Working in various capacities in the area of civic technology, I regularly receive calls from colleagues in different organizations, both formal and informal, asking me to connect them with developers so they can “build an app” or “a monitoring tool that will lead to transparency”. I also get asked many questions about building or adopting technology as well as complaints about failures related to technology adoption.

This is typical.

Digital technology enthusiasm in the civic space

The rise of digital and other new technologies has been met with much enthusiasm by people across different industries and sectors. This is mainly due to its transformational and democratizing potential. This enthusiasm was renewed in the wake of the “Arab Spring” when activists used digital technologies as an organizing tool and to amplify their demands.

Indeed, like in the past when printers, fax machines, and even encryption, were used by activists; across the world, new technologies have been used to open up civic space by enabling political participation in various ways. However, as reactionary actors use these same technologies to close civic space and the risks of these technologies are better understood, the early enthusiasm has somewhat dwindled.

A hangover from earlier days is the continued desire to throw in technology to address often complex, systemic problems or misdiagnosed problems. People continue to behave as if technology is a magical fix.

Technological solutionism

‘Techno solutionism’ - a term popularised after Evgeny Morozov’s book, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism’ - describes this belief that every problem has a solution based on technology. And it is tempting in a world so full of problems, to desire an ‘easy’ or ‘quick’ way to solve some of our problems.

But technology is not the answer to all problems. Building new technologies is a complex undertaking, that can bring about its own set of problems.

"A hangover from earlier days is the continued desire to throw in technology to address often complex, systemic problems or misdiagnosed problems. People continue to behave as if technology is a magical fix." - Koketso Moeti, Amandla Mobi (Tweet this | Share this via WhatsApp)

When people call me asking how to create technology for their problem, usually after I ask a few basic questions, it becomes clear that there is already something that exists that can do what is desired, or, more often, that the problem cannot be solved by technology. Organizations are simply just not making the necessary considerations before deciding to build or use technology.

Think twice before building a civic technology solution

A newly released guide for civic tech practitioners aptly titled, ‘Don’t build it.’ Developed by Luke Jordan, an MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) practitioner-in-residence, the guide codifies the lessons he learned as founder and executive director of Grassroot - a civic technology platform for community organizing in South Africa.

The very practical guide also advises on how to put together a team to build the technology and how to work on such a project - in the rare instance that it is ever necessary.

The guide echoes a recommendation made in a 2015 study, “think twice before you build”. The study which looked at how organizations in South Africa and Kenya select technology tools in their transparency and accountability initiatives, found that not only are organizations often dissatisfied when they build technology, but also that they just do not choose tools effectively.

The study authors wrote, “Less than a quarter of the organisations were happy with the tools they had chosen. They often found technical issues that made the tool hard to use, after they had decided to adopt it, while half the organizations discovered that their intended users did not use the tools to the extent that they had hoped”. And this study is just one of many that have pointed out the limits of technology alone as a solution.

To be sure, technology is not going anywhere, and I do believe that we can and should use it to build the world we want, rather than leaving it solely to be built, designed, and used by those whose only interests are profits, control, extraction and worse. But it should just be another tool, not regarded as inevitable nor as some kind of quick fix.

Jordan, Luke. 2021. “Don’t Build It: A Guide For Practitioners In Civic Tech / Tech For Development”, Grassroot (South Africa) and MIT Governance Lab (United States).

Like any serious civic tech practitioner, I’ll continue to ask questions of my colleagues who are thinking of building any kind of technology. But from now on, I’ll probably start with this helpful tip from Jordan’s guide, “When someone says, ‘We should build some tech for that’, just say no. When an investor or donor says, ‘Why don’t you build some technology’, just say no. When you read another article or see another TEDx talk about someone pretending their app achieved something, while citing numbers that are both unverified and meaningless, and a voice inside says, ‘Why don’t we also build technology’, just say no”.

The truth is, there are many things needed in the world right now, but another piece of ill-conceived technology is probably not one of them.

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