Is tech addressing society’s biggest challenges?

A photo of Anna-Lisa WesleyA review by Chair, Anna-Lisa Wesley

“As Silicon Valley drives us towards the promise of yet another golden future, this one driven by robots, its worth taking a moment to wonder what this astonishing, decades-long wave of enterprise has actually delivered.”

I braced for fireworks.


Josh Glancy – writer and editor with The Sunday Times, thrice nominated at the Press and British Journalism Awards – was coming to Engine Shed.  He’d be joined by a panel of local leaders, a one hundred-strong audience, and chaired by me to answer the question ‘Is tech addressing society’s biggest challenges?’

In his article, ‘Tech Reeks Of Wasted Opportunity’, published in The Sunday Times earlier this year, Josh had set the stage for the debate. But I knew it would be divisive. Whilst raising important points about tech’s progress having been along “a narrow digital path” with “talent flocking to low hanging fruit”, many parts of the article were poorly considered.  I found the characterisation of people left uncared for in US cities, “bum hanging out”, naive and unkind. “Faster flying” was frustratingly positioned as the big missed opportunity in tech. I was staggered that climate denier Peter Thiel was credited as having anything useful to add to the discussion. These things, and more, contributed to a growing sense of dread.

When I saw the panellists that Engine Shed had pulled together for the event, I saw an opportunity for us to move beyond dread to influence, perhaps leave this writer with some better raw material to work with, a broader world view – show him how things are done down here in Bristol and the West of England.

Off the bat though, Ben Shorrock set the tone. This was not going to be about bringing down a cynical journalist. Not without taking ourselves down too. Citing the “echo-chamber” of Bristol, Ben wanted to hold that same mirror to our own lack of progress. Whilst he delighted in the success that our highest growth businesses, he questioned their impact. At the same time, he painted a picture of mission-led organisations scrambling around for the capital to scale.

He’d touched a nerve.

When I asked the audience whether they felt empowered to bring change to the world, this dynamic crowd looked decidedly sheepish. And as for the question “will tech save us?” well, I definitely heard sniggering in the back row.

But the panel was optimistic.

What does an ideal future look like?

Each panellist had a clear view of what the future could look like with the help of technology: more inclusive, more accessible, greater autonomy, technology as an instrument for change.

Professor Palie Smart captured her vision for technological impact as being “restorative, regenerative, net-positive”, talking to the enabling technologies being developed within the university here and around the UK. These technologies are driving what I’d characterise as something of an industrial revolution, the scale of which would help us all. Medtech, biotech and the technology we don’t see in the media that is happening in the labs, research institutes, behind the scenes. All these developments give Palie reason for “tremendous optimism”.

The bog of doom

Despite these rousing cries, it didn’t take long for us to be quickly thrown back into despair.

Our journalist had recently sent dispatches from the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, where Director John Tasioulas had warned him of the steady erosion of humanity by AI, with us potentially ending up living in a dehumanised world where the decisions that affect us are taken by systems, not people. The greatest extrapolation of this is to imagine a world where we become demoralised into thinking that human action is futile, that people can’t be autonomous.

We allowed ourselves to wallow deeper.

Panellist Annie Legge shared her frustration with the “emphasis on scale of business, holding the light away from organisations who have scaled their impact but not their profit”.  This was devastating where, “as a community, we have huge pockets of deprivation including deep digital exclusion”.

Sabita Ravi from the audience challenged that, by talking about impossible conundrums of delivering on profit and purpose, “we have the wrong lens”.  “This isn’t a mathematical conundrum. We are trying to solve deep social challenge. And are going about it in the wrong way”. Floren Cabrera spoke along the same lines, “technology is just a tool and historically we have seldom used it for maximum benefit of our people or our planet.”

Panellist Charlie Mercer picked up on an audience comment which had raised the issue of incentives, disputing the very premise of Josh Glancy’s article. “Profit isn’t inevitable, like magic. It comes from the pocket of each of us and through the government we voted for.”

I’d forgive our visitor for rather enjoying this moment of self-flagellation from the Bristol hosts.

But no-one was safe from challenge at this event. Now it was Josh’ turn to be in the spotlight.

“In the way you’ve framed it you’ve been very binary. You’ve framed technology in the context of the haves and have nots. Who the tech has helped and who it has not. You are missing the nuance of society, the oppression olympics.  Different people benefit from different tech in different ways. You mention Uber. This has enabled a whole sector of disabled individuals who can now get food and who are now empowered to make their own decisions.  These sweeping generalisations – do you acknowledge that your journalism is contributing to these societal problems?” This from Joyann Boyce.

What would it take to buck the trend?

It’s right that Josh experienced some of that Bristol challenge. But it’s also right that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and take active steps to buck the trend in impact “stagnation”. We can’t allow ourselves to slip into ambivalence, acceptance or defeat.  What I witnessed here was an awakening of the motivation to do more, to push for more, to lead more, to step into those challenging discussions, to hold each other to account more. And there are so many ways we can do this in practice.

Nick Sturge talked of building “confidence in founders to do something different, that’s where governance comes in”.  Alan Furley talked to the ‘purpose premium’, recognising that talent is now willing to put a premium on more purposeful jobs, accepting pay cuts, whilst expecting to be paid more to work in negative spaces.

The panellists had plenty of wisdom to share. Zara Nanu took us to the money, citing “the companies in Bristol driving real change are finding funding that doesn’t drive you to generate the x6 or x10 return.” Charlie Mercer reminded us to “steer this ship with the way we vote with our wallets every day and for our government every 4 years. As individuals using platforms like Tumelo we can challenge where our pension is invested.“ For Annie Legge it was about “supporting brave funders and brave entrepreneurs who are doing things differently.”

For Palie Smart it was about building “social fabric for entrepreneurial thinking,” reminding us of the millions invested by universities but needing to focus on “adoption” – connecting those startups “out there in the ecosystem.”  As she said, “the time for pessimism is gone.”

Final reflections

Asking the audience again, “will technology save us?”, there was no demonstrable improvement.  But in terms of personal empowerment, a palpable uplift in energy.

The words of audience member Dr Laura Gemmell rang true. “Did you stop to help a single homeless person? Stop thinking on a macro scale. Help each other, help one person. Then do this over, over and over again.”

I left the event thinking, tech won’t save us, but we can save each-other.

I’m glad Josh wrote that article, that he came down to Bristol and that he put some grit in the cogs of our ecosystem. I really hope he will come again.  Alternative views help us to coalesce and move forward. A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Audience member Alison Knight spoke to me afterwards and challenged further; “Bristol is a city that possesses problematic levels of inequality by wealth, health, education and opportunity.  If tech is to address societal issues, it could start at a local level by inviting marginalised and excluded communities to contribute more, to widen participation with the aim of redistributing resources more equitably.”

We started something at that event.  Let’s dig in.

One action to stop stagnation, remove friction and deliver more impact

Annie – Read Be More Pirate  by Sam Connie Allende

Charlie – Spend and vote consciously

Palie – Come to these events and talk more

Zara – Read the European Union Research into the post growth economy

Ben – Deliver on the promises that you committed to following the Chair Report.

Josh – Think people first, not technology first.

Anna-Lisa – Step out of your comfort zone, step in to change. Find a way to challenge the status quo.