At its best, tech gives you the power to shape your life, and works with the life you've shaped until now. At its worst, tech assumes what life you want to lead. And takes you down paths you can’t see or understand.
A couple of years ago, I was in Rwanda working with an electric motorbike startup. They were building motorbikes to sell or lease to taxi drivers, who used them to drive passengers around Kigali. When pitching it, the Founder always had this go-to line. "The bike", he would say (emphasising the bits in bold) "and its electric charge are 30% cheaper than their petrol or diesel versions. For a taxi driver, that's way more profit from a day's work". To which his Co-Founder would add, "Did you know Africa had 780,000 premature deaths from air pollution in 2019 alone? Electric bikes don't emit fumes, so once they're mainstream in a city, that place has one less problem to deal with".
More money and cleaner air - it's a compelling pitch. Rwanda's taxi drivers (and investors) loved it. And so did I, but for different reasons.
I loved it because the startup didn't just give taxi drivers an electric motorbike; it gave them the power to better shape their lives. With an electric motorbike, they could make more money to spend how they liked. Or, they could work fewer hours, and spend that extra time how they wanted. And - if the bikes took off - they could do all that in a city less encumbered by toxic air. Money, time, cleaner air. All giving the taxi driver the power to produce a life that meant something to them, whatever that life might be.
In working with tech, I've assumed plenty of metrics to try and measure social impact. For instance, tech is ‘beneficial’ to the degree it makes someone healthier, or smarter, or more productive, and so on. But maybe the most compelling lens to scrutinise whether tech makes people's lives better is whether it gives them the power to shape their life, and its trajectory¹. Which might include working towards all or none of those assumed metrics.
There’s another angle to this too. Tech shouldn’t just equip people to produce a life that means something to them. It should also work with the lives that people and communities’ have shaped over time.
I remember learning this through a humbling experience in Zambia. We were working with a Zambian startup to build a pay-as-you-go bicycle scheme. We’d designed two initial pay-as-you-go concepts. One was a rent-a-ride scheme, popular in cities in Europe and the US. The other was a lease-to-own scheme where you pay in monthly installments, to one day own the bicycle. I was in favour of people renting rides, thinking the low cost of a journey would attract more users. After all, our target users were women and children in low-income households. What I hadn’t realised was how ‘renting’ a journey (or renting anything) was a foreign concept in Zambia. What you pay for, you should ultimately own.
We were lucky. Lucky because the Zambian startup we were working with knew better. They understood the importance of ownership in the culture we were working with, and so we went with a lease-to-own model. In other words, we worked with the meaning built up in a community, rather than imposing from the outside. Agency remained within the culture. Later, a bike shop owner would tell me a story about how customers would buy bike parts - a wheel, a frame, handlebars - and put together a bike over time. Nobody ever thought to spend that money on renting a bike.
So far, I've argued that tech should optimise for letting you produce meaning in your own life. And it should do that by empowering people to shape their lives, and calibrating with how they’ve shaped their lives so far.