Published December 2019
I believe that we are only at the beginning of a technological revolution globally. Similar in scale and impact as the first industrial revolution, where over a few decades it resulted in changing the way and places we lived, what sort of work we did, how we socialised with each other and who had power. It lifted millions of people out of poverty and it made many goods more accessible to a greater number of people.
We can see that the private sector is leading the charge in this new revolution with our hotel, taxi and banking systems already upended. They have successfully used technology to decentralise an industry, make it more local in ownership and impact, but also global in reach. New ideas of how to use technology in many other spheres of our day to day life also abound and the possibilities currently seem both mind-boggling and endless.
Some find this change threatening and worrying, with many evident risks. No doubt we will collectively make mistakes and work behind the curve to retrospectively design new laws and mechanisms to stay safe. Wiki leaks is one example that comes to mind with which we are still grappling.
To me the most exciting thing is not the tools/ apps or platforms that we design but the way that we can think and act differently as a result of their presence. Inventions such as the printing press and areophane’s have impacted the world in areas such as communication, trade and a range of opportunities for individuals and communities. Both resulted in greater access to knowledge and information, shifting the balance of power and different opportunities became abundant: the world shrank.
Insights from progressive thinkers like Raj Kumar in his book called the Business of Changing the World or Jeremy Heiman’s and Henry Timm’s book, New Power, start to prise open the possibilities of what could be in this new dawn. Speaking to millennial's is another way to shed light. Go to a tech hackathon and in their minds the boundaries of what could change become more real and the world shrinks again.
Today I see new tools being used within old boundaries, where their potential is not being harnessed because they are held back by our scope to think in a new paradigm. For example: look at how we are thinking about greater participation and engagement with affected populations. We are still thinking within our controlled hierarchical boundaries of centralised surveys, focus group discussions and deploying international technical specialists for participation and engagement. We use technology in some areas to increase the data points and to be more efficient at crunching the numbers and displaying the results internally. The ambition and direction behind all of this is excellent and much needed, but the future is much more ambitious and exciting.
For the first time in history we can communicate at a massive scale directly with people we are trying to help. Imagine, if we successfully used technology to decentralise our industry, engaging with millions of people but each individual customer being the key stakeholder. Imagine if this was open source, so anyone could see the feedback from people who currently receive some sort of Aid. This may rebuild some trust in our organisations, it could empower and put control back in the hands of the many and it will result in more accountability and transparency to communities and to donors. It would allow affected populations to engage as partners, not charitable recipients.
Another example is looking at where we work and who we employ. Over the last ten years some well-intentioned NGOs have tried to shift the centre of their operations to middle income counties such as Kenya or Lebanon with fewer staff in London or Washington. More recently we see shifts in the use of offices to more open spaces, hot desking policies and greater freedom to work from home one or two days a week. All enabled by better conferencing and communication tools.
Younger organisations though are taking this ability to work and communicate from anywhere, that has been unleashed through technological advancements, to a whole new level. Fully dispersed teams which are not even decentralised because there truly is no centre. A workforce based anywhere around the world. This means your recruitment pool has just grown to nearly everyone in the world. Literally the best person in the world is eligible to apply. The recruitment pool is no longer restricted to those who happen to have the right to residency in the city of the Head Quarters or the decentralised country offices.
Imagine, when working in the area of development, what additional skills and experience these teams can attract to help them think differently, understand and relate to those they are here to serve. Imagine what this structure does to equality of pay and the inherent disparities and inequalities that currently exist and are exacerbated by the recruitment limitations just described. Imagine the longer-term positive impact on unconscious biases in so many other decisions that are made with such a varied work force. Imagine in another generation when this new pool of employees can make it onto Governing Boards and positions of authority. This puts the concept of localisation into a whole new light and actually comparatively quite a limiting discussion.
There are many other examples to highlight the kind of changes I am excited about for the future, for example: the way widely dispersed access to information and the ability to communicate, coupled with the ability to find and engage with people anywhere, is having an impact on how we influence leaders and on how change is manifested. Again, I think this is still evolving, but I believe the future is a lot more game changing than being able to organise large scale global protests. I hope that technology will enable greater voice and power to communities to address the current imbalance of power and access to resources and decision making.
For example, there are some early concepts of participatory democracy where people can engage and vote on a whole range of local, regional and national bills or issues while commuting to work for example. This is just the beginning, but there is no doubt that democracy in its various forms is seen only as the best of not very good options: Dictatorship, Monarchy or Communism. I imagine that new forms of more meaningful and engaging representation and participation (more than one election every four years) will be developed as a result of the technological revolution.
Many articles are talking about the big and real challenges that lie ahead: we know that the needs of people in poverty or crisis situations are going to increase and the available resources to help them has not and will definitely not keep pace. However, I think that if we use this opportunity wisely and explore beyond our current horizons to be smarter in how, who and where we invest these limited resources, we can decentralise our industry, make it more local in ownership and impact and more connected globally. If we can achieve that then, like the first industrial revolution, this one will also have a wide-reaching positive impact on the living standards of people across the globe. Let’s just hope we do it in a way which is kinder to our natural resources and that we can make sure that no one is left behind.