Tech for Good

Paul HeidebrechtPaul Heidebrecht’s research interests reflect a range of academic fields and professional experiences, including the intersection of peacebuilding and social innovation, technology and ethics, and political advocacy.

“The role of technology in contemporary society is expanding every day, and critical reflection on the impact of technology now pervades a growing number of scholarly and popular contexts. Not only is it a struggle to keep up with accelerating technological developments, we can be overwhelmed by a deluge of observations, opinions, and analyses of these developments. Indeed, thanks to the rise of new technologies like social media, there are many more ways that our attention is being drawn to the impact of technology.”

These are the words I used to introduce a recent issue of The Conrad Gebel Review devoted to “Insights on Technology from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective,” and you may be thinking I was simply stating the obvious. Of course technology looms larger than ever in contemporary life! And of course we are all talking about technology more than ever!

As someone with a longstanding interest in asking big questions about technology, I sometimes forget how new this preoccupation with technology is. It is only in recent years that it has become common to hear people talk about technology as a problem rather than the solution to all of our problems. Even more, there appears to be a growing recognition that technologies have the power to shape our daily habits, the ways we think, and even the things we believe.

Decades before conversations about the nature and impact of technology went mainstream, Grebel was providing a context for students to reflect critically on this important topic. This too may be stating the obvious, at least to readers of Grebel Now! After all, as an academic and residence community located on the campus of a university that was rapidly ascending as an engineering and computer science powerhouse, technology has always been an aspect of culture that was front and centre.

As an engineering student living at Grebel in the early 1990s, I recall coming across Conrad Brunk’s 1985 Eby Lecture on “Professionalism and Responsibility in the Technological Society.” Jim Reimer lent me his copy of the Canadian philosopher George Grant’s book Technology and Justice. And Ron Mathies arranged an internship for me with Mennonite Central Committee’s appropriate technology team in Bangladesh. Even more important than the prodding of Grebel profs were the dorm and dining room conversations about technology with fellow Grebelites majoring in programs in arts, environment, and health as well as engineering, math, and science.

In my view, the Grebel community has long created a container for particularly poignant conversations about technology because the conversation partners have included more than concerned citizens and consumers of technology—they have also included the creators and developers of technology. And so perhaps it should come as no surprise that, as this issue of Grebel Now demonstrates, our alumni would find many ways to use technology to make the world better.

Conversations in contemporary society have tended to be much more compartmentalized. Media headlines in recent years point to a growing and very public “techlash” against the power of large technology companies. Concerned citizens and consumers of technology are organizing and speaking out with the support of activists, and politicians are taking note.

At the same time, there has arisen a corresponding but less well-known “tech for good” movement within the tech sector itself that has also found support among universities, investors, and others involved in developing new technologies.

In Waterloo region, for example, Communitech, an organization dedicated to supporting tech start-ups, re-branded their annual summit around the theme of tech for good in 2018. As Communitech’s then CEO Iain Klugman put it, it was time for tech companies to “slow down and fix things”—a sharp contrast to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s famous motto: “move fast and break things.” The summit included a process to develop and launch the Canadian Tech for Good Declaration, an effort to build the commitment of companies to a set of six principles, including things like “leave no one behind” and “think inclusively at every stage.”

This was just one of literally dozens of declarations and manifestos that have appeared in recent years, and, beyond words and conferences, there has also been a proliferation of tech for good organizations, many of which aim to contextualize what is meant by the expression. Questions that have been wrestled with include: How should we define what is good? Who gets to define it? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we achieve it?

In recent years I have tasked my students in a Peace and Conflict Studies course called “Engineering and Peace” to review and augment my working list of tech for good initiatives, and I always learn about new efforts. One of the busiest clusters of activity falls under the “AI for Good” or “Data for Good” rubric. Another cluster of organizations can be grouped under what is sometimes referred to as “Civic Tech” or “Public Interest Technology.” And, of course, there is a longstanding and significant effort to apply technology to sustainability challenges; numerous projects and organizations that make up the “Green Tech” or “Clean Tech” movement can also be thought of as examples of tech for good.

At Grebel, we are making our own contribution to this broader tech for good movement through the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement’s leadership in the emerging field of PeaceTech.

There are two important dimensions to our PeaceTech efforts: first, we leverage insights from the field of peacebuilding in order to critically engage developments in technology. For example, the Centre for Peace Advancement is home to researchers with Project Ploughshares who are focused on the military and security implications of emerging technologies of warfare such as lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Second, we leverage technological expertise to augment the advancement of peace. For example, the Grebel Peace Incubator has supported eight PeaceTech start-ups since 2015, including a venture developing hardware to make the clearance of landmines and other unexploded ordnances faster and safer, and a venture developing software that enables organizations to implement and grow diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Furthermore, since 2019, students in Grebel’s PeaceTech Living-Learning Community have met weekly to consider both of these angles to PeaceTech: asking big questions about, and exploring ways to create positive change with technology. All of these efforts were highlighted through a recent International Symposium on Technology and Society panel session entitled “More than Tech for Good: PeaceTech at Waterloo and Beyond.”

It seems to me that the growing momentum of the tech for good movement is a hopeful sign. After all, if the recent flood of societal concern over technology is going to lead to constructive change, it will need to engage those responsible for the new directions technology is leading us. And there are now lots of entry points for engagement.

As the literary critic and professor of the humanities Alan Jacobs noted in a recent article in The New Atlantis, there have been cogent and correct critiques of technology since at least the 1950s; the problem is that they have been “utterly powerless to slow our technosocial momentum, much less alter its direction.” I agree with Jacobs’ conclusion that we need more than insightful thinking. We need new ways of living and new kinds of technologies.

The obvious question to ask is how we can strike the right balance at Grebel in this regard. Are we inspiring and equipping our students to be enlightened creators and changemakers as well as articulate critics of technology? How do we guard against complacency or contentment to simply coexist with technology?

Tech for good practitioners across the creek and down the street are looking to spark an appropriate technology movement for the 21st century. Faculty, students, and tech start-up founders, as well as leaders at the University of Waterloo and Communitech, are demonstrating a new kind of responsibility and a focus on problems that really matter. They recognize that there aren’t technical fixes to all of our problems, but that technology can make a meaningful contribution to addressing many pressing problems that continue to befuddle us. They are also eager to collaborate, even when that takes them out of their disciplinary or professional comfort zones.

I wonder how—or if—you think Grebel should step up and join this effort. More pointedly, I wonder if Grebel has a responsibility to rethink our role at Waterloo in light of the shifting questions and assumptions about technology we are surrounded by. Is PeaceTech an interesting niche or novelty, or is nurturing a tech for good mindset core to our mission in this time and place?