Technology and the politics of hope

WGSN’s Retail and Insight team are live from Web Summit 2016 in Portugal this week, and today as the world responds to the changing political situation in the US, the sessions at Web Summit were focused solely on what Donald Trump’s win would mean for technology firms.

US Presidential Election 2016

US Presidential Election 2016: voting stickers

In a rousing first session, journalist Owen Jones continued to make the case for the politics of hope versus one of fear. He said that there was more than one kind of America, both the one of disenfranchisement and what Donald Trump represents, but also the one that brought forth Harvey Milk, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King and Suffragettes. “Donald Trump is not the totality of the United States,” he said.

Speakers emphasised the idea that technology is not neutral and that founders and technology companies need to ensure that they take into consideration the social impacts of the products they develop.

The tech industry showcased some of its social efforts today, with a session on how technology is approaching the refugee crisis.

Dave Levin, the co-founder of Refugee OpenWare described how despite living in the “theatre of the absurd,” there are reasons for hope and optimism. He has a $10m investment vehicle operating at the intersection of conflict and emerging technologies out of a special economic zone (SEZ) in Jordan, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Developments that have come out of this include a programme delivering 3D printed limbs, a civilian protection lab that has been developed in Istanbul which is piloting augmented mapping of unexploded bombs, so that people can find out their location, and not be injured or killed by them.

Refugee openware

Refugee OpenWare

Meanwhile Andrew Harper, the innovation lead at the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), said that there are also issues of education, with fewer displaced people returning to their homes this year, and how do they help refugees to become contributing members of the countries they have escaped to. Education is key to this, but he said that with the number of people fleeing war torn countries, the UN would need to build more than 12,000 new schools each year, and then what happens if conflict means they have missed five years of education?

He said technology is crucial to building modular learning experiences so that it can help educate tens of millions of displaced people.

“How do we ensure that refugees become an asset to both the host country and the global economy?” said Alexandra Clare founder of Re:Coded, an initiative that provides Syrian refugee youth between the ages of 17 and 30 with technical skills training and remote employment as freelancers.

But it’s not just social enterprises that are looking to better the world, even Sean Rad, the founder of Tinder, described how it tried to mobilise Millennials ahead of the US election, and to help users understand which candidate best represented their views.

When asked if he feels the company has a responsibility to get people to be politically active, he said: “Yes, this is a big decision for the US, we have a responsibility to help our users in every which way we can. We want to be a platform for good.”

He also said the election has also forced it to reflect on what it believes the appropriate ways of communicating between users is. ‘Locker room’ talk is unacceptable in the real world, and it’s unacceptable on our platform, he said.

Rad also emphasised how the business is trying to shake off its reputation as being one of the drivers of hook up culture, saying that it was founded when he was too shy to approach a woman he liked, and thought that others felt the same, with the intention of creating a less anxiety-inducing way of approaching new people, while ensuring that users don’t hide behind the app and get out and meet up in real life. Some 80% of users on the platform are seeking meaningful relationships, he said.

All in all, today was about confirming that as technology becomes increasingly embedded in our culture and society, it has a social responsibility.

Like this? Follow Petah for live updates from Web Summit on Twitter here.

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