Public Interest Technology: Bridge to the Future – Stanford Social Innovation Review

Two leaders from business and philanthropy share recommendations for building stronger internal teams and a cross-sector ecosystem focused on designing technology with the needs of the public in mind.
By Chuck Robbins & Darren Walker May 9, 2022
(Illustration by Vreni Stollberger)
When the Golden Gate Bridge first opened to the public in 1937, it was heralded as “one of the greatest monuments of all time.” Close to a century later, its distinctive “international orange” pillars have inspired millions of reproductions and innovations—including the Cisco company logo, which proudly depicts the landmark’s towering beams.
But this iconic bridge was almost not built at all.
Experts warned that San Francisco’s heavy fog would make it impossible to build a bridge, let alone see the final product from the shore, putting the project in jeopardy. Solving the dilemma required cooperation: a group of engineers, architects, and designers, each with their own areas of expertise. Only when a consulting architect noticed a few streaks of reddish-orange primer did inspiration strike. He proposed painting the bridge its unique orange color, so that it would gleam visibly even through heavy fog.
Fittingly, the Golden Gate Bridge was made possible thanks to its own bridges between experts across sectors, and between different fields sharing knowledge and strategies. Like many innovations, the bridge began with interdisciplinary conversations—the dialogues necessary to create indispensable contributions to the public good.
Today, these connections are even more vital. Thanks to bold technological advances, we are now embedded in a rapidly shifting landscape—accumulating new tech services and products that seemed inconceivable just a decade prior. From how people learn to how they heal, and from how they connect to how they pay their bills, technology is infused in every aspect of life. Nevertheless, from racist policing algorithms to biased tenant screening technologies impacting renters, we’ve also witnessed how technology has been used in ways that amplify inequality.
As leaders in philanthropy and technology, we see immense promise of a tech-enabled future when technology is designed with the needs of the public in mind. Yet, where there should be bridges, we recognize a persistent gap. Even now, the people who could most benefit from learning from one another are rarely in the same rooms or virtual spaces, from scientists to community organizers, developers to social theorists. By improving these collaborations, new technologies can better serve the public and help deliver more positive outcomes.
What’s more, technologists who pair their deep technical expertise with an understanding of ethics, legal, policy, and societal concerns continue to be underrepresented in tech spaces across sectors.
Our imperative is to bridge that gap, to create a future that works for all. In order to do this, it’s critically important to invest in a more robust field of public interest technology. This growing, cross-disciplinary field challenges us to consider who technology benefits—and who might bear the brunt of its unintended consequences. It also helps foster interdisciplinary approaches, as public interest technology draws expertise from all backgrounds.
Working in concert, a range of institutions—for-profit companies and foundations, start-ups and advocacy organizations—can learn from one another to reimagine training, team structure, and design around new frameworks and goals. Ultimately, just as the field of public interest law ignited widespread investment in a more inclusive and accessible legal profession throughout the 1960s and 70s, public interest technology must spark a major, cross-sector shift today. With the public interest as a guide, leaders across the private sector and civic society can train their teams to understand the material context in which their code will operate, and advance both technology and justice in kind.
Already, companies are focused on building a stronger tech future. A growing number of thoughtful, innovative corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs are redesigning the tech field, while serving local communities and the most vulnerable. Top companies are also increasingly investing in responsible technology policies and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. For instance, at Cisco, our social impact grants and signature programs like Cisco Networking Academy connect millions globally with digital skills training, job development, economic opportunity, and technology access. Through these initiatives, we’ve set a goal of positively impacting 1 billion lives by 2025 and are more than 70 percent of the way to achieving this goal. We remain firmly committed to our own set of social justice beliefs and actions and are focused on fostering diverse perspectives in our offices. In 2017, we co-launched the Multiplier Effect pledge, which challenges business leaders to sponsor a promising rising star of a different race, culture, gender, ability, orientation, or background than themselves.
At Cisco, we have defined our purpose to “power an inclusive future for all,” and that manifests itself in the ways we use technology to open up opportunity for people from every corner of the world. But we also recognize that the technology sector can and must do more to develop a vanguard of public interest technologists in the private sector. A survey of global data and analytics companies found that only 20 percent monitor data models for fairness and ethics concerns in their daily work—even though nearly all agree that inefficient monitoring hinders AI. Customers are beginning to demand more, as well. They overwhelmingly support companies they believe prioritize the public interest. In fact, based in large part on these trends, overall trust in tech is slipping to all-time lows: In just one year, tech fell from the most trusted US sector in 2020 to ninth place in 2021.
The public interest technology discipline calls on tech companies to embed public interest values not just in isolated initiatives, but at every level of an organization’s operations. In doing so, companies can generate meaningful value both in terms of profits, but more importantly, for communities and customers to rebuild their trust.
These efforts start with talent recruitment. When companies proactively anticipate security risks or can foresee disproportionate impact on historically marginalized people, the effects can be immediate.
And as more tech companies recruit cross-disciplinary experts, those who break down silos and consider all angles across the design, development, and implementation of technology, the whole sector will be better equipped with the expertise it needs to deliver better outcomes. For example, companies that prioritize recruiting algorithmic engineers who are also trained to foresee disproportionate impacts of their products on historically marginalized people, are better equipped to identify potential vulnerabilities, redesign unequal algorithms, and revolutionize ethical AI.
Recruitment and hiring efforts also must continue through product design and team building. Designers and developers who center public interest values—equity, access, and transparency—not only design better products, they create better relationships between company and consumer, between corporate culture and the surrounding community. For instance, at Cisco, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right and a driver of business imperatives. But ensuring that data is used responsibly requires constant vigilance from the onset, particularly because data and privacy risks change almost constantly. So, Cisco established a human rights advisory council and responsible AI framework to center and uphold the public’s privacy and safety in our work.
Perhaps most importantly, tech companies must acknowledge that they cannot do this work alone. Adopting a public interest technology mindset requires reaching across sectors and turning to experts—those who can share community resources and perspectives and who understand technology’s impact firsthand. At Cisco, we partner with the Center for Legal and Court Technology, a nonprofit that teaches legal professionals how to integrate technology in the justice system responsibly and knowledgeably. In turn, we’ve learned from these experts about the legal and policy implications of our work. Mutually beneficial networks like these not only spread knowledge, they shift how companies and organizations function—so that no matter the sector, individuals and teams have the skill sets necessary to responsibly deploy tech.
Just as tech leaders expand investments in social scientists and policy experts as part of public interest technology, philanthropy must bring grantees and program officers closer to understanding the technology that intersects with all their work, its uses, and its impacts.
This is particularly crucial now, as technology transforms the social justice landscape. Many organizations are learning to harness emerging—and often complex—technological tools to reach clients and community members. Meanwhile, others grapple with how technology disrupts their fields and theories of change: A nonprofit that supports journalists must now understand digital rights; an organization working for racial equity now contends with the harm predictive policing and bias algorithms impose on people of color.
In fact, just as technology influences every aspect of daily life, it reshapes and restructures every aspect of our programming across philanthropy. And in communities, technology can both spur opportunity and address inequality, while a lack of technology can leave too many behind. This creates an opportunity for philanthropy to lead where regulators and policy makers have stalled. To keep grantmaking current and ensure meaningful impact, philanthropy can turn to public interest technology—both to interdisciplinary technology experts and to public-private partnerships. At the Ford Foundation, this process has already begun. Since 2016, Ford has committed more than $100 million to growing this field, and building the ecosystem for a more just technological future for us all.
And in 2017, Ford Foundation realized that grantmaking without public interest technology embedded within our programs is akin to building a bridge from the middle of the river. That’s why we launched our technology fellows program. Rather than relegating technology experts to strictly technical work, this fellowship program invites them into the intersection of technology and social justice within the foundation. These fellows––who include technologists with background in tech, social impact, academia, and the arts––join Ford’s program teams for two years, and impart new mindsets, strategies, relationships, and tools.
In the program’s short history, Ford’s tech fellows have already institutionalized valuable knowledge about public interest technology across our various programmatic work, from economic justice to civic engagement to criminal justice. They also have devised crucial tools to help grantees—like the cybersecurity assessment tool, which helps civil society organizations strengthen their cybersecurity infrastructure and protocols. This merger of expertise between technology and activism, cyber policy and public policy, is nurturing and sustaining a more durable social justice ecosystem—one that is not tech-averse, but tech-empowered—advancing justice both for our grantees and for the communities they serve.
To be sure, this collaboration is just one of many ways that social justice organizations can improve upon the agile, analytical mindset of the tech industry and leverage technological tools—giving it the grounding and context to be more effective and building even more opportunities for exchange will empower the cross-disciplinary training that improves lives and our society.
No matter your organization, the opportunity to create a more responsible tech future is massive. For companies and philanthropic organizations taking the first steps on this journey, it can be difficult to know where to start. As with all complex policy challenges, we can look to the past for inspiration. When cybersecurity issues began to arise at tech companies in the early 2000s, executives had few resources to marshal in defense. Their initial response was to hire outside experts, outsourcing their cybersecurity infrastructure in a piecemeal system. But soon, they realized, they could operate more responsibly and efficiently if they were able to predict security breaches from the start—to assess vulnerabilities and intervene before an emergency struck. From there, the role of internal chief security officer was born.
We now have an opportunity to assist another paradigm shift, by acting efficiently and equitably to embed public interest technologists across sectors. Whether it’s hiring public interest technologists to help tech companies build in safeguards or matching them with civil society organizations to harness technical tools for the public good, we know these collaborations are needed to improve our connected world.
By fostering a new vanguard of cross-disciplinary experts to work across sectors and empowering them with the resources they need to succeed, we can bridge the gaps between the public interest and technology to power a more just and inclusive future for all.
Read more stories by Chuck Robbins & Darren Walker.
Chuck RobbinsChuck Robbins is the Chair and CEO of Cisco. In his role, Chuck is focused on helping companies, cities, and countries around the world as they look to Cisco to connect, secure, and automate their organizations for a digital-first world.
Darren WalkerDarren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion international social justice philanthropy. Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first nonprofit in US history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond to stabilize nonprofit organizations in the wake of COVID-19.
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