goodtech 04: Standing in line, having no teeth, and why institutions are failing

Also featuring: solving climate change like a stockholder, bitcoin’s first gov adoption, and our next event – coming up this week!

💡 Big Ideas

TL;DR: We could fix a lot of problems that haven’t been solved in years of philanthropy and governance if people who have been there were the ones writing the rulebook.

Here’s a confession: I’m 37 years old, and I haven’t had real teeth since 2004, when I was 20 years old.

Bad dentition is a generational plague in Appalachia, and coupled with never having dental insurance or being able to afford dental care, for me and a lot of other people it always turns  out to be cheaper to just eliminate the teeth.

Even when I had them taken out, after the dental bills and the hospital sedation bills, I could only afford the top denture. I lived without bottom teeth for another ten years before I could chew real food. (Ice, y’all, ice and corn on the cob. Those are what I missed most.)

When my child was born, I knew I had to do better than had been done for me, but I didn’t have a job with health or dental until she was ten years old. Instead, every year, we went to the mobile dental clinic for her cleanings and x-rays.

Dental clinic days were almost like fair days, except it always came in November, when it was freezing. We lined up early, around 4 a.m., with people of all ages, who had driven from as far as six or seven counties over. People brought biscuits and endless thermoses of hot coffee and blankets and lawn chairs and played AM radio from their car stereos. There was a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair who would always volunteer to hold my spot in line so I could take my bundle of blanket-wrapped child back to the car to run the heat for a while.

The staff, and the students they were supervising, would show up around eight in their warm Patagonia fleeces and hiking boots and carry their coffees into the warm bus and about an hour later they’d come out and run us like cattle through the line of clipboards, making you answer questions about your health and finances in front of everyone in line. You’d stand in line after that for another few hours and then get about five minutes with each student dentist before they shuffled you through.

Right now, around the world, laws and structures and institutions are failing. People have stopped trusting their aims, their methods, and the people who implement policy. It’s eroding societies – not just democracies and countries but even local communities – around the globe.

These authorities are failing because they’ve been built – for decades – around the ignorance of the people who created them. They rely on decades of accumulated assumptions from, primarily, people of privilege, who wrote the laws and built the programs and shaped the institutions.

In this particular case, would you be capable of open-minded trust in institutions that say they serve you when they line you up at 4 am in the freezing cold to stand for hours because they’d never think of what it was like on the other side of that line of clipboards?

If you’d ever stood in that line, you’d know better. You’d know that forcing poor people who were often in pain from a year’s worth of dental issues to stand outside in line to wait at 4 am when it’s 25 degrees out is a shit thing to do. You’d know that you could ask people to fill out their paperwork ahead of time, or quietly on their own clipboard, rather than asking invasive questions and writing them down in front of a hundred people in line. You’d make those dental students give up two weeks of their summer to run the clinic when it was warm and light outside early in the morning instead of waiting until they were mid-semester. You’d provide chairs so people didn’t have to bring their own, and maybe get a corporate sponsor to provide breakfast and coffee.

If you’d ever stood in line, you’d find a way to add some fucking dignity back to the process of serving people in need, and I’d bet what little money I’ve got that you’d do it more efficiently and serve more people, too.

Institutions are failing because they aren’t built for the people they serve. They’re built by people who have no idea what it’s like to be in need, and all the good intentions in the world can’t fix what you’ll miss from simply not knowing what it’s like to live there.

I don’t believe in nefarious conspiracies most of the time; I don’t think our social safety net laws suck so bad on purpose; but I do think there’s a real problem that we never talk about, and that’s that the people trying to save the world haven’t ever experienced any of the things they’re trying to fix.

If you make it to the point where you are writing laws, or lobbying for them, or shaping institutions like universities and research centers and media conglomerates, you’re statistically most likely to have been much more privileged than most.

The people who write bills about how we manage and distribute food haven’t ever been hungry, haven’t stood in line outside a food bank answering invasive questions about whether they and their children are morally good enough to be fed.

The people who write bills about wages and work have never flipped a burger or picked up trash or mopped a school restroom or waited tables.

When we talk about tech that can change the world, we so often wind up talking about the government – private sector division and how to overcome the challenges of bringing those two together.

What we forget, though, is that until and unless we have people with lived experience leading in both sectors, it doesn’t matter if we bring tech & government together to solve problems – because they’ll still be doing it the wrong way, from the outside in and from the top down. And we’ll be stuck with solutions that don’t work because we’re still putting on the same constraints we’ve used for the past hundred years.

I believe that if you’ve never stood in line you shouldn’t be in charge of deciding what happens to people who do.

Yet right now, with all the innovations of the past twenty years, the biggest thing we’ve done in philanthropy and social policy is to take the private sector’s KPIs and OKRs and transfer them over to nonprofit work – and that’s not the innovation we need.

We should let people shape policy – not let policy change people – and no data model or product that tech can create will ever be able to replace the value of lived experience.

🥑 Holy guacamole, that might actually work

Cool ideas for new ways of doing things

I love finding small, easily-implemented projects for this section. Big shiny projects are nice and all, but if you’ve ever worked in government, you know how long it can take to fund them and build them and get them off the ground.

That’s why I’m loving Lenexa, KS’ Kristin Boyes, who works with the Mid-America Regional Council on a peer support program for 911 dispatchers. These employees interact with trauma and crisis on a daily basis, for almost the entirety of their work shifts, and are often the lowest paid employees in a city system. Yet most departments don’t think about their dispatchers when they create mental health support systems for first responders.

Check out more on this great podcast chat with Kristin here.

💜 NEW: Speed Dating

Public meets private, sometimes with disastrous consequences

Now we’re gonna fix climate change – with private companies. “Firms would love to have us believe that society’s biggest problems can be fixed as our stock portfolios explode in value,” writes Scott Galloway in Marker this month.

Even worse, he uses Aspiration as an example – a bank I (cringe) used for several years.

🚀 Moonshot

One big idea, every week

It’s here! Governments adopting crypto.

Not off to the best start in history, but El Salvador is trying, at least: Glitches, protests as Bitcoin becomes legal tender in El Salvador | Business and Economy News | Al Jazeera. Quick lessons from their experience:

  • Educate people and ask for their support before you singlehandedly change a currency on them.
  • Server capacity, server capacity, server capacity.
  • Test, iterate, test, iterate, test before you launch.

🥂 Upcoming Events

Monthly Goodtech Salon – this Wednesday evening!

Only two more days to register!

29 Sept | 6 pm EDT

We’re back to our regularly scheduled monthly salons in September – you can sign up for events and resources here. This month’s salon will be held Tuesday, Sept 29, at 6 pm EDT. Grab your favorite beverage and enjoy a night of hacking the world’s problems with other dedicated and amazing humans like yourself!

📚 I’m on a curiosity voyage, I need my paddles

Books, podcasts, articles and more to feed your brain

Have a great few weeks, y’all, and thanks for reading –


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