A new generation of entrepreneurs is now turning its attention from solving discrete business problems to solving the world’s problems, with a variety of funds, initiatives, and foundations. In recent weeks, various news stories and Op-ed’s have highlighted the different approaches being attempted to do the most amount of good with capital and technology.
Sean Parker wrote eloquently in the Wall Street Journal about taking a “hacker mindset” to philanthropy:
“Philanthropy isn’t subject to normal market forces. From an economic perspective, it may be the most distorted market in the world, the only one where the buyer of a good or service—the “donor”—isn’t the ultimate recipient of the value that good or service has to offer.
So while philanthropists like to talk about impact, they seldom have the tools to measure it. This has led to a world in which the primary currency of exchange is recognition and reputation, not effectiveness. These incentives lead most philanthropists to favor “safe” gifts to well-established institutions, resulting in a never-ending competition to name buildings at major universities, medical centers, performing arts centers and other such public places.
Hackers have shown themselves to be less interested in this conventional form of philanthropy. Instead, they want to know that they are having an impact that can be measured and felt. This is where the hackers’ ability to spot problem that are solvable gives them a decisive advantage. It’s easy to find problems—we see them everywhere we look—but it is something else entirely to find “hackable” problems. Those are the ones that have viable solutions.
This new generation of philanthropists wants to believe there is a clever “hack” for every problem, and they have launched a number of radical experiments. For instance, in the face of massive projects that have failed to transform the slums of Kibera, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, people like Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are attempting to send cash directly to the cellphones of Kibera’s residents, through charities like GiveDirectly.”
A few weeks later, a Vox article talked more about how Facebook's Dustin Moskovitz and his wife gave $25 million from their Good Ventures foundation to GiveDirectly, a charity that sends unconditional cash grants to poor people. It offers a strong argument for the direct cash strategy:
“Perhaps the most profound benefit of cash as an intervention, though, is that it's just about the least paternalistic form of aid there is. That's valuable both because it respects the dignity of aid recipients, and because it doesn't require rich donors to have detailed understandings of what's happening on the ground, the lack of which has doomed many a well-intentioned aid effort before. Most senior policymakers at USAID or the World Bank have never experienced the kind of extreme poverty that billions of people worldwide have to endure. Nor have I, and as a result I have no idea what I would spend a cash transfer from GiveDirectly on if I were living on less than $2 a day in Uganda. Would I buy a bednet? Maybe! Or maybe I'd buy an iron roof. Or school tuition for loved ones. Or cattle.
But you know who does have a good sense of the needs of poor people in Uganda? Poor people in Uganda. They have a very good idea of what they need. Do they sometimes misjudge their spending priorities? Certainly; so do we all. …..
The development community has historically been all too willing to define 'well,' and has all too often gotten it wrong."
This is what I find most intriguing and debate worthy: While nearly everyone aspires to do “good” in the world, what we decide to do is driven by our personal values. Failures happen when our values don’t match those of the groups we’re trying to influence, or the approach is suboptimal in producing the best possible technology.
An alternative to philanthropy is a capitalistic-based system. Making that argument in FastCo, Kyle Westaway wrote last month
“It’s time for founders to disrupt their approach to impact and shift paradigms from giving back to building better companies, from philanthropy to building better businesses.
The Founders Pledge, which encourages profit then purpose, financial success as a prerequisite to create a positive impact, is old wine in new wineskins. Or perhaps, more appropriately, it’s outdated software running on new hardware. The startup community does not need to copy and paste the same approach to social impact as the industrial age tycoons or large corporations. What we need is to write a new base code. With the talent and innovation in the startup community, we can do better.”
I am in favor of writing a new base code – upending our current operating systems of life. But I’m also encouraged to see so many different models working towards bringing about positive outcomes with technology. To have a shot at solving some of our most vexing challenges, we need a diverse ecosystem of approaches.
For me personally, I’m betting that the pursuit of good technology will create the most favorable conditions for humanity to flourish. The difference between focusing on doing good with technology and building good technology is much more than semantics, as I discussed in an Op-ed earlier this month in TechCrunch:
“Building good technology starts with strong curiosity, pursuit of hard problems and exploration, wherever it leads. It isn’t necessarily high-minded. Rather, on an important level, it’s the age-old quest to build a better mousetrap — or maybe even to reimagine the problem in a way that eliminates a need for a mousetrap in the first place.
Good technology isn’t just a matter of mission statements; it can also come from a tinkerer with no specific overriding purpose other than the pursuit of knowledge. In either case, building good technology is an act of exploration, relentlessly pushing beyond current understanding and capabilities. These are behaviors and preferences commonly shared among scientists, inventors and technologists.
In my current venture, we are investing in companies using science to build good technology. In many cases, the technology is already advanced enough to identify tangible applications, like ameliorating sickness.
But many of the emerging science and technology efforts we are funding, such as exploring the microbiome or artificial intelligence, are simply about exploring hard questions without pre-defined motives around their potential usage. In other words, we are pursuing good technology because we believe that’s ultimately how we’ll do the most good in the world.”
Read the full piece in TechCrunch.