Tech, innovation and justice: where to begin?

Conversations about technology and innovation abound. From time to time there are actions too, like DFID’s new ‘frontier technologies’ programme, launched with a report last week. Few of those conversations, or actions, broach the issue of justice — who wins and who loses from the way technology is developed and used. So I went along to the launch of a book last night (yes, another book) which is about exactly that.

Rethink, Retool, Reboot is written by Simon Trace — author, consultant and former CEO of Practical Action, a development NGO whose work focuses on simple technological interventions in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The event took place at The Photographers Gallery (a fine choice) and featured a discussion with Dinyar Godrej of the New Internationalist magazine, Hilary Sutcliffe of SocietyInside, Katy Athersuch of MSF/Doctors Without Borders in Geneva, and Peter Baeck of Nesta.

Much of what the panel brought to the table reflected the angle of their work — Godrej focused on social justice, Sutcliffe on the need to think differently, Athersuch on the battle to reform medical R&D, and Baeck on the great innovations that do exist.

That was one way to tackle the big issues raised by the idea of technology justice.

And they are big. We’re talking about a call to reform an entire system that touches on so many sub-systems — how R&D works and how it’s funded, how the private sector is incentivised and regulated, intellectual property rights, market forces, social justice… the list goes on.

It’s all in the book. Trace had 10 minutes to lay out the main elements of his argument. An attempt to capture his bottom line: To ‘correct’ the inequalities in technology for development, changes in governance are the key, and that means changes in access to tech, use of tech, and the innovation systems that drive the development of tech.

So what would technology justice look like? When the question came up I sat up a little more attentively. Trace referenced two models: the Planetary Boundaries framework developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute, and the Doughnut model of social and planetary boundaries developed by Oxfam’s Kate Raworth. There’s more on these and Trace’s vision in the book.

Big concepts and big models, appropriate for a big problem. The question is how to get from that to steps for change, to a vision of what a technologically-just system — or even part of a system — looks like.

Athersuch offered an example from MSF’s efforts to encourage new drug development for TB: we looked at breaking down the steps of the R&D chain, she said, to find the obstacles and try to get around them. Baeck spoke about open-source approaches to technological development, so what’s made can be shared and adapted.

Isolated initiatives perhaps, but tangible. They offer a way through the fog of complexity of which frameworks are made. And when one such initiative is successful, the prospect of changing a whole system might just seem less daunting.