The evolution of ‘tech for good’

Cassie Robinson.
Jan 19 · 7 min read

Tonight I was meant to be presenting at the London Tech For Good meetup (now an incredible 8000 members strong), but due to train delays from Newcastle (where a single return journey cost £140) I didn’t get back in time.

So this is my talk, because I promised Dama and Ellie that I would write it up and it’s the least I can do for my no show to the audience — I hate letting people down!

They asked me to talk about the evolution of tech for good and the opportunities for it now. I always talk about the tech for good community in the UK being seeded by Social Innovation Camp back in 2008.

Civic tech at that time was (I think but may be wrong) much more focussed on government, governance and democratic processes – not so much wider society and its challenges (mental health, education, ageing, poverty, inequality, social isolation, the justice system, the environment etc.)

Covering many of those themes above, the Social Innovation Camp community had a clear intention then of bringing together those with knowledge and lived experience of a social challenge with those who understood, designed and built technology. How could technology be in service of society and how can the problem definition and problem solving be led by those living it or working in it. It was never led by technology.

Anna Maybank’s slides from 2009 — https://www.slideshare.net/osimod/anna-maybank-social-innovation-camp

It always felt like a good foundation for a fledging community. Clear social purpose, strong values and considered practices (human-centred, co-designed, tech in service of, awareness of context etc.)

Whilst it’s a good thing that “tech for good” as a community has continued to grow Internationally, it’s a shame there hasn’t been more awareness of the difference in its foundations. It’s unhelpful when the UK community and the Silicon Valley community get lumped together. Not only have they been built on very different foundations (values), the UK is also miles ahead of them. It’s amazing that an article in Forbes asking where the ethical tech is and featuring a BGV alumni from 2013, is a news story for them in late 2018. Similarly at the end of last year, FastCompany published an article saying that to build tech for good you needed to understand people’s needs first. This was at the heart of tech for good practice here in the UK back in 2008.

I point out these things partly from frustration because I wonder where we’d be now as a community (a movement even) had we been better at the Comms and PR 10 years ago. I have to remember though that we were up against the silicon roundabout crew, who living in David Cameron’s pocket at the time, were talking loudly and full of testosterone about tech, entrepreneurship, growth and the market. Of course this got much more airtime and money than we did. Never mind about public institutions and public value, social purpose and social justice eh?

Last year it was good to see ‘tech for good’ finally become a central part of the governments new Civil Society Strategy — “building a future that works for everyone” — something that I’m not sure the Silicon Roundabout community ever had in mind.

So what is (was) tech for good?

For the last 6 or 7 years we used the image below to show all that was encompassed by ‘tech for good’ as well as this set of principles. It’s not something there is general consensus over but I think the term and concept of ‘tech for good’ is at least much easier to grasp than some of the other labels. I wrote a much longer post about all this and don’t want to repeat myself. Alongside this post about what tech can afford.

And there are lots of great examples. Ventures like Fairphone, Andiamo and Piclo. New health services like Talk Life and DrDoctor. Charities spinning out or incubating a range of new ‘tech for good’ products and services. New-ish communities like Peace Tech, DataKind and Responsible Data and much older ones like Civic Hall, through to new kinds of institutions and forms of advocacy like Organise HQ and Keep it in the Community. There are at least 100 other examples here and 1000 or more from across Europe here.

Before thinking about the next iteration of ‘tech for good’ it’s worth acknowledging some of what’s not gone so well. This was a blog that the community was going to write together last December, but we didn’t get around to it. We discussed various things from the lack of diversity in the tech for good community, the solution-ism of the approach and the lack of a systemic view.

The next iteration?

There is now a newer movement in the US that we can align with – “public interest tech”, described below by Bruce Schneier who has also created this great set of resources and being championed by the Ford Foundation. And the brilliant Tech For Social Justice community. The foundations that underpin both of these initiatives feel much more aligned in terms of values than anything coming out of the US previously.

In the UK, the ‘implications of technology’ chat has brought together the UK-focussed tech for good community with organisations like the Engine Room , who because of their international context have been thinking about the implications of technology far longer. I’m excited by the collaborations now happening between the Engine Room, CAST and Doteveryone.

On the left is the Ford Foundations Public Interest Tech programme and on the right how Bruce Schneier describes it.

A path for people to use their technology skills to change the world for the better: public interest technology is just what it sounds like — technology used to serve the public good.

Because 2018 really was the year of tech for bad and there was a realisation that technologies change at speed and are changing our society at speed, conversations about the applications of technology became inextricably linked with the implications of technology.

The tech for good community started paying attention to how tech is created as well as how it is used and the purpose it has.

And some of the digital practices most commonly associated with tech for good, like user-centred design and co-design are also getting an overhaul.

Tech for good is still very much about actively doing “good” rather than just doing no harm. I wonder if there’s much authenticity in embedding social values into how you build your tech if the purpose of the overall business isn’t about creating social or public value too? I’m not sure we need more private gain in the world.

There are some brilliant initiatives rising up that represent the combination of how we both apply tech for social change (see Paul Miller’s post about how he thinks tech for good can be applied in 2019) as well as foresee its implications. Data For Black Lives and the Algorithmic Justice League are good examples of this.

Personally, I’ve been using the model I wrote about here and shown in the image below to think about where work in tech and digital fits in. If we care about society being fair, just and equitable then it’s about the maintaining, the sustaining, the transitioning, the inventing & innovating, and the anticipation of its consequences.

Two Loops model on the left and on the right, my attempt to segment the kind of work being done in “tech for good.”

Are you helping the dominant system be more responsible with their tech? Are you helping organisations transition to be fit for purpose in a digital society (like Strand 1 of the Big Lottery Fund’s Digital Fund), are you building new alternatives like the Platform Co-ops movement? I’m interested in where the organisations working in public interest tech or tech for good would plot themselves on this — what is their purpose?

Cassie Robinson.

Written by

Head of Digital Grant Making at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.