We’d like to introduce you to some of the awesome humans who will be joining us at the Code for Canada Showcase in Ottawa on July 24 and Edmonton on July 29. They’re at the forefront of civic tech and digital government in Canada (and around the world) and they’ll be sharing their learnings, experiences and wisdom with our audience. If you’d like to be there when they do, it’s not too late to get tickets!
Lane Becker has been a startup founder, user experience designer and best-selling business author. He’s also a passionate government innovator whose tenure includes Code for America, 18F and the U.S. General Services Administration, where he helped pioneer their 10x program.
The Code for Canada Showcase is a celebration of civic tech in Canada. What does civic tech mean to you?
I spent the first 15 years of my career in Silicon Valley doing startup stuff. But I kind of decided to start wrapping up my time there around 2011 to 2012. The reason for that had a lot to do with the fact that anybody with two eyes could see that the Pollyanna attitude we had towards technology as some sort of unmitigated social good was just… bullshit. People were making decisions based on money, even though the results of those decisions had the potential to harm the social fabric of society. I mean, I think that became more obvious to the rest of the planet somewhere in like 2015, but it wasn’t hard to see even then. It made me feel terrible.
Because I knew Jen Pahlka and had some experience with Code for America, I started to think about working in government. After my time in Silicon Valley, it felt like an interesting opportunity because it lacked a market dynamic. There’s a real civic mission to government; you’re trying to figure out ways to build the infrastructure that supports people in their lives.
And technology creates this opportunity to really rebuild and potentially even reimagine that infrastructure. Thinking about how to do that was fantastic and interesting and helped me to reconnect with the promise of technology that got me interested in the internet in the first place. I guess that’s what civic tech is: building the best civic infrastructure that we possibly can to support people going about their lives — literally from birth to death. It’s so fantastic, but what I love about it is that it’s also kind of mundane.
How does the theme of civic tech or the values of the civic tech movement relate to your work?
Back in the 1980s, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology, came up with six laws of technology. And they’re all good. But my absolute favourite is the first one: “Technology is not good or bad, nor is it neutral.” The point he was trying to make is that tech is like a tool; it can be applied to doing good or doing harm, but understanding which has a lot to do with the very human context it’s operating in.
Internet technology is all about scale. It can create fantastic solutions to social problems, and it can scale those solutions broadly and make them accessible to wide-ranging groups of people. But if you’re not doing it thoughtfully, technology can take those same problems and scale them up too. For me, the ethos in all of this is that we shouldn’t mistake technology for the solution. We should do the real, human work of solving problems, and then apply tech to what it’s good at: embedding and scaling those solutions. And I just find that government — civic tech, govtech, government as a platform, whatever you want to call it — provides this amazing opportunity to do that work of scaling up.
What’s unique about civic tech and digital government in Canada? Are there unique opportunities? Unique challenges?
Frankly, Canada’s in a really interesting place where a lot of what’s happening right now in terms of this huge push towards civic technology, is being informed by work in other countries. And those countries have had a lot of opportunity and a lot of success, but also some pretty crippling failures.
So I think Canada has an opportunity to learn from the successes of course, but also the mistakes of its predecessors — even to the extent of hiring those people who made those mistakes initially so that they won’t make them again. I actually think that’s hugely valuable.
The Showcase brings together public servants, entrepreneurs, community organizers and residents under the banner of civic tech. From your perspective, why is it important to get people from across sectors in the same room?
When I started at Code for America, I got the opportunity to work with a bunch of different cities around their technology. I was struck by the fact that every single city thought it was so unique and yet they weren’t — at least not when it came to technical infrastructure. I remember being so struck by that, and thinking how much they could learn from each other if they recognized how much they had in common.
“We’ve barely begun to explore what technology could really be doing in terms of public service.”
It’s also worth recognizing that we are very, very much at the beginning of this process of figuring out how technology can and should relate to the work of government. We’re not that far from the stage of turning paper forms into online forms. We’ve barely begun to explore what technology could really be doing in terms of public service. Are there functions it could be replacing? Are there new functions we haven’t imagined for government that technology aids and abets? The answer to that question is almost certainly yes, but I can’t really give you a good example yet because we’re just not there.
So how do we get there as reasonably and quickly as possible? We make sure that the people who are working on these ideas and issues are spending time together, working together, sharing insights, pointing to opportunities and creating a shared knowledge base that we can use to move everything forward together.
What are you most excited about for the Showcase this year?
I’m excited about discovering something truly new. It’s a bit of a generic answer, but I’m always so surprised by what those things are — they never come from where I’m expecting. So I’m excited about somebody showing up at the Showcase and presenting or sharing work that’s just wildly different and interesting. I have a lot of faith in Canada in its ability to deliver on that one.
Lane is the keynote speaker at the 2019 Code for Canada Showcase in Ottawa on July 24. Get your tickets today!