Social Technology

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

The biggest paradox of today’s world is that we have rapid, constant progress in physical technologies like phones and computers, but billions of people have no access at all to good law and governance, or what you might call social technologies:

I met one trashpicker named Miriam who made her livelihood with her teenage daughter by selling plastic scraps for a dollar or two a day. She was telling me her story: the grinding poverty, the constant threat of extortion and murder by organized crime, the shooting of her husband, the sexual assaults on her daughter. In the middle of this heartbreaking story, her phone rings and she pulls out a nice smart phone, texts someone, and turns back to me like nothing happened. Miriam faces these ancient human problems of violence and poverty, yet she owns a futuristic technology like a smartphone. This haunted me for months.

Political reform is risky:

Typically, we only think that a reform has ‘failed’ when a new law or program doesn’t pass Congress. But reform, just like entrepreneurship, is full of failure. Sometimes a reform is captured by special interests and becomes like Frankenstein – some horrible creation that its inventors never wanted. Or a committee somewhere along the way destroys it. Worst of all, sometimes reformers are just mistaken and they end up ‘doing bad while trying to do good’. Political systems are complex, so it’s easy to misdiagnose a problem – just like it’s easy to design a fancy new product that no one wants to buy.

You make all these risks worse if you try to reform on the national level. Think about it: you have millions, maybe even hundreds of millions of people in this incredibly complicated social system called an economy. You hire the smartest people you can and put them in an office away from the customer: your citizens.

Then those people try to design some solution. You don’t ‘test’ anything. You don’t ‘validate’ your ideas. In the words of start-up guru Steve Blank, you never “get out of the building”. You just put some huge plan together and then impose it on millions of people.

Startup Cities reverse this logic.

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