If we sit around waiting for Silicon Valley to solve the world’s social and environmental problems then we’re up that creek no one wants to be in. And we’re armed with an iPhone to steer us rather than a paddle. Good luck with that.
Indeed, with the increasing evidence of the harmful impacts1 of our collective tech obsession, not to mention the unscrupulous ways many such companies try to hide the damage they do2, when it comes to the world’s most intractable social problems, big tech is more part of the problem than the solution.
The sooner Elon Musk goes to live on Mars, the better. We can only live in hope he takes Jeff Bezos with him. Let’s not even mention The Zucker.
But instead of looking skeptically at tech, the mantra of the last decade or so has been that innovation, innovation, innovation will change everything. We need not worry about over-consumption, childhood illness, obesity, misinformation, crumbling democracies, the destruction of our wild places, the global education divide.
We can relax because someone, somewhere in California will invent an app that will make things ok. Employed by an innovative company, this “someone” who went to (or better yet dropped out of) Stanford, is powered by a big dream, an even bigger brain and a capsule wardrobe, and is sorting it all out. Phew!
Except, he or she isn’t.
Silicon Valley isn’t the altruistic intellectual powerhouse that we might have hoped for. It was built and run by people who care most of all about money. When they talk about bettering people’s lives and the planet, it is only if and when those things are aligned with improving their bottom line3. Doing well, whilst doing good4. It’s all so simple. If only the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective charity people would get out the way, the hard-headed business types could step in to make tonnes of impact and tonnes of money, and there would be absolutely no trade-offs5. Ever. Give me a break.
The world’s intractable problems and injustices should be tackled by the people who experience these issues, not by Ivy League students looking for a problem to solve from the comfort of their campus (I have been approached by these groups asking me to help them find "problems that poor people face"). If we are to resolve the great majority of issues we don’t have time for moon-shot tech, we need to build on what we already have, and work to ensure that it is fairly distributed.
60% of people in Sub Saharan Africa have no access to energy. That would be a good place to start. Power can be life saving.
47%6 of the world's population has no Internet. It is a window to the world and a tool for self-determination. Let’s get the Internet to everyone.
Vaccinations: these exist, they are lifesaving and they need to be fairly distributed.
Most childhood mortality is preventable, and the treatments already exist.
A billion people live on less than $1 a day7.
Each year over half a million children die because of diarrhoea8.
I could go on….
The problem is not a lack of futuristic technology, the problem is the fair distribution of existing resources.
The Hello Hub was engineered to use entirely off-the-shelf components so that anyone, anywhere could build one. We have also published a comprehensive How To Guide so that others can replicate our work and learn from our engineering and community process. We are a collaborative organisation and are in competition with no one to reach more children and communities, providing digital education, power, and the Internet.
And yet, funders (usually in hedge funds) too often ask me to turn Hello World in to a for-profit, because it is only profit that drives scale. Profit drives Silicon Valley. It’s quite hard to monetise education when you’re working with communities who live in extreme poverty, and yet we are told we must.
Funders are as beguiled by tech advances as anyone and all too often want charities and social enterprises to present them with a brand new tech solution, when off the shelf tech is most efficient and cost-effective. This obsession with the next innovation is undermining the speed of social change.
The way forward is to make the existing technology, and engineering skills available to the people who live with the problems that need to be solved. We need to empower these people to innovate, and implement their ideas.
Real innovation will come from a different and perhaps less condescending way of evaluating the problems of the global south. The poor won’t be helped by blue sky ideas from tech whizzkids in the global north. They will be best helped if they are given the opportunity to resolve the problems that they identify and understand better than those who are unfamiliar with their community and location.
Hello World Labs has been launched by our Lead Engineer Dave Mugerwa to do exactly that.
We’re decolonising engineering for developing communities and building on our community-centered engineering experience to create products in, and for, the global south that are: community focussed, context-appropriate, functional, long lasting, repairable and empowering. And we’re training up the next generation of female engineers while we're at it.