The SXSW Interactive Festival once again attracted thousands of the smartest, most creative and passionate people to Austin for discussions about the latest innovations in technology, media and design.
The most notable attendee this year was President Obama, who used his Keynote Conversation on the first day to implore attendees to apply their expertise to solving the most complex challenges facing our society.
More than ever before, SXSW featured discussions about improving civic engagement and how to use technology to help better the world — from helping assist the 60 million refugees around the globe to increasing voter participation here in the United States.
Now, as the thousands of attendees return to their daily lives, we must make sure that the important discussions continue and real progress is made.
President Obama went to SXSW wanting to connect with the people who are shaping the digital environment, and who understand best how to influence behavior and drive actions. He called on them to put their qualifications to work helping to figure out ways to get more people engaged in meaningful ways, explaining, “We cannot solve the problems in government and we cannot solve the problems that we face collectively as a society unless we, the people, are paying attention.”
The president’s message resonated — the best and brightest could be heard in the days that followed talking about how to answer the call and get involved. But the reality of what it takes to solve these problems — and the difficult task of coordinating efforts between government, the private sector and nonprofits — was very clear.
Each sector brings unique expertise and important perspective that, when combined, create an environment where durable solutions can be developed. But there are also obvious disconnects when it comes to how the expertise and resources from one sector might be combined with another. The potential for progress and innovation is at risk of being squandered.
The potential for progress and innovation is at risk of being squandered.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can absolutely re-imagine our approach to solving complex problems and change the way we think about how to use technology to better the world. More importantly, we have most of the tools and expertise that we need — we just have to put them to work in some different ways. That starts by getting organized. Here are the first key steps:
Teamwork makes the dream work. If we expect to tackle these massive problems, we need to do a better job bringing different groups of stakeholders together. Sure, we have platforms and tools that encourage information sharing and facilitate collective action. But, we all know how hard it is to truly collaborate.
Nobody wants to cede control, and it’s hard to admit that someone else’s idea might be better. Instead of looking for consensus, let’s think more like a network and act like a team, working interdependently while being fully committed to a single result, sharing ideas and looking for ways to make our collective efforts go much further.
It’s time to connect the dots. There are currently dozens, maybe even hundreds, of different projects in the United States alone hoping to address different parts of the global refugee crisis. There is no master list or map of that ecosystem. Nobody is volunteering to keep track of the chaos or manage potential partnerships.
Instead, many projects find themselves competing for limited resources, directing attention toward lesser priorities and generally clogging up the system. We can do a better job sharing information and connecting the dots, eliminating inefficiency and ensuring progress is being made.
Don’t recreate the wheel. When considering how to build a new product, the most crucial step is conveying the concept clearly so that designers and developers know what exactly they need to build. Without that vital information, it’s unlikely that anything of value can be created. The same is true when developing or utilizing technology in a humanitarian crisis.
The same clear specifications are needed. Instead of creating a special “humanitarian” effort, recognize that product design or development requires the same thinking and approach no matter what population you are serving or problem you are trying to solve, and apply your best thinking, and best practices, accordingly.
It’s no secret that some of the most talented people on the planet are spending more time and energy maximizing return on investment for a tech startup instead of driving positive change in our society. And it will continue to be that way until we re-imagine how the private sector, nonprofits and government can work together to collectively help solve pressing global issues.
We don’t need to invent a whole new way of doing things; we simply need to do a better job applying what we already know to this important set of problems.
As the president noted, “these are solvable problems, but it’s not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve it.” Take this as your invitation to step in and disrupt the way we solve crucial issues that shape the future of our nation, society and humanity as a whole.