by Jeff Boles

Trumping up a social venture

Jan 25, 2017
AnalyticsCareersIT Skills

Does a social venture await you? In the aftermath of Election 2016, we can find a great illustration of the many opportunities calling us to employ our technology, process, and human skills for the social good.

Ah, the New Year.  Perhaps we’re left to wonder if the 2016 election news will ever end.  But like most, for the sake of newsworthiness I’ll do a small crime of glomming onto things observed and learned in the unusual electoral cacophony of 2016.  In no small part because one of the less observed aspects of that cacophony has been an undeniable testimony to the very subject of this column – technology in social venturing, and social venturing right in our own backyards.

In the vacuum of the election turmoil – or perhaps in the vortex of post-election turmoil – it seems to have become even more self-evident that things like technology and data are playing a role in society like never before.  If you’re a cynic, it might be easy to sit back and look at it as just one more facet of market-focused social technologies that are mostly about orchestrating consumer behaviors.  “After all,” says the cynic, “the election just once again used data gathered from our personal space to somebody else’s net benefit once again.”  It is tempting to look at the innovations and tools surrounding us today as delivering a few conveniences, while reducing the human to yet again being a pawn of huge enterprises and special interests. It might even tempt you to think the products of our labor as technologists – these social platforms – have become solely tools of a digital oligarchy.

So in turn, it wouldn’t be surprising if all the hubbub might tempt us to retreat into the isolated and predictable sanctity of our local data centers.  But I hope instead we can peer through that noise and latch on to the tremendous potential that was just illustrated.  If nothing else, recent political exercises painted a pretty succinct picture of the opportunities that surround us via the rapidly changing technology landscape.  Specifically, how information access and data use can play out in meaningful – not just consumeristic – ways around us, any day of the week, to tremendous effect. I hesitate to sing a Pollyanna-ish tune in the face of lots of future uncertainty, but as technologists, even in the very worst cases, the election should convince us that we have more opportunity than ever to engage with the world around us. 

More importantly, if you haven’t been out of the data center in a while, there’s a burbling change going on around us.  From where I am today, we’re fielding a new generation of young and old social venturers who are pushing into new services and businesses at a breakthrough pace.  I chucked other ventures to the wind a couple of years ago to push into these areas myself (that’s another story for another time).  Part of this is undoubtedly a shift in values across generations, and perhaps a more significant need to find hope and purpose, but part of it is also a new generation of awareness, capabilities, and ambition.  I’d argue any day of the week that we have an intrinsic (and perhaps God given) drive to improve the human condition, and we’re only becoming more aware of where the human condition needs improving.  While the election was permeated by talk of “Make America Great Again,” from my view, there is a impressive collection of incredibly bright and dedicated folks deeply embedded in this work already, they just happen to be operating out of the limelight.  But its relevant to us as technology practitioners because they uniquely need us like never before.

Such social change agents see an opportunity, and have the ambition to believe themselves firmly made capable of carrying out a change. On both the ambition and capability side, they are well-equipped today because of a rapidly changing technology landscape.  In part it is sprung from growing awareness via increased visibility into conditions, patterns and behaviors.  In part, it comes from more accessible, democratized tools and information.  And undoubtedly it is in part built upon that indefatigable pursuit of market-driven victory that permeates our thinking, for good or bad; maybe this is just one more facet of the great American can-do, but from my view, it has more pervasively invaded the mindset of our newest generation of social venturers. 

So we stand at the outcome of an election where the power of technology is clearly demonstrated.  Within this election was a visibility into conditions, patterns, and behaviors alongside information and tool access that allowed the United States voting marketplace – meaning the popular vote and the and electoral college vote – to be deftly bisected.  Therein was a highly intentional, expertly crafted execution built on the back of information and technology that should convince even the biggest skeptic that any technologist has tremendous skills to bring to bear in social ventures.  While some might be dubious whether the case in point is about social good, there is an almost two trillion dollar marketplace of 1.5M non-profits in the United States generally focused on social good.

Without thinking about it, us technology types tend to sit outside the circle of social change agents, and look at it as something foreign. But the people changing neighborhoods and lives around us are executing from the same opportunity identification, solution-engineering, and systematic execution space that we spend careers in, just with a more human-oriented focus.  We shouldn’t let it escape us that the common good needs us technologists. 

NetNet, as a technologist, where do you stand today?  Are you in duck and cover or retreat from public mode, or does a social venture await you?  Somedays I have my doubts even while I’m in the trenches, but I hope you’ll stick with me here in this column space, and start looking for ways to help some of the social venturers around us see how technologists might help extend the value of a venture.