Do Good Techies Make Good Neighbors?

Posted by Michael Hickey on December 18, 2014

Everybody knows that if you want to restore integrity to your downtown business corridor or your local industrial park, if you want to create jobs and point your community towards the future of the workforce, or if you want to capture the hearts and minds of DIY makers and social entrepreneurs, you had better have a plan to lure tech-related businesses into your community. Who wouldn’t want the many benefits that a thriving digital workforce can bring? Growing wages, agile thinking, jeans and ping pong in the office! Oh, but wait, you say, isn’t that the same industry that’s driving up real estate costs, sucking up huge amounts of power, and mining my personal privacy for profit? And, hey, don’t they have a little problem with diversity in the workforce? Well… yes.

When the Bits Hit the Fan

Recently SSIR published a brief blog post on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the tech sector, correctly pointing out that like any other major corporate sector (banking, real estate, insurance, fashion, media) the tech sector has real reputational risk issues, and that it would be wise for leaders in the sector to get ahead of those issues with a solid CSR plan. While I agree with the sentiment of the article, neither the article nor the sector is going far enough. Allowing your staff to occasionally consult on social impact tech projects is all well and good, but helping the local animal shelter build its website is really not going to count for much the next time the bits hit the fan.

CSR is as much art as science. It’s a certain kind of diplomacy that taps the very strengths you use to dominate competitors, and directs at least a portion of that capacity to helping the most vulnerable. These are probably people who have little or no direct interaction with your business, unless you’re Facebook or Twitter or Google, and only then because such platforms are ubiquitous. If it wasn’t originally your goal to succor the dispossessed, it probably isn’t now. That’s ok. But with great power comes, you know, great responsibility.

We need to think bigger if we're going to create real solutions. (Image: @NicoledeBruin3)
As I’ve discussed in related posts, even when the tech sector seeks to develop tools for social impact, it tends to operate within the silo of its own sector. In addition, the rapid rise of the tech sector and the equally rapid wealth that it’s generating can lead to disproportionate resentment. This is self-evident, I suppose, but it also means the sector is all the more vulnerable to claims of corporate callousness.

In addition, the tech sector has a number of particular reputational risk vulnerabilities. If the stereotypical banker is a money-making brute in a suit, then his counterpart in the tech sector is a jean-clad geek with Aspergers-like human insensibility. Yes, both are completely unfair characterizations (why, some of my best friends are bankers and techies), but stereotypes reflect (mis)perception. What’s more, such misperceptions are easy enough to ignore until you need something, or until a problem happens, when their impact can suddenly be multiplied.

So, let’s talk about some substantive CSR strategies designed especially for the tech sector. Here are four ideas just to get the party started. It is a little like eating your beets, except with a bit of goat cheese and some honey-roasted walnuts over a bed of arugula.

  • Workforce diversity - STEM has become synonymous with not just learning, but with whole career pathways. The problem is, the traditional education system itself is besieged with a host of challenges (from the 22 percent of students living in poverty, to the high cost of college tuition), and is struggling to meet even basic standards. The tech industry can support innovation that not only improves the overall readiness of the emerging workforce, but that brings new focus to the particular needs and interests of women and people of the global majority. There are many excellent programs and projects already underway (like this, this, this, this and this), but they need supports ranging from funding to mentorships to placement opportunities.
  • Data for good - One of the foremost challenges of the tech sector is privacy. When virtually every search item, page view, and key stroke is observable, and when each password and purchase leaves behind sensitive information about our lives, we’re putting a great deal of trust in platforms and processes that are not fully transparent to us. What if the data scientists in your firm were using this information to help us better understand health risks, or energy consumption habits, or educational attainment? Or what if portions of that data (in anonymized form) were made available to academic institutions and government agencies seeking to solve tough challenges for vulnerable people? The call for open data should extend both ways.
  • Environmental sustainability - We’ve barely begun to wrestle with the planned obsolescence of our digital lives (how many old cell phones are tucked away in junk drawers at your house?), and eWaste recycling programs are beginning to slowly grow. But for the most part we’re not even aware of the incredible energy consumption tech requires to operate and cool all those industrial buildings full of servers. And it’s not just Google and Microsoft. The financial sector, media and communications, e-commerce and many others have data storage and management needs that are growing exponentially. The tech industry needs to be at the leading edge of energy efficiency efforts, combating global warming, and community planning to mitigate environmental disasters (especially those that put its own infrastructure at risk).
  • Planning for affordability - The somewhat eponymous work of Richard Florida touted the many virtues of “creative placemaking,” including its ability to incubate the workforce of the future and lead a community to greater economic prosperity. There’s an ugly side to all the success, however, as communities suffer more and more from income inequality and gentrification. Like any other corporate citizen, the tech industry shapes the community in which it lives and works, and should play an engaged role in creating affordable housing, better transportation, and access to supportive services. Not only will its workforce benefit, but their neighbors and fellow citizens will as well. Community development philanthropy and impact investment have a well-established track records of success, and these could be readily adapted for leadership in the tech sector.


Transforming from “program” to “user”

In the end, all I’m trying to say is that public/private partnerships are good for everyone. There’s already great work being done on major issues like net neutrality, and providing pro-bono capacity to solve tough challenges (like this, this, this, this, this and this). But a substantive CSR strategy must go well beyond the hackathons and occasional offer of free consulting, taking root in the core strengths of the tech sector and turning at least a portion of that capacity into addressing key social challenges. In the end, the struggles our most vulnerable neighbors face will, of course, become our own. The tech sector will have earned its reputation for innovation when it commits to deeper collaboration with the nonprofits, public leaders and academics who are already in the trenches, and who have been since long before the personal computer was a glimmer in the eye of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

Until next time, stay strong, stay dapper.

About the author more »

Michael Hickey is an independent community development consultant serving nonprofit, foundation, public sector and corporate partners in project development, strategic planning, and organizational change. He writes the Man-About-Town blog, http://man-about-town.org.

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