The Scottish technology sector is in rude health and with the right approach can help define and lead the Internet’s next wave.
Beyond the usual networking and tech start-ups seeking funding at the recent Turing Fest in Edinburgh, we discussed a rather huge topic: what’s the role of the tech sector in building a better world for all of humanity.
The Internet is just over a quarter century old and has exceeded even its founder’s wildest expectations to become the most expansive and powerful technology the world has ever known. But while its first chapter, written largely in Silicon Valley, has delivered incredible innovation and wealth creation it has left a highway of harm and destruction too.
Technology that was supposed to bring us together in open collaboration has too often been used to drive us apart, destroy trust in each other and our institutions and exacerbate the existential challenges facing our planet.
In Edinburgh we discussed how to build the Internet’s next wave based on a single unifying thought: humanity.
More specifically, we discussed the unifying principles that every tech actor can adopt to ensure that whatever technologies they’re designing, they should have positive social and environmental impacts built in from ground zero and not after the fact.
The ‘Copenhagen Letter' launched at the city's Tech Festival in 2017 and discussed again there last week is a manifesto for “all actors who shape technology” to design a better Internet by adhering to some shared core principles.
It starts: “It’s time to take responsibility for the world we are creating. Time to put humans before business. Time to replace the empty rhetoric of building a better world with a commitment to real action. It is time to organize and to hold each other accountable. Tech is not above us.”
One of its core principles is “designing for trust’ via ‘true transparency’ so we can all be digital citizens not mere consumers.
Another says simply “we must design tools that we would love our loved ones to use.” And that means we will no longer tolerate “design for addiction, deception, or control.”
These are simple ideas that any tech actor, big or small, can apply.
Brewgooder is a wonderful example that all of tech can learn from. Founder Alan Mahon is building a business to not only make great beer but to have positive net impact by investing profits to provide the fresh water that will improve the life chances of young people - particularly young women - in water deprived areas of Africa.
Not every company is trying to solve global problems in this way as part of its mission. But everyone can apply the principle of “designing for humanity” to their own business. If Silicon Valley had adopted such principles when the net was in its infancy the world might look very different today.
Imagine if Apple became the world’s richest company not only by making beautiful transformative devices but building them to last a decades rather than contributing to a billion rapidly disposable devices devouring the earth’s scarce metals.
Or if Facebook had not focused its energy on extracting maximum monetary value from its users by packaging and selling their personal data to the highest bidder but stayed focus on bringing billions of people and communities closer together.
The Googles and Amazons of tomorrow are being built today. If the Internet’s first chapter taught anything it’s how fast companies can rise.
If every company designed from human-centred principles, we have a fighting chance for the Internet’s next chapter to more fully realise its founder’s vision.
Silicon Valley may yet figure this out but the signs are that there is a long way to go. So, the technology revolution needs inspiration and leadership from elsewhere too. Why not Scotland?
An edited version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 9th September 2019