Technology and design have undoubtedly transformed the face of much of the modern world — from news dissemination, to consumption, to education, to communication, nearly every aspect of our lives includes some aspect of digital, robotic or big data .

Yet somehow, society as a whole does not seem to be benefitting. Income inequality is on a global rise, our planet is under an existential threat from climate change, and every year the past 9+ years, nationalism and populism have contributed to a growing rate of global refugees and internationally displaced people.

For the past decade, I’ve worked in a field called technology for international development, or ICT4D for short. As an ICT4D practitioner, it has been my job to figure out how ICTs — from basic SMS’s to complicated VR to most anything in between — can better development solutions to help alleviate the horrors listed above.

As I navigated through my career, I made two discoveries:

  • Most international development organizations build bad digital products
  • Most of the tech industry primarily focuses on selling people things

Out of love for building digital products that function well, are intuitive, inclusive and secure, I eventually made my way into research and design. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world for the United Nations, the private sector and international NGOs in this capacity. While the international development industry has a long way to go in evolving its digital portfolio, I’m proud to say I have at least positively contributed to its progression.

Despite my progress on the first point, the second point has continually lingered on my mind. In 2016, I had the chance to explore the issue with a brilliant set of technologists and thinkers on a creative project we ultimately titled “Superficial/ Tech.” In the project, we defined two basic theses on the tech industry:

  • Deep understanding of a superficial problem overshadows real societal problems being addressed.
  • Superficial understanding of a real societal problem overshadows real solutions being addressed.

Our theses defined “substantive” problems as anything directly to do with one’s human rights — the right to live free of violence, the right to food, water and shelter, the right to freedom of expression, etc. In our project, we designed a VR experience and fake app as a satirical experience exploring the second of the two statements.

The Superficial/Substantive Tech project helped me frame something much bigger. More than three years after the initial project, I flew to Stockholm, Sweden to give a talk at on how I use design to create substantive solutions based on a deep understanding of substantive problems. The full talk is below:

My talk at on for Substantive Tech

For those designers looking to get into this type of work, here are the major takeaways:

  • Modern digital design is mostly for the rich. I explain one way to think about it in the first few minutes. With that in mind, your daily design practices may not translate for social good.
  • Paper is not dead.
  • Efficiency is not everything. Understanding the process is more important.
  • Tech alone will not solve the world’s problems. In fact, tech has arguably made many problems worse. However, as a designer, you can work with stakeholders and experts who know how to define the problem, but need your help to find the solution.
  • Market opportunity ≠ societal value add. I wrote more about this idea here.
  • Outside of this talk, but extremely relevant — there are more people who want to do social good than there are social good jobs! If you want to help change the world as a designer, start by working with your company to take on social good projects, even if pro bono. Find a great non-profit or charity in the area and work with them to redesign their website. Figure out how to modify your SaaS offering to help further their cause. Offer free trainings or classes to their staff. Let them do what they do best, better.

Lastly, I’m always looking to collaborate on new projects. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss!

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