Technology for Good
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The City of Oakland sits north of the southern bay area – home to some of the biggest tech giants and wealthiest developers in the world – but many of its residents live in poverty, disconnected from both the benefits and innovations of the booming tech industry. According to a report released in 2015 by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, 11.3 percent of Bay Area residents are living at or below the poverty level.
In Oakland, rents have increased 70 percent in the past five years, as developers and members of the tech industry search for real estate in a tight market, pushing low income residents of color further and further out of the city. “When you talk about displacement of blacks and people of color from Oakland, that’s the transition in this economy, this society, this city,” said Dr. Steven C. Pitts, Associate Chair of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley.
How, then, can Silicon Valley promote the kind of technological innovation that encourages social inclusion, benefiting the less advantaged and the cities and districts in which they live?
In December, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University gathered leading industry experts, tech entrepreneurs, philanthropists and city officials to examine ways to expand access to the digital economy in rapidly growing urban spaces.
From left to right: Steven C. Pitts, Jose Quinonez, Stephen DeBerry, Mariko Davidson, Catherine Bracy
Panelists spoke about equity in the tech industry and the ways in which technology can help underserved communities better manage their finances, as well as the role it can play in city planning, transportation, data and mapping.
Seeing cities and moving beyond “sales metrics”
Mariko Davidson , an urban planner and civic activist who leads civic engagement and technology initiatives at Microsoft in San Francisco, says that her company is now moving beyond “sales metrics” to focus on building collaborations with the government that “leverage technology for the public good.”
“There was a recognition at the highest levels that more than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, with two-thirds in 2050,” said Davidson. “Cities are more important than ever before.”
Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement team was established three years ago with the goal of building community partnerships and leveraging technology for sustainable change, and now has two teams working across four cities in the United States: Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco
Empowering the poor
José Quiñonez, CEO of the Mission Asset Fund, emphasized the role that technology can play in directly empowering poor immigrants whose finances, languages and familial ties stretch across national boundaries and cultures.
“We started our work in the Mission District in San Francisco, with a purpose of working with and helping low income immigrants develop their financial security,” Quiñonez said. “Then when we started understanding the realities of why people are not financially secure, we learned that people don’t have the basic tools to actually build their financial security. Which is not having access to checking accounts, savings accounts, in many cases people don’t have credit, credit histories.”
Quiñonez and his team developed a loan-servicing platform and formalized peer-to-peer borrowing traditions that immigrants brought with them to the U.S. into what his team calls Lending Circles. Mission Asset Fund took a lending tradition that existed outside of banks and formalized it to help low income immigrants build a credit history, and find ways to get out of debt or access credit to create businesses and build homes.
The need for structural change
While panelists highlighted the positive changes and greater efforts companies and organizations are making to foster a more inclusive digital economy, many agreed that there is still a need for structural reform that moves beyond simply employing more people from underprivileged and marginalized communities.
Stephen DeBerry, founder and managing partner of Bronze investments, a venture capital firm in San Francisco, and Catherine Bracy, co-founder and executive director of Oakland-based TechEquity Collaborative, both emphasized the need to challenge and change the structure of the tech industry to open up the field to immigrants, people of color and under-represented segments who could benefit from the possibilities of an inclusive digital economy.
“We need to be as worried about [access to] social capital as we are worried about access to financial capital,” said Bracy. For her, this will involve helping people cultivate the cultural capital, knowledge, confidence and experience to move up the corporate ladder and become leaders in the industry.
“The people that go to the VCs [venture capitalists] to raise money…have learned how the industry works by working in a company,” she said. “That’s an important trajectory to ultimately being the next black Bill Gates, or as Beyonce would say, our future president.”
For DeBerry, there are “radical experiments that are still untried” when it comes to the capability of technology to foster inclusion. For example, in his own experience as an institutional investor, he has engaged in conversations about equity crowd funding.
“The conversation at the board was, ‘How do we create a layer of this that can be accessible to everyday people?’” he said. “We couldn’t possibly do that without a technical implementation. The good news is that it’s in place, and the intention is there.”
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