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Tech Causes Make the List

By Tom Watson on January 1, 20082 Comments

One trend I’ve noted of late is the extent to which social causes tend to figure in forward-looking media technology developments. Take Australian tech writer Nick Galvin’s year-opening top 10 list of “things that will change your future” – two of the 10 are explicitly social causes, Kiva and Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child program, and a third hints at a grander social purpuse: the World Community Grid project, in which computer users donate their processing power to solve greater problems.

Last September, I attended a fascinating one-day symposium at Columbia University called Hacking Philanthropy, organized by New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Of the 40 or so people around the table, most had deep backgrounds in media technology, either as entrepreneurs or investors. It struck me then how committed technology innovators are to the concept of “change” – that what they’re really in it for (the best ones, of course) is the chance to create something that changes the landscape. They may call it market disruption or some equally dull gray business school term, but it’s really social innovation they’re after.

Blogger Scott Edward Anderson really summed up that day back in September best in his post on the Green Skeptic:

Imagine a room packed with a ton of brain power, knowledge, and expertise from the world of venture capital, technology, social change, and philanthropy and you’ve some idea what I walked into…

Brad Burnham, a Union Square partner, organized the conference and contributed an essay to, where I’m the publisher. Brad was struck by what he sees as the collision between the market forces that govern technology innovation and the underlying stasis of philanthropy, where it’s very tough to break through with a new model – something Brad and the other participants at the table would clearly like to change:

Philanthropy markets have a number of significant advantages over traditional nonprofits but they will need to find ways to increase the amount of information available to donors and lenders if they are going to continue to grow. Cell phones may become the portal through which the third world participates in philanthropy markets. As the Facebook/Craigslist generation becomes a larger part of the donor community, they may be willing to exchange the radical efficiencies of the marketplace approach, for a less perfect, retrospective, Craigslist-like approach to fraud. If more transaction data is hosted on servers located in the developed world, there may be enough market data to use the same computerized techniques the credit card companies use today to spot fraud. Kiva and DonorsChoose captured the imagination of the folks at our event, I think, because most people instinctively believe that the immediacy and emotional power of engaging directly with a borrower or recipient and the inherent efficiency of a lean market place approach to philanthropy already outweigh the risks, and that the balance between opportunity and risk will shift further to opportunity as information and information technology becomes more broadly distributed in the developing world.

Some of the themes developed at Hacking Philanthropy have stayed with me in the months since, and it’s one of the conversations I had in 2007 that convinced me to write CauseWired. It’s clear that the rapid innovation that drives technology change – particularly in a wired world – will change how the next generation views its charitable responsibilities. So it’s no surprise to me to find three social causes on top 10 tech list for 2008.

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