Can Innovation Save Us?

Xconomy National — 

During a summer that’s been marred by political upheaval and horrific violence inside and outside the U.S., it’s natural for startup entrepreneurs and others immersed in the technology world—including us journalists—to wonder about the role of innovation in solving social problems.

In the wake of the murder of five police officers in Dallas, which followed so closely on the heels of the videotaped police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana, which themselves followed so closely on the heels of the nightclub massacre in Orlando, there’s a sense that social tensions in the United States have reached a peak not seen since the late 1960s. The violence, and nonstop Internet media coverage, is ripping away whatever bandages still covered the wounds from centuries of racism and other isms.

Politicians can’t seem to quell the discontent. In fact, some of them are deliberately inflaming it. The middle ground, if there is any in U.S. politics, has long since been scorched. We all seem to live at the extremes of a polarized society.

Abroad, there’s only more chaos. Simmering resentment toward authority, elitism, and institutions has boiled over in Great Britain and threatens to destabilize the entire European Union. The terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Dhaka, and so many other places testify to the unchecked, virus-like spread of ISIS-inspired jihadism, which is itself a product of social breakdown in the Middle East.

If your own livelihood depends in some way on entrepreneurship or innovation, chances are that you’re an optimist, at least about the big picture. You can’t help thinking that there must be some set of technologies, or some method of thinking, that could be adapted from the fecund world of technology and startups to heal and support societies as they find a way back to a semblance of peace and (hopefully more equitable) prosperity.

Is it really true?

In the short term, no.

In the long term, yes.

More body cameras might deter police when they’re tempted to use excessive force—or support an officer’s side of the story—but they won’t cure systemic racism, in which law enforcement organizations are merely a participant, not a first cause.

More smartphones, more social media, and more viral video will help to expose police brutality when it happens. This might stoke enough outrage to prompt real change in the way cities and states monitor law enforcement and begin to reverse the conditions that lead urban citizens, especially African-Americans, to fear and revile their own police forces. But in the short term, videos and social media can also foment even more violence, as we saw in Dallas.

Better edtech, perhaps in the form of next-generation MOOCs and other online training, might help people beset by the skills gap enter the high-tech workforce, which might help to slow rising inequality. But building effective courseware and delivering it to the right people will take time.

The same goes for better, more accessible healthcare. This is another important antidote to inequality for populations beset by disability, mental illness, or addiction. But even the modest gains in access achieved under the Obama administration will be under threat if Republicans get a chance to roll back healthcare reform.

The Internet, in all its permutations and with all its new modes of delivery on phones and wrists and televisions, will likely come to be seen as the single biggest step our species has taken toward current-events literacy and participatory democracy. But in the short term, it gives everyone access to their own set of facts, and supplies filters that allow us to retreat into exclusive virtual communities of like-minded people, stoking a sense of “us versus them.”

In short, technology can’t cure racism. It can’t bring out comity and understanding. It can help grow the economic pie, but it can’t, by itself, slice up the pie more equitably. For all of those things, we’ll need to find new leaders, ask them (and ourselves) tough questions, and locate new inner supplies of trust and honesty—along with the patience and civility to listen to one another. (Hint: more face to face, less screen time.)

All that said, there are plenty of tech companies and entrepreneurs out there who are working in small, gradual ways to nudge marketplaces, and the people in them, in socially responsible directions. The work these organizations are doing seems eminently worthwhile (in contrast, say, to the way Nintendo’s Pokémon Go is sucking $1 million a day from our digital wallets), and really does point the way toward a brighter future.

Here are 10 inspiring examples you might not have heard of:

Tumml—An incubator in San Francisco that provides funding and mentorship for companies tackling urban problems such as clean energy production.

Code 2040—A San Francisco-based non-profit that arranges internships and residences for African Americans, Latinos/as, and members of other underrepresented groups at technology companies like Google.

The Last Mile—A program led by San Francisco investors Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti that provides inmates at San Quentin and other prisons with technology and business training as well as job placement after their release.

Flatiron School—A coding academy in New York City that runs a fellowship program for low-income immigrants.

Hearken—A startup in Chicago building online tools that help newspapers gather suggestions from readers about the social and government issues in their cities that deserve more coverage.

Grameen America—A non-profit in New York City that provides microloans financial education, and entrepreneurship support to women in poverty.

Minecraft Education Edition—A free (for now) version of the world-building game released by Microsoft this summer to to help teachers instruct students about design and collaboration.

Memphis Meats—A San Francisco company developing cultured meat as an alternative to eating farm-raised animals. (Also see Modern Meadow, which is doing the same thing for leather.)

Kinvolved—This B Corporation in New York City makes software and mobile apps that help schools track student attendance and share the data with families.

Village Capital—A non-profit (and separate investment fund) in Washington, DC, that supports social entrepreneurship in areas such as education, energy, finance, and health.

It would be wonderful to see more entrepreneurs taking on challenges like these. And for every Lyft that loses $50 million a month (think about that), it would be great to see an organization investing the same kind of money in social causes. Sometimes, of course, there is private funding available for ideas in the social entrepreneurship or non-profit sectors. The famous Silicon Valley “startup school” Y Combinator, for example, has been including non-profits in every batch of newly admitted startups since late 2013.

Alas, something even greater will be needed to dispel the current polarization in our politics. I worry about the paralysis in Washington and other capitals mainly because we’re wasting time. We need to clear the decks so that we can tackle the truly existential problems like ensuring food and water security, fighting epidemics, and—especially—slowing and adapting to climate change. Those are all areas where science and technology can really help. In fact, in the long run, they’re the only things that will save us.

The longer we wait to start fixing the big problems that could stress our civilization to the breaking point, the higher the costs that future generations will pay. We’ve got to learn how to work together now, so that we don’t perish together later.