digital Investment Principles for Global Health (digitalinvestmentprinciples.org). These serve at a little higher level of abstraction than the digital principles of development, but are equally useful for organizations looking for a checklist and framework to guide their activities in Tech4Good.
6. Technology is (only) an Amplifier
“It is better to teach one idea to hundreds of people rather than hundreds of ideas to one person.” — Two Ears of Corn
The mere fact that a technological innovation exists and is potentially ‘available’ in not in itself a guarantee of being on a path towards economic and social growth.
We often hear stories about the ways in which access to the Internet and mobile communications can be life-changing, but there are a great number of stories where technological innovation has a negative impact.
Remember that technology is not in itself a magic bullet in development — that it’s neither good nor bad (nor neutral!), and that at the end of the day, it can only amplify existing intent.
Use that knowledge accordingly, and amplify the technology in the service of doing good in the world.