Are we being radical enough?
This was the title of the Tech For Good meetup event last night in London where I was one of three speakers.
The answer, is of course, no!
A quick run through of my slides below, and the deck is here.
Being radical is a subjective thing. A friend said to me recently “there are lots of ways to be radical, Cassie” and it was a good reminder to me that we will each have a different benchmark for this. I mostly think of it in terms of this definition though —“a person who favours extreme or fundamental change in existing institutions or in political, social, or economic conditions.” I think we need this kind of change. Though as my friend Laura pointed out, there are already political leaders who favour extreme change, in power today, so this is where values come in.
It’s also, often, related to what privileges you have — that can sometimes define the kinds of risks you can take, and I think radicality does involve risk and discomfort.
It’s why I started the talk with this slide.
Whilst we are living in times where there’s need for radical energy to be directed more towards things like protest, care is also a radical act and it’s important to give time to each.
It’s also hard at the moment to think beyond downing all tools to focus solely on the climate crisis — but as Indy said in his talk following mine, the climate crisis is a symptom not a cause, and as my friend Ade had pointed out earlier in the day, the means and the ends are always entwined. We can’t deal with the issues of the climate crises without fighting the economic underpinnings that have brought them about, and address all the extractive tendencies we’ve been normalising for decades.
It’s also very evident that there are, and will continue to be immediate needs — people living in crisis every day for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways, and they urgently need support, resource and attention too, even whilst our climate is in crisis.
So what can we do? Where should we direct our radical energies? And where in particular if we are working in “tech for good”?
The first thing we need to do is be aware of plaster sticking. Sometimes that is needed, but mostly patching things up is not enough. We need to take more systemic approaches. The word radical is derived from the word root — forming the root — and it is exactly there, at the roots, that we need to work.
It can feel really overwhelming at times though, to know where to act, to know what to give your time to and your radical energy to. Personally I use the two frameworks below to help me make sense of the change work I’m part of and to orientate myself. One is the Berkana Institute’s Two Loop Model which talks about a dominant/dying system and a new/emerging system — where there are different roles needed. The other is the Three Horizon’s Model, created by Tony Hodgson, which is especially helpful if you’re working in places or with people who are resistant to change.
So you can be radical in where you choose to act, and then there is the how you choose to act — or design, or lead, or build or create. In the ‘tech for good’ community we need to be more active in turning away from Silicon Valley, not idolising it or attempting to emulate it. A lot of Silicon Valley practices have been extractive and individualising, often reducing “good” to convenience. “Jobs To Be Done”, OKR’s and user-centred practices can completely erase the wider context of people’s lives, or the need to see some things through an aggregated lens — especially society’s needs. Growth and efficiencies have taken priority rather than considering what the appropriate levels of scale are.
And even in digital government — another place civil society has sometimes turned to for how to do things (and there are some good things to draw on) — what’s valued is often the quickest ways to help someone get something done, when in reality there will be times it’s more likely making a bad policy palatable.
Another Silicon Valley trope and growing trend in ‘tech for good’ is the framing of everything through a ventures lens. So much of the UK ‘tech for good’ or ‘social tech’ funders only do seem to do venturing now, and even the language of “ventures” is troubling. Suggesting ventures can “solve” certain complex social and environmental issues legitimises them as a market – something I’m about to do some research and writing on with Rowan Conway.
One of the ways we need to respond to this is to design through a collective lens, to design for solidarity and shared effort.
And a much less explored area, but one any radical ‘tech for good’ movement should have at its heart, is ensuring that technologies, that so far have made huge powerful demands on energy, start to be less extractive, and consider their planetary consequences.
Lastly, who can we get radical behind? Who do we need to step out of the way for or make space for? Who are the new leaders that we already have that need our support and resources, and yet-to-be-found leaders that we still need to discover?
Lets hope it’s less of the image on the left and more like the incredible women on the right — urgent, fierce, courageous, imaginative leadership, full of integrity.
- All images in this post are from here.
- And thank you to Ade, who talked this through with me and her ideas are included in these words.