# What is Tech4Good?
Technology has certainly transformed the world. We can look back 1,000 years and find significant technological achievements in language, writing, migration, medicine, and more — or even look back only in the last 50 years to find mobile phones, GPS, and the creation of the Internet. The changes have come slowly and evolved with society in some cases, quickly and disruptive in others.
But these changes haven’t always been a net positive for the world, and their impact has been anything but equally distributed, as events of the last few years have demonstrated.
The belief has fallen by the wayside that the challenges that face the world — global health, economic security, climate change — can be solved by technological innovation alone. It’s not longer about harnessing the functionality of a technology towards a given problem, but in setting our sights on the problem itself — but how?
# Defining ‘Technology for Good’
“Technology for Good” (Tech4Good) is the focus of applying technologies explicitly for the greater good. Until recently, Tech4Good has focused most often on international development and the context of what we now call the Global South. But it’s grown to be much broader and more inclusive.
Tech4Good approaches technology and its use within a greater ecosystem perspective — how will it be used, by whom, how will it be sustained, what is being changed explicitly, what are potential second and third order effects of such an intervention — these are the critical questions.
Tech4Good is about taking a step back from magic bullets, techno-solutionism, and hyped fads to understand the complex ecosystem of people, information, economics, psychology, history, and culture and how technology can be leveraged to make a positive difference. And then, crucially, it’s acting on that understanding.
Tech4Good has three core themes that are integral to understanding the approach and perspective of leveraging technology for social good:
- The focus needs to be not on tech but on people
- Technological innovation itself is not progress
- Technology challenges are often ‘Wicked Problems’
# 1. focus on people
A Tech4Good approach looks at technologies, information, data, and communications through the lens of how it affects people. It’s people first — not technology first.
Rather than simply looking at the diffusion of a technology or innovation through its functionality (as we understand it), Tech4Good holds the person as the focus. This might seem obvious to many, that people are obviously the important stakeholders here — but is actually in fairly stark contrast to real-world examples that prioritize market solutions, the features of a technology itself, etc. This is not to say that a focus on engineering features, functional specifications, market strategies, government incentives, etc. are necessarily at odds with people-centered approaches — often they are not. But often they can be, and crucially, this can change over time as well, and when you don’t hold people constant as your end goal, the project can shift under our feet without us noticing.
# The Digital Divide
The gulf between the technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has is the ‘digital divide.' It is the social and economic inequality that exists with both access to and use of digital technologies.
The digital divide is not simply the digital inequality between rich and poor countries. It is a term alluding to the disparities in geography, status, generation, race, and gender.
A focus on people first means that the Tech4Good lens is going to be initially skeptical of a given technological innovation or novel approach without understanding it in context. This is particularly true where the focus relies simply on the technology (mobile phone app, data analysis, cloud computing innovation, etc.), as opposed to the social, economic, historical, and individual context of a particular intervention.
This focus on people allows for the inclusion of people and communities that are often left out of technology-related innovation discussions, such as those affected by inaccessibility, the digital divide, connectivity barriers, and restrictive information societies.
# 2. Technology itself is not progress
One central theme of Tech4Good is that technology itself is not always a net positive — that the advent or implementation of a technology should not be counted as the same as “progress”. In fact, we often see examples where technology can be used to further inequality, to put privacy and safety at risk, to require significant resource investment in the first place, and many others.
Tech4Good forces us to dig into the weeds and understand the relationship between intervention and impact. So often we are focused on the positive impact of a technology — how it changes someone’s life, how it can influence macro measurements such as a nation’s GDP or progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) — that we can overlook the technology itself.
We see the harvested food but not the tractor, the healthy child but not the medication, the acceptance to university but not the hours spent reviewing flashcards on a mobile phone months before a critical exam that helped get them there.
If we peg our measures of success to outcomes focused on people, then we don’t risk focusing on just the roll out of a technological innovation (often very easy to track, and very easy to feel successful if we just look at these numbers). As a result, the technology component fades into the background as a means to an important and critical end.
# 3. technology as a ‘Wicked Problem’
A “wicked problem” is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize, and due to complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. In other words, a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable solution or stopping point.
Tech4Good problems are often considered “wicked” in this sense because it recognizes that the technology is placed in a context of people, culture, and society. It’s not as simple as downloading an app, demonstrating a new cookstove, or building a website.
Those “simple” problems have been solved, and the Tech4Good challenges are the ones where we need to tweak both the available tools alongside the understanding of their use; we need to consider historical activities alongside cultural considerations of device usage; we need to consider that solving any one particular part of a problem is a recipe for creating new problems which we couldn’t have anticipated.
The Tech4Good lens motivates us to look beyond the small scope of the technology itself and place it within an appropriate context.