Book Talk: Shifting our relationship with technology, in conversation with Afua Bruce

Written by Amy Mutua

In this session, Afua Bruce, co-author of The Tech that Comes Next, was joined by Al Kags from Open Institute, Melissa Mbugua from Africa Podfest and Joshua Olufemi from Dataphyte to discuss her book and explore the futures of technology.

The Tech That Next: How Changemakers, Philanthropists and Technologists
Can Builb an Equitable World

Bruce began by giving an overview of the key arguments in her book:

‘We are here to talk about tech but mostly about community’
Bruce explains that our current reality is that of systemic exclusion where our relationship to technology remains exclusive and irrelevant to many. This is because only a small group of people control how technology is being used, even in contexts that they do not fully understand. If we shift and look towards where we are going (certainly what we should be working towards), it is clear that we need to be shifting this relationship with technology to one that is characterised by systemic inclusion, where people are at the centre and accountability and transparency is the norm.

‘What we value is what we build, even if we don’t talk about it’
Bruce states that “what we value, is what we build, even if we don’t explicitly talk about it. Technology really encodes what the people coding the technology think and believe, what they want to prioritise and de-emphasise.” She outlines values that will result in the development of an equitable world:

It is important to value the knowledge and wisdom of lived experiences and as a result, include individuals and communities in the development of solutions that affect them.
The participation of diverse people across various skill levels should be valued regardless of their technical knowledge.
Accessibility should be a priority. It is important to ask ‘are people actually able to access platforms for participation?’.
There is a need to understand the multiple ways change is made and create balance between immediate needs and long term, systemic solutions.
There is value in the strength of collectively creating a better world as no single voice can create this equitable world.
The diverse groups of people who are dedicated to pursuing knowledge, experience and skills to offer resources in collective efforts for change should be valued.

‘Change does not happen in a silo – we are always stronger together’
It is important to recognise that change does not happen in a silo, everyone has a responsibility to take a proactive stance towards transforming our world. There are five main roles that change makers often take on and Bruce poses questions that they should ask themselves:

1. Social impact organisations – how is your staff supported and resourced? Because it is not just about how you are supporting your clients but also about the technology and systems your staff is resourced to use.
2. Technologists – how are you investing in the leadership and capacity of the impacted community to support their long-term ownership? It is critically important to design appropriate technology that can be utilised and supported by communities.
3. Funders and Investors – Are you committed to funding inclusively for intentional engagement, iterative processes and long term support? What might it look like if we reframe what ‘return on investment’ looks like to consider sustainability, usability and adoption.
4. Policymakers – Are you meaningfully engaging communities that are most impacted by digital divides and technological harm to inform proactive policies? Rules, laws and regulations are powerful tools for change.
5. Communities – What do you want to change and what are your biggest dreams? The answers to these questions should inform how all the other groups above prioritise their work.

The panel then shared their thoughts, experiences and reflections on how technology is used in their different contexts. Melissa Mbugua discussed her experiences in the podcasting industry. She highlights the importance of centring African stories, not just on the global stage, but more importantly to ensure that as Africans, we know and understand our own stories. Mbugua states that podcasting allows anybody to tell their own stories, in languages that resonate with them, without a gatekeeper deciding whose story should be told or moulding how these stories are told. Creating spaces to amplify African voices is powerful.

Al Kags shared his reflections on the work Open Institute has done and the danger of creating exclusive tools and technology that does not lend itself to user engagement. Kags raises important questions around whether consideration is really given to those living in rural areas with little access to the internet and with a limited literacy. While the move to more government services being available online may increase efficiency for certain groups, it is important to acknowledge that technology like this can further existing inequalities. Kags also raised the point that in tech organisations, there is often a lot of momentum, attention and funding given up until the launch date. Technology is always changing and needs to be updated and fine-tuned but because of a lack of long-term funding, platforms are rarely updated. Catch his full thoughts on this on this episode of the Civic Tech in Africa Podcast

Joshua Olufemi stressed the importance of co-creating solutions across various stakeholders. Organisations lose out when they don’t engage with communities and listen and learn from their experiences and knowledge. Olufemi suggests that we change the dynamic – instead of focusing on giving citizens data, there is a need to look towards citizens as providers of data. Olufemi also discussed how access to data has been pivotal in creating accountability and transparency and has enabled citizens to participate in their governance. It is important to keep making sure that data is available, in legible and understandable forms. It is also important to determine whether the data you are collecting and trying to make accessible is actually relevant and needed by communities to avoid creating tools that are not used.

This rich discussion covered a broad array of topics including funding and power dynamics, the importance of improving access to technology, the value of partnerships and so much more. The speakers’ experiences and insights were incredibly valuable in shifting our understanding and relationship with technology and The Tech that Comes Next was praised as a practical guide for transformation.

Watch the full discussion here

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