Why We’re Launching a New Ideas Forum for Public-Purpose Technology
by Dr. Tanya Filer, Founder and CEO of StateUp
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I have spent most of the past decade studying Public-Purpose Technology—technology that addresses big public needs, and the public policies, organisations, cultures, investments and business models around it. In my work as an academic and, more recently, entrepreneur, the niche status of Public-Purpose Tech (PPT)—a phrase we are only just coining—has not been lost on me. It’s the kind of professional focus deemed “interesting” in faculty meetings, and puzzling by my parents’ friends.
But something is changing in our cultural zeitgeist, and public-purpose technology is central to it. I believe that PPT, in its various forms from digital identity to telemedicine, is reaching a “tipping point”, attaining a level of social uptake and recognition from which a reversal is unlikely. For many people around the world, PPT increasingly shapes our experiences of cities, green spaces, institutions, and citizenry—and makes them better when done correctly.
The pandemic has everything to do with it. As the world sickened in early 2020, citizens across the globe downloaded government contact-tracing apps at a dizzying pace. Those who didn’t, talked about it. Journalists across the political spectrum rushed to cover the role of technology innovation in improving medical supply chains, bolstering social care systems, and greening urban spaces. In some regions, public funding and venture capital also began to crowd in. And with the Earthshot Prize, even the Royals got the memo.
Tipping points create path dependencies and anxieties, but also represent meaningful opportunity—and often urgent need— for change. TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher put it bluntly when he committed to covering public-purpose technology above all else: “The issue is that the planet is now in dire trouble, and anything that is not directly addressing this, is poised to become largely irrelevant.” The cultural signals around PPT suggest a broadening recognition that engaging digital and emerging technologies to address major public needs, from the local to the planetary scale, is both crucial and requires the rounded approach of PPT, not one-dimensional solutionism. Now, we need the infrastructure, which must include the quality of public conversation—ideas, scrutiny, and evolving stories—to support its development.
Tipping points don’t emerge from thin air. Driven groups and individuals have made remarkable strides, over many years now, to build, scrutinise, and improve technologies that address big public needs, prioritise inclusivity, and deliver critical services. Civic tech, GovTech, digital government, social impact, and public-interest tech have emerged as sometimes overlapping fields and movements that have offered real public value. Yet the conversations and terminological cogitations around each have typically remained discrete, attracting niche (if global, digitally connected) communities.
That these fields have been treated as unique and singular has allowed specialized expertise to develop, but it has also contributed to the development of knowledge silos and echo chambers. In most countries, understanding of public-purpose technology remains scant in wider government, public discourse, and investor circles. Take a recent survey, in which half of 167 cities globally described identifying innovative suppliers as one of the greatest obstacles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a horrifying finding. Globally, thousands of “B2G” startups—one type of public-purpose tech producer—are developing high-quality, contextually sensitive products and services to help to address the big public needs that cities face, from sustainable micro-mobility to overcoming property tax evasion. The problem is not supply, but knowledge and relationships.
For PPT to be the victim of disconnection in an age of informational over-abundance is depressing, but ultimately addressable. Silos, as the journalist and anthropologist Gillian Tett describes, can create major blindspots to collective learning and collaboration, which can crush a young field or sector before it has time to mature. PPT can only be a vehicle for regeneration if we share knowledge and ideas, and develop collective memory—stories of what has and hasn’t worked and why—not just within individual organisations, but across emergent PPT ecosystems.
…To Collective Learning
This is why today we are launching The New PPT, the ideas forum to draw together the most exciting, inspiring, thought-provoking—and sometimes contrarian—perspectives on technology that serves a big public need, and the public policies, organisations, cultures, investments, and business models to support it.
The New PPT is our chance to put hard questions on public-purpose tech to leading and emerging thinkers and practitioners drawn from academia, policy, technology, investment, and more—to create collective understanding, develop ecosystem memory, and improve what PPT is. We’ll try to move beyond historical tribalisms and avoid group-think, hearing from contributors with different takes, regional perspectives, and disciplinary slants on some of the key questions that will define PPT over the next decade. For example:
What role should the state play in the development and uptake of PPT?
What growth models will sustain PPT?
What role is there for universities?
What is the relationship between PPT and ESG?
Why do startups—an important engine for innovation—pivot either towards serving a public purpose, or away from it? Why do they fail or succeed?
Over time, we hope to collect a space-shaping set of ideas on public-purpose technology. But to make this forum as useful and inspiring as I believe that it needs to be, we need your input. What other questions should we ask? Who would you like to hear answer them? Who needs to read this? Let us know here.
Sam Gilbert, Author of Good Data and Co-Founder, Bought by Many
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