Tech innovators, charities need to understand each other to tackle social problems
As Printed in The Marketplace - September/October 2017
Rapidly increasing wealth and inequality in North American high-tech hubs is forcing charities to reach out to technology entrepreneurs for solutions to societal problems as well as donations.
That new, uncomfortable reality means that both sides need to understand each other’s challenges, a forum on technology and inequality in Kitchener, Ont. heard recently.
The event was held at the offices of Vidyard, a fast-growing firm which provides a platform that helps companies analyze the performance of their online sales videos. It was organized by FaithTech, a nascent movement operating in three tech clusters across Canada (Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto and Vancouver).
FaithTech provides a place for Christians working in the technology sector to share their stories and think about ways to apply their talents to pressing social issues.
Speakers at the event came from both the social service and technology sectors. They included:
- John Neufeld, executive director of Kitchener-based House of Friendship, which serves over 42,000 low-income men, women and children throughout Waterloo Region.
- Christian Snyder, head of community relations at Smile.io, a Kitchener firm that manages corporate rewards programs.
- Stephanie Rozek, executive director for Hive Waterloo Region, which works to teach digital literacy skills and to build diversity and greater inclusion within the tech sector.
- Fizsum Areguy, who works with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute researching the use of tech with health care.
FaithTech founder James Kelly, who moderated the event, recalls being told that in California’s Silicon Valley, home to many of the world’s largest tech firms, “you can taste the difference between the rich and the poor when you are there.”
Waterloo Region, home to one of the fastest-growing tech clusters in the world, could become the Silicon Valley of the North, he said. “The question is, will we like it (if the inequality accompanies the economic growth)?”
Under-representation of women and minorities in tech jobs, sexism and housing affordability as sections of the city undergo gentrification were the most frequently-named issues by an audience of 120 people, most of them young and employed in the tech sector.
Inviting the tech community to be part of community conversations around inequality requires adjustments by both parties, said Neufeld (who is a past president of MEDA’s Waterloo, Ont. chapter). “We don’t know what we are doing. We don’t have a template, we don’t have a formula for this.”
One of the disconnects that must be overcome is the inability of social services organizations to move quickly enough, and the need for tech firms to slow down, Snyder said. He experienced that first-hand in a previous job working at an organization that serves refugees. A large Kitchener tech firm volunteered to help his employer solve a problem, but could only devote resources for a limited time. The refugee organization couldn’t react quickly enough, and “eventually, it came to naught.”
Other conversations have borne fruit. Neufeld was invited last Christmas to the Accelerator Centre, a University of Waterloo-based incubator for tech firms, to thank them for donating to his agency. He challenged tech entrepreneurs to consider running computer coding camps for bright youth in low-income neighborhoods.
After his talk, some people came up to him with a counter-proposal. “We can’t do coding camps, but we can do 3D-printing with you,” employees of a 3D-printing firm told him.
Last summer, the company did a pilot 3D-printing campaign at a community centre in one of the region’s poorest neighborhoods. Neufeld is optimistic the idea will spread.
“I think we’ve got something good here that we can co-create,” he said, while acknowledging that success will require difficult conversations, “hearing things that we don’t want to hear.”
Systemic solutions take time, “which is counter-intuitive to how tech works,” Areguy noted.
Snyder agreed. Community development in the tech sector is difficult work with data-driven engineers, he said. Those professionals typically work in two-month sprints, and are oriented toward objectives and key results (OKRs). But relationships aren’t OKRs. “If you do work in tech, don’t think about relationships as OKRs,” he said. ◆