In the Spring of 2014 I was approached by someone to come and get involved in shaping, what was, at the time, an idea for setting up a film company for ‘tech for good.’ They’d been sent my way because I knew a lot about the tech for good landscape — they brought the film skills, I brought knowledge of the field. I was excited about the potential and an added bonus was that they’d received £15,000 from Nesta and £15,000 from the Cabinet Office Social Investment Fund, so it was more than just an idea, people had invested in it and Bethnal Green Ventures were the champions of it and the conduit for the money. It was set up as Tech For Good TV, with the aim of telling stories about how tech for good was helping solve social challenges.
At the start I’d committed to doing consultancy, up to a day a week, but only a month later the person who’d been given the funding decided it wasn’t quite the right thing for him to be doing. He simply wanted to make films, but this money had been given with the hope that something bigger and more ambitious would be created for the sector.
At that point I had a decision to make — I was offered to take it on — the money couldn’t be “returned” — yet I was busy with many other things and also had no experience at all of creating a content platform. However, I really believed in what the platform could do in terms of building the field and thought it was needed across the sector.
Perhaps foolishly I took it on as a “side project.” I promptly tried to find some other people to help. Sarah Bucknall came on board as the COO because she could commit 2/3 days a week to it, Beatrice Pembroke and Abby Rose came on board to help with strategy, research, interviews and podcasts, and Alex Blogg came on board as our filmmaker. Of course we also had support from Bethnal Green Ventures which was invaluable.
£30K doesn’t go very far to make consistently great content, build community, run events and pay a team of people. In those early days we paid the team what we could and always paid anyone who made content for us. I should add that in 3.5 years of doing this, I’ve not been paid a penny, so it really was a labour of love and a side project. At the beginning we had lots of great content ideas — One Minute Wonder, the Macroscope (systems storytelling), live chat shows, Civic Radio podcasts — and were really clear about why we needed to exist and what we were trying to change. Though we weren’t clear at that point what a sustainable business model would look like for us.
At the beginning we also had many debates about the name and label of ‘tech for good’ — we had inherited it after all. We wondered about putting a question mark after the name — like is it really good? I don’t think any of us in the team were naive to the unintended consequences of technology. In the end we stuck with the name because it was practical, it already had a community through the tech for good meetups (which now has nearly 7,000 members) and it was associated with Social Innovation Camp who had coined the term back in 2008 when they pioneered bringing together social justice folk and issues with designers and developers. We knew we shared their values.
When we decided to stick with the name we wanted to define what we meant by “tech for good” — and so created a set of 10 principles — not set in stone, and due an update as they were written 3 years ago now.
- Tech for who? Is it for the 99% and not just the 1%? Does it create wealth, agency and knowledge for everyone and not just the few?
- Has it been designed to address an issue or need?
- Has it been designed responsibly?
- Does it give power and agency to people?
- It doesn’t have to be about scale, but it does need to be bold.
- In the same way that it doesn’t need to be about scale, it also doesn’t have to be about the new — maintenance and repurposing matter.
- How is it made? What is the provenance of it?
- Have you thought about assisted digital needs and access?
- Do the founders and team add to the ‘good’?
- Are the people who created it aware of any unintended consequences?
And we changed our name to Tech For Good Global because we were about much more than film.
The need for us in the world
The reason I took on Tech For Good Global was because there was a job to be done to take the stories of the tech for good community out in to the real world. This wasn’t/ isn’t a nice to have. It makes good business sense too. The key things we wanted to get done and see happen were:
An increase in demand for tech for good — if people don’t know about the new digital products and services that might be available to them to help manage their long-term conditions or get them a hot cooked meal each day then they won’t demand them from their NHS, GP or Local Authority. If people don’t know what they have access to, they might be missing out on a new innovation that could really make a difference to their lives. There is now also a need for the mainstream public to demand “good” in other ways too — ethical, responsible tech that is taking care of people’s safety and privacy.
More money, power and talent coming in to the space — Old Street was booming with technology companies, Silicon Roundabout was full of digital agencies — but were they making anything really useful? I don’t think much of the tech coming out of “Tech City” was ticking the boxes of our tech for good principles. Yet it was obvious that’s where the money was and Tech City was doing a great job of building a brand. We wanted to try and build a similar brand around tech for good so that digital and design talent made different choices about where to work and put their energy. And investors committed their £’s beyond the quick returns and privileged consumers.
Making sense of the field as a whole — the brand building wasn’t just about bringing resource and talent in to the field, we also thought there was an important role to play in facilitating more co-ordination and collaboration. There were and are lots of smaller communities that we believed could be working more collaboratively or at least in a more co-ordinated way. The field felt unhelpfully fragmented and we wanted to find the common overlaps in people’s purpose, which we had a hunch was all in some way about civic and social change.
More content about impact — too much storytelling about innovation focuses on the hero entrepreneur and we thought there was a real gap for better content about how tech can be used for social impact and about how tech for good was making a difference in people’s lives.
Spotlight the wealth of knowledge and understanding of social issues that exists within the charitable sector, civil society and public services — great technologists and designers can’t do any “tech for good” or social innovation work without working alongside the wisdom and experience that is held within charities, civil society and the frontline of public services. We wanted to make sure that knowledge was visible and valued and to connect the different communities together — like Social Innovation Camp had set out to do in the early days.
These were the reasons I committed so much time and effort to Tech For Good Global, because I believed all these things were needed, and they still are.
Some lessons I learnt
Side projects are never going to be enough— they can be brilliant for expanding your horizons and using skills and talents that you might not be able to make use of in your everyday work, but Tech For Good Global was a side project for too long and I didn’t do it justice.
Good communications and content is an important investment — that everyone fails at. I’ve been consistently reminded of how little organisations invest in good content and storytelling. If you want to do movement-building work then it is crucial. If you want to engage people in your mission then it is crucial. If you want to show how you are influencing change, over time, then storytelling and other kinds of content can be a useful way of documenting change, and ultimately impact. Yet despite all of this, it’s rare to come across any organisation or foundation that doesn’t think of content as an afterthought.
To think what could have been achieved if it weren’t for ego’s and competition — if a bunch of organisations had aligned and come together about 3 or 4 years ago I wonder if we’d have managed to build a much stronger field of tech for good by now. My current boss, Martha Lane Fox, said to me last year (in a frank way that I respect) that the tech for good community had done a really bad job at branding itself as a community, and I couldn’t agree more. If people had been willing to choose one term rather than an array of things like public interest tech, digital social innovation, social tech, tech for society, then maybe, just maybe we’d be in a stronger position now. I look at something like OneTeamGov and hope OneTeamTechForGood could exist one day. Kind of what I imagined here in this post.
We never really asked for money and we should have done — we wrote a few proposals when a couple of intermediary organisation’s that work in the space asked us too — neither of which ended up bearing any fruits, but really could have been quite pivotal in bringing greater cohesion to the field. Still, I should have written some funding proposals and done more to find sponsors etc.
What the future might hold
Challenges the field still has
There are great organisations operating in this space but there is still a huge challenge around supply and demand. Charities and civil society organisations need good digital people that can help them build better digital products and services that meet the needs of their users. However the day rates that digital government have encouraged are impossible for organisations to meet. An average day rate for senior digital government people is about £750 by the way, and that’s not the very senior men, who are no doubt on more. Charities are unable to pay that kind of money. I wrote a post here about what’s needed in terms of linking up the needs of charities, civil society and social innovation with the design and tech community. There is also still a need for the digital and design community to have better relationships with, and understanding of, the social sector, which is why I’m really glad that Social Innovation Camp is going to be making a comeback. They have their first one next month.
It’s still an unknown community in many respects — I was amazed when this article, in the New York Times, was repeatedly shared on Twitter a few weeks back — as if tech doing good was a new thing. The author pulled together some examples, which she could have found really easily from the NT 100 who’ve been collecting International examples of ‘tech for good” for 5 years now — even I wrote a piece for the Big Lottery a few years back documenting the many ways that tech can do “good.” There has been a community of ambitious and committed organisations in the UK doing tech for good and social innovation for a decade (at least) now, with a very distinct flavour, nothing like the Valley or civic tech for that matter— yet I worry they could get lost — sandwiched between the Silicon Valley late-to-the-table revelations about the impacts of tech and the need to actually care about social justice, and then the backlash movement as a result of that — the new-ish crop of organisations going on about ethics, responsibility and putting society first. The tech for good, social innovation and civil society communities have been putting society first for a long time!
History might repeat itself again — there is still fragmentation across the field, and you can see that happening a-new now there’s a growing movement around “ethical” tech too — whether it’s called ethical tech, responsible tech, responsible data, digital ethics, digital rights or another new term yet to be coined — I wonder why it’s still so hard for people to work together. I get that people might have different views on how you get there, but ultimately my experience across many of these different communities, is that people care about the same set of outcomes (social justice, equality, human rights, progress, public goods and public value etc), and that should be reason enough to better coordinate activity. In my mind, foundations should be funding more of the field-building activity that helps bring organisations together. Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn are being forward-thinking in asking the question of what their role should be in growing the “tech for good” eco-system. Omidyar has funded Doteveryone to do field-building work across Europe around “Responsible Tech.” This is a role that is under-resourced and needs to have neutrality that is often only afforded by philanthropic money.
The opportunities coming for Tech For Good Global
Now that Social Innovation Camp and Bethnal Green Ventures have taken us on, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next. They are going to keep Tech For Good Global as a separate entity and use the brand for all the community and content activity that they do. Finland and Portugal are just some of the countries that they’ll be doing community building in this year. And after 12 months of operating with no resource and getting by with “minimum viable activity,” the platform will be invested in again, with new content and new partnerships to be announced soon.
Lastly, the thing I am most proud of in the last 3.5 years is that at the beginning of 2017 I brought together a group of organisations working in the tech for good field — Nesta, Newspeak House, CAST, Nominet Trust, Bethnal Green Ventures , Comic Relief, Good Things Foundation, British Council and others — the purpose was to try and coordinate our activity more, and ultimately to work better together. This felt like quite a momentous thing to do, as previously some of these organisations had been in competition. The intentions of the group are set out here — but ultimately over the last year, especially with the efforts of Ellie Hale and Jess Stacey — we’ve met every month and started to look at things like shared content and messaging for the community (putting aside each organisations own brand and agenda), shared data, and shared tools. Sometimes people want to know what the group is ultimately going to do together — and I am sure it will do things together (there was talk of a “tech for good tour” this year) — but people should also remember that just sharing intelligence across the different organisations and building relationships is valuable in and of itself.
I want to finish with a bunch of thank you’s.
It’s been great setting up a tech for good meetup in Cambridge. The town I grew up in, full of so much technical talent and yet, I felt there wasn’t much linking up the social innovation field with the tech one. We were lucky that Allia agreed to host us and I want to say a big thank you to them for providing all the refreshments and the space each time. I’m particularly grateful to Helen Harding-Male who co-hosted each of them, helped set them up and generally made sure everything went to plan.
Our board — Sarah Gold, Deborah Szebeko, Ade Adewunmi, Anna Cronin, Giulio Quaggiotto and Paul Miller — we didn’t draw on you very much but when we did, you were helpful, insightful and supportive. We know that some of you will continue on the board as we change hands. I also want to acknowledge Matt Locke here, who on a few team outings to Brighton, generously sat with us and shared his experience, which was really helpful.
A huge thank you to Bethnal Green Ventures, especially Jess Stacey, who made the initial investment happen when she was still at Nesta, Melanie Hayes for sorting out all the legalities, and Paul Miller, who’s supported us throughout. The whole BGV team have been great allies and friends and I look forward to where Dama and Jess take it next, as the strategic leads for it. I’ll be staying on as an Advisor in some way , and I look forward to working with them! We’ve already been making some exciting plans.
Martin Vowles has been patient and consistent in his work on the website — often doing tweaks at short notice and having to do lots of explaining. Thank you Martin!
We’ve had lots of great content contributors but I want to give a special thank you to ~
Alex Blogg — part of the original team, who made some great films for us (you should check out his website, he’s an exceptionally talented filmmaker) and took a leap of faith by joining us when we were unable to pay him very much at all.
Jo Barratt — podcast maker extraordinaire, who made lots of our early podcasts and has since gone on to co-found with Abby, Farmerama Radio, a successful podcast building and connecting the small-scale farming movement.
And Sam Firman, who for the last 12 months has pretty much single-handedly kept up the minimum viable activity on the site whilst we were going through the transitions with Bethnal Green Ventures. He’s been amazing, and very self-reliant!
Lastly, I wanted to say a huge thank you to Abby and Bea, my Co-founders. It’s been tough at times, doing this as a side project, with no resource for the last few years, and each of us with little time, but we’ve made it through! The best thing for me of the last 3.5 years has been working with you both and the lasting friendship we’ve made.