goodtech 05: Solving should be more important than sectors, and running out of hope

Also featuring an AI Bill of Rights, who the hell will save Congress from Facebook when all the staffers are gone, and a trillion dollars we could have had except, gender

Welcome, friends!

I was so astonishingly overwhelmed by your kind words, shares, likes, and private stories after my last post. It was my most viewed piece of writing ever (!) and also my most vulnerable. Thank you for being such a sweet group of humans in what was, for me, a terrifying moment on the internet ❤️ So many of you asked if you could support my teeth fund – so here’s my kofi link and if you’d like to contribute a few dollars to new dentures, I’d be so grateful.

And of course, thank you for reading, replying, and sharing your ideas with me.

💡 Big Ideas

TL;DR: We need a new way to organise the work of fixing the world. Without it, tech’s brightest are going to lose hope, and we’re going to lose the future.

I came to my current job after almost twenty years of trying to save the world in a thousand different careers. I’d burned out from the decades, spending most of Covid in a wheelchair with a blood clot in my leg from sitting at my screen too long and an ethical hangover of epic proportions, wondering if I’d ever made any difference at all, wondering at all the time and life I’d missed while trying to save everyone except myself.

So I came over to the private sector and found a tech company I could believe in and went to work learning no-code and supporting entrepreneurs in a totally different way. I thought I’d just leave all that behind.

Except I didn’t. I found myself at a startup where I can use that experience to support founders starting companies and nonprofits in the social impact space. I didn’t really want to do it, to be perfectly honest; I couldn’t find any passion or heart for the work anymore. I felt distant and disengaged and as if I’d set myself on fire if I took even one small step back in the direction of trying to solve big problems one human at a time.

But y’all, these folks are brilliant. They make me feel less burned out every day.

They’re intelligent, passionate, talented humans looking at everything in a new way. They’re working on housing and food access and rural development and mental health and elections and education. They come from all over the world and range in age from 23 to 60 and they show up with a smile.

You know what else they do? Spend the first year of their startup journey navigating the complexities of whether they’re for-profit or non-profit.

Not whether their product works.

Not whether it’s needed.

Not whether it will save lives, minds, children, or towns.

Not even whether it’s possible, whether they can build it, whether they can get it to those who need it.

The world still asks first, how do we tax you, make money from you, put you in a box?

The structure of the nonprofit vs. for-profit hasn’t changed significantly in five decades. The foundational ideas of charity and philanthropy haven’t changed in ten decades. But the world has.

Structuring organizations that solve problems – it’s a place that won’t pass the eighties test (read more on that, here) – and a place where we have a chance to ideate new ways of thinking about profit, what belongs in public spaces, how to generate public goods, and how to compensate people fairly for that.

The problems these founders are solving aren’t solely the province of private or public. Both sectors have caused many of them, in fact, either working together, or working against each other. So why do we continue to think that goodtech startups have to pick a lane and stay in it?

More importantly, why would we risk hope – the single most frail and most powerful resource we have for improving the lives of everyone on the planet – just because we can’t be bothered to change an old system?

If you think hope doesn’t matter, think again.

Twenty years ago, I was frustrated that our economic systems were leaving people behind for generations. I was angry, and sad, and fired up. I spent my days making barely enough money to feed my own kid working for nonprofits and my afternoons and weekends volunteering.

On my third day of work as an outreach specialist – aka convincing proud Appalachians that it was okay to sign up for SNAP/EBT – I signed up a family of four in a tiny little blip of a backwoods mountain town, population 90. The two kids played with my mobile printer in my car while I did paperwork with these pale, quiet, sad adults who looked too young to parent and too old to ever believe in anything again.

I went back for a distribution day, when food pantries hand out their weekly boxes, one week later, and asked after that family. I’d brought extra treats for the kids.

The older one had died that weekend, age seven, of malnutrition. Population 89.

All because of – of what, exactly? How do you justify that? How do you bury it deep enough to get back in the car the next day and go find more families without losing your mind, your sanity, your hope?

That child died because of pride. She died because of the societal shame we create and reinforce over generations about asking for help. She died because people stopped caring about anything but cities, and more money, and more stuff. She died because there was no work and no hope and the only thing that was plentiful was meth. She died because no one would go to where she lived, where no money or tools or people or jobs would ever find her and her family.

She died because she was born in the wrong place.

A lot of my hope died with her.

Ten years ago, I was frustrated that we couldn’t get any change at the local level. I was exhausted from the nonstop need and suffering of working in what we called front-line services, where you deal directly with humans. Naively, I assumed that I could channel that into working in policy, that if I just worked harder at a larger scale, these problems would get fixed.

I started working on supply chains, food distribution channels, affordable housing, broadband access. I worked with an old tobacco town, 95% Black, that lost 98% of their county’s population over a 10-year decline in agriculture and manufacturing, where every Black family had been robbed of its farmland, its access, its dignity and its resources. Their school was filled with asbestos and lead and they shut it down and sent all the kids a county over.

The town wanted to turn it into something new – a food hub, an arts center, a youth center, a community college satellite site.

It wouldn’t matter in the end what went in there – they just wanted something to save, someplace to cherish and keep their identity, their culture, their heritage, their children. They wanted to stop losing their people to poverty, to meth, to cities, to despair.

No one would give them the starter funds they needed, after two years of trying, because they couldn’t come up with match funding. How exactly, in a town of less than 1,000 people, where almost 85% of kids live in poverty, where the in-county jobless rate beat 45% year over year, would one expect this town to have the tax base to come up with 20% of a $3 million project? Three million. Less than a seed round.

That town, those families, that heritage – died because of decades of racist housing and agricultural policy from the federal government. That place died because of stolen lands, outsourced jobs, and the march of the inevitable calculus of ROI to determine a place’s worth and value. It died because no one from there could afford to run for office or go to college and come back home because all the jobs were in the cities. It died because no one from there was able to advocate for it. And it died because no one on the committee that decided how to allocate funds could put themselves in the shoes of these other humans.

A lot more of my hope died with theirs.

Last year, I was done trying, because I’d tried and failed, because the problems were too big and the solutions too small, because I ran out of hope that anything would ever change.

But these founders I found, they’re not tired yet. They’re not hopeless.

They’re interested in everything. They believe in the power of the internet, technology, and scale to build real solutions to problems that have plagued humanity since the beginning of our time: poverty, hunger, access, migration, misinformation.

A woman from India wants to solve mental health access in every country in the world. A husband and wife team want to use tech to streamline the food donation process. A woman who burnt out in a high-powered corporate job figured out how to get Covid information to rural children in countries with no internet so they could help their parents not die. A software engineer wants to solve the way we learn and apply political knowledge. A woman on an island wants to bring STEAM education to schools that have never had it.

Even after being forced into legal and regulatory boxes that arise from a hundred years ago, and a charitable tradition that was built for the poor houses and bread lines of the post-Depression era, they’re not quitting.

Despite the fact that all our systems tell them their only choices are to make money off of others or to make no money and help others, they’re not done trying to solve things.

It’s time that we helped them do that. Let’s stop asking how to treat people’s money and start asking how we can best help people help people.

How do we empower people, companies, and technologies that serve the public good without making them subject to private control or forcing them to operate on shoestrings?

How badly do we want to solve all these problems that both private and public institutions have created? If it’s bad enough, we’ll find a new way to get out of the way – and solvers will finally matter more than sectors.

My writers’ group suggested a call to action here, and I don’t disagree. But in case you couldn’t tell, it’s been hard for me to find things to believe in lately. I’m wildly and unintentionally shifting, like so many of you, through alternating periods of utter despair at the state of the world and hope that there are still so many beautiful humans in it trying to save the rest of us.

So my call to action this week is, maybe, just to acknowledge that: it’s okay to feel alone and helpless and despairing in the face of all this seemingly unsolvable need. It’s also okay to remember that there are still solvers out there, building and wondering and turning things upside down, and that you’re allowed to not be the one doing it until you can find your way back to your hope.

If you need something to do this week, try just reaching out. Search your brain or your LinkedIn network or your Insta for someone you know who volunteers, who’s working on a startup in this space, who works in the public sector or fosters kids or does something lovely for others. Thank them. Tell them they’re a beautiful example of what’s right with the world in a time when it’s hard to see the other side of the dark. Tell them you have their back.

That’s what I’ll be doing, with all these founders I’ve met in the past few months: telling them that what they are doing is so much more important than the boxes the world wants to put them in, telling them to please not give up. And then maybe I’ll tell myself the same thing.

🥑 Holy guacamole, that might actually workCool ideas for new ways of doing things

Orlando gets out ahead of air taxis (yes! even sooner than the Jetsons!) with a test partnership with NASA. It’s another of those things you don’t think your stodgy old local government has anything to do with – air taxis?!

ICYMI, almost all new infrastructure – including futuristic vertical unmanned transports, like air taxis – goes through your local government:

Local governments play a key role in charting the path for so-called “advanced air mobility” because city codes determine things like zoning rules for vertiports, economic development surrounding the stations and other important rules and infrastructure.

Read more on govtech.

💜 Speed Dating

Public meets private, sometimes with disastrous consequences

Eric Lander and Alonda Nelson at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released an op-ed in Wired asking for help – to pull together a new American Bill of Rights aimed at protecting citizens and social institutions from the technologies we’re rapidly building.

We’ve seen calls for this before from activists and advocates, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an open call for something like this from a federal agency. You can read an excerpt below and the full article here.

Soon after ratifying our Constitution, Americans adopted a Bill of Rights to guard against the powerful government we had just created…In the 21st century, we need a “bill of rights” to guard against the powerful technologies we have created. Our country should clarify the rights and freedoms we expect data-driven technologies to respect. What exactly those are will require discussion, but here are some possibilities: your right to know when and how AI is influencing a decision that affects your civil rights and civil liberties; your freedom from being subjected to AI that hasn’t been carefully audited to ensure that it’s accurate, unbiased, and has been trained on sufficiently representative data sets; your freedom from pervasive or discriminatory surveillance and monitoring in your home, community, and workplace; and your right to meaningful recourse if the use of an algorithm harms you.

🚀 Moonshot

One big idea, every week

Want to save $1 trillion? Get more women on the internet.

  • A4AI & the World Wide Web Foundation found that more than 40% of countries have no policies or programs that expand women’s access to the internet – even though the digital gender gap has cost low-income countries over $1tn over the past decade.

🥂 Upcoming Events

Monthly Goodtech Salon – next Tuesday evening26 Oct | 6 pm EDT

Join founders, techies, govies and a generally great group of humans for a monthly salon to talk through these and other ideas. Respond to this email for an invite!

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

Books, podcasts, articles and more to feed your brain

  • All the young staffers are leaving for cushy jobs in tech – so who’s going to write questions and help explain tech issues to our aging leaders? (FYI, the average American is 20 years younger than their elected representatives.) Read more in Politico.
  • Here’s a great summation of the ‘slippery slope’ arguments for and against technological innovation – with some really excellent insights on facial recognition (read on OneZero).
  • A gentle reminder that sometimes innovation in the public sector occurs without any tech at all, too: here’s a call to open all the public school playgrounds up for public access – as a way to provide 20 million more Americans with access to public green spaces. Read more in Grist.

I hope you’re finding some time to breathe, rest, sleep, and feel your way through these seemingly neverending difficult times –


💞 with special thanks to Canis, especially Josh, Manish, and Kate

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