Societal Impact at Techonomy 2014

| Matt Stempeck

David Kirkpatrick kicked off Techonomy with a simple observation that’s had profound impact:

The empowerment of individuals is a central part of technology’s promise, and the corollary to the empowerment of the individual is disruption to the institution.

Half Moon Bay’s dramatic cliffs and crashing Pacific waves provided an ideal backdrop for conversations that spanned the future of humanity, society, and the planet.

I was invited to discuss civic tech, or how to empower individuals and communities while helping institutions evolve gracefully. Fortunately I was joining people-I’m-lucky-to-call peers, Kate Krontiris, Marci Harris, Katy Peters, and Jerry Paffendorf. Together we represented a wide swath of the broad movement that civic tech encompasses: citizen engagement, institutional innovation, amplifying democratic voice, and re-inventing cities. Our conversation covered the recent mid-term elections, as well as the renewed energy we’re seeing to get work done in local government and US cities.

Techonomy isn’t explicitly a civic tech conference, so some of our audience was new to our work, but as active participants considering the impact of tech on the economy and society at large, they got it pretty quickly. Astute questions ranged from “But what can your voting registration tech do about laws designed entirely to suppress the vote?” to “Climate change is clearly a regional problem — which local governments are working together at this level?” (with props to FEMA Region II).

Elsewhere at the conference, we discussed how gigantic companies can stay relevant and fight inertia to continue innovating, even at the expense of existing revenue and business units. You can watch free videos of the talks here. Speakers covered the kinds of incremental innovation that eventually create breakthroughs, as well as the completely disruptive innovation that arrives before many of us are ready for it. It cost $3 billion to sequence the human genome in 2003. Today, it costs $1,000 and dropping.

Civic tech might just be the glue between the new world and the old. As a movement, we are enthralled with the opportunity to do things in better ways, but we also understand that institutions move slowly and that the voice of the people must not be left behind.

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