What Role Should Silicon Valley Play in International Development?

San Francisco Technology Salon

December’s San Francisco Technology Salon focused on “How to connect stakeholders HERE with innovators and emerging leaders THERE?” We had an energizing conversation that covered questions like:

  • What role should Silicon Valley be playing in international development?
  • What can Silicon Valley learn from those on the ground?
  • What works and when doesn’t it work?

The role of patience – and impatience

Patience is a virtue, but not in Silicon Valley. Participants discussed how impatience can actually be an asset of Silicon Valley methodology; “fail fast, fail often” enables us to experiment, get technology in the hands of those we serve faster, and iterate to find the best solution. However, impatience has its dark side, especially when it gets in the way of understanding nuanced social, political and historical challenges of a place and people.

For example, no food recovery app will overcome prejudice between ethnic groups or the dietary restrictions of different religions. When we explored the value that innovators on the ground have to offer Silicon Valley, a major theme was this contextual knowledge – including what’s been done before and why it has or hasn’t worked.

Supplementary Readings and Resources

Supplementary Readings and Resources

How can Silicon Valley be patient enough to learn context from leaders on the ground? What practices of exploring historical, political and social context could be intellectually stimulating enough to inspire slowing down? What role does humility play?

A related note: participants noted that if Silicon Valley technologists could spend more time in developing regions they could get a bit more context, but most are understandably reluctant to leave for fear of losing their “tech edge.” I appreciated the point that this tech edge is not necessarily working on the latest technology, but more so being surrounded by people who are smarter than them.

Skill-building as most effective investment

I greatly resonated with a theme of which collaborations worked best between Silicon Valley and the many global communities we represented: skill-building. Whether it was media training, technology education, or mapping outbreaks of disease, the projects with lasting impact were based on teaching skills that local leaders could apply to the problems they knew inside and out.

This related to our conversation about context. It’s more effective to train those who are familiar with the complex realities to create their own interventions with the tools of technology than it is to try and use our technological expertise to create solutions in a vacuum of local context.

Ethics of innovation

The conversation then jumped to the ethics of innovation. There is a myth of neutrality in Silicon Valley: “it’s just a platform.” This can have dangerous consequences when technology exported from Silicon Valley props up the very imbalances we are seeking to disrupt. What if a healthcare technology is more accessible to men than women? Does a sharing economy unintentionally create indentured servants rather than equipping them to be independent workers?

Security was a hot button issue in this, as well. As Western governments rally for weakened encryption in order to fight terrorism, this has direct consequences on activists and emerging leaders in places like Iran, Zimbabwe, Syria where governments are not protecting those who voice opposition. What is the role of influencers like Facebook, Google, etc in policies that make the world safer for social innovators?

Scale vs. invention

I found it striking that many of us who serve as bridges between leaders in developing regions and Silicon Valley see innovation most in these developing regions.  Despite becoming a buzzword in Silicon Valley, innovation abounds in places where issues like corruption, limited mobility, and poverty drive people to find creative ways to share information and buy and sell goods.

Many discussants cited the need to invest in these proven innovations, to bring them to scale, rather than starting something new. There is a lot of reinventing the wheel in development, partly because different stakeholders are not talking to each other. What if we focus on building on what exists, what people are already using? Scaling is not as sexy as invention – and it’s complicated and long-term work – but the payoff is huge. Additionally, many expressed caution for new Silicon Valley philanthropists to listen first to local voices. In this way, respect drives all decisions, so that growth in emerging markets benefits more people and results in virtuous cycles rather than crowds out local innovation.

Permission to innovate    

Our conversation prompted a few laughs when discussants noted how common sense practices are getting new glory as they are labeled “innovative.” Listening to those we serve is now innovative. Running seminars in which burned out teams get to play and remember why they do what they do is now innovative. Studying international development through the lens of human-centered design is now innovative – and we said if that’s what it takes to do what’s best anyway, great!

By Eva Vander Giessen @ MEET

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