A Careful Industries update
This is not so much a weeknote as a “two-year note” — an attempt to pull together the different strands of work we’re doing at Careful Industries and our (very new) not-for-profit arm, Promising Trouble and explain why we’re doing it. Like everyone always says, we’re working on our website, but I’ve scattered links to some of our projects through this post.
How we got here
I set-up Careful Industries (by which I mean I bought the domain name and did the paperwork at Companies House) two years ago last week. And while, in some ways, pandemic life has changed the world utterly since then, the bee I had in my bonnet then, as now, was that I wanted to explore a more careful, collective approach to innovation.
I’d resigned from my job running Doteveryone in the spring of 2019 and, although I didn’t actually formally exit the building until December that year, throughout the summer I had one foot in Doteveryone and the other outside, thinking about what to do next and working on the first draft of a book that I still haven’t finished.
I’d done policy work before Doteveryone, but only odds and ends; really, my experience was in R&D and prototyping, in showing what might come next. I’m still very proud of the work we did at Doteveryone exploring what the future of digital regulation, health, care, and the technology industry might look like, but fitting in and funding that kind of work was always really challenging. The reality of working in a live policy area like technology and innovation is that you have very little time to spend working out what could happen next, partly because you’re always analysing proposed and ongoing government policies and programmes and trying to stop or divert their worst effects.
One of the challenges of Doteveryone is that we were always doing too many different things — but there was a good reason for that: we wanted to show that everything was connected. There are lots of great digital policy organisations with a laser-like focus on issues such as responsible data, privacy, security, child safety, and — increasingly — AI, but not so many that were exploring how it all fitted together. Our perspective was that no one action was enough: legislation was to be welcomed, but in reality much of the law comes after the fact, when the unspoken rules have already been broken — and we felt there was much to be gained by technology businesses being better behaved, and that the broader public should have a say in shaping what a functioning digital society could look like.
I still believe that the social contract for the digital society can’t be written by businesses and governments alone, but in 2019 I was feeling frustrated with the existing mechanisms for public involvement and understanding sentiment, in particular their capture by technology companies like Deep Mind. I have an almost allergic reaction to the phrase “the art of the possible” (honestly, have you ever been in a productive meeting where someone has used that phrase?), but one of the things that concerned me then and worries me now was who gets to ask the public what they think and who gets to choose what they ask?
In the digital policy world, the “art of the possible” is often just a pencil sketch on the back of a Big Four consultancy report, and the truisms buried inside those reports quickly became dogma, without anyone really questioning who had commissioned that work and why, or who it represents. One of the reasons I left the think-tank world is because it’s really tiring to be frequently wheeled in as the dissenting voice, often for “balance” — particularly when that takes away time from making something new and different.
So, to cut a long and waffley story slightly shorter, when I registered the domain in July 2019, I wasn’t sure exactly what we would do, but I knew I wanted it to be careful, productive, and collective. And I knew I wanted to do it slowly.
What we’re doing now
Two years later, Careful Industries is now five people, with a growing network of freelancers and associates. Working with curious, talented, caring people is loads of fun, and I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to be part of building such a brilliant new team.
As well as working with corporate clients, helping companies to develop more imaginative strategies and better ethical practices, we also run research and prototyping projects that explore what collective, community-driven innovation really looks like. Some of our current projects include research into how community businesses can make and own the technology they need; the development of a foresight observatory for civil society; and a design lab for seven small and emerging charities and social enterprises.
I bootstrapped our initial growth through doing consulting work, and a limited company structure means that we can charge our corporate clients competitive prices and use that money to subsidise other things. I learnt at Doteveryone that businesses don’t like giving money to charities unless they get name recognition, and that it’s almost impossible to run a sustainable organisation while constantly negotiating over a thousand pounds here or there or the placement of a logo for an idea that would be worth ten or twenty times more if it came from a consulting firm. Our work is rigorous, original, and transformative, and it is worth the market rate. If you’d like to work with us, get in touch :-)
Meanwhile, our new not-for-profit arm Promising Trouble is the place for us to start prototyping community tech initiatives, including the next round of the Community Tech Fellowship. It’s early days, but the plan is to grow a community of practice that celebrates more plural, diverse and people-centred approaches to making technology. We want to help to hold that space between the market and the state, and help seed more community-driven data and innovation projects that can add richness and difference to the broader tech ecosystem.
This week isn’t just two years since I bought the domain. It’s also the week Jeff Bezos went on an 11-minute jaunt into space and Dominic Cummings explained on television “that we should be very, very aggressively trying to get into position these very rare people who are times a hundred or times a thousand smarter” to solve the endless series of wicked problems that governments have to solve. Innovation does not have to be heroic, aggressive, or display overtly masculine qualities to be effective. Other ways are possible, and now seemed like a good time to share our progress in shaping one alternative.