It’s been about 2 years since I transitioned from the World Bank to my current position at Humanity United. It was not easy for me to take a break from fields I remain passionate about (international development, transparency, data, etc), but I have enjoyed learning and the deep dive into new issues (forced labor, migration, supply chains) and new regions (South Asia & the Middle East) while continuing to hone my tech chops through practical and meaningful ways.
That said, I find myself reflecting more on civic technology in 2017 than in most recent years. In part, it is a growing unease with political tides and discourse in the US. Part of this can be addressed by keeping the mentality that Joe Goldman of the Democracy Fund proposes- 9 Resolutions for Democracy in 2017. Well before the last election cycle, I have also struggled with what the next phase for civic technology should be. How would we make good on our promises to change the world? I saw the good. I saw the bad. I was equally parts of both. My friend Josh Tauberer captures many of these sentiments here: Civic Tech’s Act III is beginning. Now more than ever, Act III looms large.
Many of us who were born in the late 70s or early 80s have had a very different experience with technology. With it comes a very different set of expectations for technology. We’re old enough to remember what life was like before our current connected state but also young enough to appreciate pushing those boundaries onward- a unique place indeed.
So what does all of this mean for those of us working in civic technology?
- Civic > Tech: The civic in civic technology has always been important, but the civic piece has always been the key. Our calling cards may have been technology, but without a deeper investment in understanding and appreciation for the power dynamics underlying social issues, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again. When it comes to the specific issues we are committed to, there is no such thing as being a generalist.
- Full Hearts + Clear Eyes: The danger of elevating the civic in civic tech is that we may compromise our ability to see and act rationally. But if we periodically regulate this passion with reason, amazing things are possible. In terms of our hearts, while they may be concealed, our actions should always be open to scrutiny.
- Impact Before Scale: We often convince ourselves that impact doesn’t come until our tech scales, but for social issues, we can and should fight and claw for every inch of impact from the initial pilot stage. When it comes to fighting for impact, let us be impatient. No doubt making this happen is extremely difficult and will largely depend on good ‘ol time inefficient manual work and effort- but all for a worthy goal. You know what builds confidence in a moonshot more than anything else? Bringing back a little piece of the moon…
Now comes the fun part for me. Putting all of this into practice.
As always, open to your thoughts and comments.
It’s been quite an eventful month. After four years at the World Bank, I officially joined Humanity United, a part of the Omidyar Group. Thirty intense days later, I have found a quiet moment to reflect on what drove me to HU and what excites me about the path ahead.
Big Challenges Require Big Approaches
My eclectic career has taken me many places. I’ve always been driven by passionate curiosity- thoughts and assumptions are best tested, if possible through direct experience. One of the unexpected but welcome side effects of this approach has been the opportunity to work across sectors, in the process better understanding the strengths and limitations of each. As I look back on my journey to date- including time spent in NGOs, international organizations, and the public and private sectors- clarity surfaces. Complex challenges require big, flexible, and inclusive approaches. Mandate and a flexible toolkit of solutions make up a rare and potent combination not to be taken for granted.
It Starts With Human Rights
Many organizations don’t want to broach the subject of human rights. Yes, it makes people uncomfortable. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to bring up with international partners. Yet what good are the lofty goals of development work, humanitarian assistance, or public service if we don’t serve those who are overlooked or oppressed by the status quo? Without an emphasis on human rights, we are only promoting and sustaining an inherently unequal world. Putting the human in human rights isn’t just a talking point. Being able to employ a human-centric approach to human rights rightfully honors those we seek to serve.
Smart with Heart
The distance between head and heart doesn’t have to be so far. All head or all heart? This represents a false choice. It’s possible and optimal to be both. I feel very fortunate to have joined a group that is immensely talented, intelligent, fun, and warm. With hard work and dedication, meaningful impact seems not just possible but probable.
The world is complicated. It doesn’t follow a script or adhere to even our most well-intentioned plans. Our lives are similarly complex. We can reduce risk and uncertainty but never eliminate it. None of these are earth-shattering insights, but at times their manifestations catch us by surprise.
I was supposed to be on a flight headed to Nepal tomorrow. The devastating earthquake that rocked Nepal last Saturday changed things. My heart aches for Nepal. Despite this, it also grows.
I am eager to serve the people of Nepal, to build with and not for. And I am grateful for this opportunity.