Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a new book Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism by Steve Davis, co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Digital Health Technical Advisory Group and a Distinguished Fellow at the World Economic Forum. Davis is also a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is the former CEO of PATH and Corbis.
All this to say, the technological frontier raises serious concerns that need to be front-of-mind as we embrace this new world. But embrace it we must, building bridges between tech evangelists and nonbelievers. Perhaps the most important thing I learned in the early days of the internet was that to make technology relevant and useful, we need to build teams that join across different disciplines, with different viewpoints.
This was standard practice at McKinsey. When consulting on digital innovation in global development, we intentionally designed teams linking technology experts with authorities in health (or agriculture or education), and others who had backgrounds in regulatory affairs, marketing, or behavioral science. We did the same thing at PATH. These teams were not without management challenges, since people brought such different mindsets to the table, but I’ve always felt that this cross-discipline approach made our products and services more successful.
In contrast, a few years ago while visiting Google’s life science innovation team I noticed that there were only software engineers around the table. They had many imaginative ideas for malaria control and elimination, but not a single expert on the disease itself. They presumed they could figure out those details on their own. “We’ll Google malaria if we need to know more,” they said. You will not be surprised to learn that they have had little impact on the global fight against malaria.
Given the digital programs I’ve described in this chapter and the overall growth of tech innovation, some readers may wonder why I point to it as a new undercurrent powering activism — technology, after all, is not a new story. Yet we’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential impact.
Many of these capabilities are still quite novel in remote corners of the globe. More broadly, we are only beginning to develop a sophisticated sense for the way digital networks, mobile devices, and data analytics can interconnect for widespread impact in social programs. Even with thousands of fascinating digital pilots under way, we can point to only a handful of examples where these tools are shaping global development at scale. In truth, the sheer volume of innovation in digital and data is perhaps our most underreported challenge.
No, bits and bytes won’t cure cancer or stop HIV. But they may be essential to quickly develop a COVID-19 vaccine or finally realize the promise of universal health coverage envisioned in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
Data and technology are helping us to understand and visualize problems differently, empowering both consumers and communities in ways that line up with some of the other undercurrents I’ve discussed — particularly the push toward locally driven solutions and a greater voice for people long denied a seat at the decision-making table.
The opportunity to empower people and transform our society through digital technology is staggering. But it will require the next generation of practical activists to think very differently about their work. They will need to be savvy negotiators, balancing the potential for doing good against the possibilities for abuse of that power.
In some cases, this will necessitate changing laws, policies, and protocols. On the ground, it will mean that every program be examined through the lens of digital soundness: Are you using the best available tools? Will they operate in concert with others, integrating information from multiple sources to make truly meaningful observations? What about your methods for capturing the data — are you disaggregating it for gender, race, age, or other factors? Are you managing and sharing it with appropriate caution? Can we improve an existing project by applying digital technology?
I encourage all activists to embrace the potential, rather than fear its consequences. Because here we are; there is no going back. The technology revolution will demand much faster decision-making from our sector, given the speed of innovation and lack of regulatory oversight. It will require engagement with the private companies driving much of that innovation. And ultimately, it will mean ceding more power to individuals — consumers, patients, students, farmers — to make decisions about their own health, education, and finances. People may debate the role of technology in social innovation. But it underlies everything we do.
As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, writes in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, “Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between ‘accept and live with it’ and ‘reject and live without it.’ Instead, take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.”
Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Undercurrents by Steve Davis. Copyright © 2021 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.