You’re in line at a coffee shop, you have your order, and you are ready to pay, when you realize that you forgot your wallet at home. It’s ok though because it’s 2022 and you have your digital device. You pull out your phone, or watch, and pay for your items without thinking much about how different that interaction would have looked even five years ago; let alone fifteen. Likely you’re wondering where you left your wallet and you don’t consider how quickly technology has changed the landscape of our daily interactions, beyond the rapid replacement of cash (who carries cash anymore?).
There is an implicit expectation that you have access to technology that would allow you to pay digitally, that you know enough about these changes to use this technology, and that you are constantly carrying your device with a consistency that exceeds everything else.
Technology is a given, and those that can participate fully rarely consider how the rapid development of technological solutions to common problems can present unique challenges for those that are not fully able to participate using these tools which act as barriers of access for those that don’t fall into this group.
It is easy to recognize in the example above based on what we know would happen if you hadn’t had your device in that coffee shop. But… this isn’t about coffee.
This is about the recognition that lack of consistent broadband internet access can limit employment opportunities, that a lack of diversity in technological development processes can lead to technological biases, or that a fundamental level of technological knowledge can now be required for something as simple as ordering a cup of coffee, accessing health records and so much more.
This is about the social impacts of technology
The rapid integration of technology into aspects of everyday life has enabled convenience for the majority of people and also presents a unique challenge as we navigate the current wave of advanced technology-driven innovations - what some call “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” (or 4IR), the future of humanity will largely hinge on our ability to design, implement and control technology in ways that are ethical, inclusive, open, sustainable and squarely focused on the common good. In order to do so, we must ensure that we develop a strong and inclusive approach to technology development driven by the need and opportunity to improve social impact. This means moving from a conversation about “tech for good” to a much more robust concept of “tech for social transformation”. It also means marrying social innovation with tech innovation.
The future of tech and the future of good have never been so intertwined. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, society’s level of digitalization accelerated, impacting how we work and learn especially. Digital technology and internet connectivity became our lifeline to civilization. Technology has enabled many improvements to how we address questions of community prosperity and social good; the health, safety, sustainability, cultural vibrancy, and democratic vigour of communities and society at large. At the same time, it has brought risks, inequities and trajectories that have profound and some instances deeply negative consequences, corrosive to social good.
Most technological innovation in Canada – even when it purports to be socially-purposed - happens in isolation from those who are on the ground working towards a better society. Conversely, much of what we conceive of as social innovation – applying new approaches, concepts and tools toward making our society a better place to live and flourish for all – is happening in isolation from the world of tech. The centre is a node of connection between social innovation and tech innovation that aims to build a future that prioritizes the just society that technologies support and to prevent a future that prioritizes the technologies that society just supports. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleases, “we must go into emergency mode to put humanity at the center of technology."1 This means taking a look at how our technologically enabled cup of coffee reinforces inequity and at scale this means exploring, naming, and devising alternative models for addressing wicked problems that are grounded in frameworks that address the gap between social impact and tech innovation.
The Centre for Social Impact Technology is one node of a network of organizations helping to lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the many topics, challenges, opportunities, networks, and key players in this emerging ecosystem of social impact tech. Based in Calgary, Alberta, the centre is ideally situated in a developing tech ecosystem. Our examples may be uniquely Calgarian, but our insights draw from a global community of concerned technologists, philanthropist, social impact practitioners, and community members at large. We view the landscape of social impact tech based on five frameworks through which social impact technologies could be considered.
The Centre’s role, ultimately, is to support collective impact toward systems change - change toward a widespread embrace of social impact technology that models the values and frameworks of commons-based, inclusive, open, regenerative, and responsible technology. We envision the role for the Centre as a combination of knowledge broker, hub for learning and dialogue, community-of-practice builder2, and field catalyst3.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, January 2022.
Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. "Introduction to communities of practice - A brief overview of the concept and its uses" (website). Retrieved May 2, 2022. https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
Field Catalysts focus on “connecting fragmented players in a given area of work to create an organized industry around an issue or challenge…so that…the field can operate more effectively and efficiently, tease out best practices and improve outcomes. Effective field building brings attention and legitimacy to an issue; increases the exchange of theory and practice across domains; identifies and disseminates promising practices; reduces inefficiencies; and creates incentives for collaboration that may not have happened organically. In the context of collective impact, field catalysts understand and engage the broader field(s) that local collective impact initiatives operate in and play a strategic role in identifying system barriers and leverage points as well as supporting the development of systemic solutions. What makes the work of a field catalyst unique from other, more specialized intermediaries, is the diversity of their skillsets and their capacity to navigate seamlessly across them in ways that weave together the best bottom-up, local strategies with effective top-down approaches.” Sylvia Cheuy, Mark Cabaj & Liz Weaver. (2022, Jan. 4) “How Field Catalysts Accelerate Collective Impact”, Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/how_field_catalysts_accelerate_collective_impact