Blog Post

Technology humility

By: Marco Campana
January 29, 2020

I read an interesting article recently from the Ontario College of Social Work that discussed "cultural humility" as an essential skill for Social Workers to acknowledge, achieve, and continue to develop throughout their careers.

They make a distinction between cultural humility and cultural competence, which I really like. Like many, I throw the term cultural competence around, but cultural humility is so much more:

  "cultural humility, which 'suggests that social workers [and social service workers] should not view themselves as experts in other people’s cultures but as learners.' The concept of cultural humility includes three factors: a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique; a desire to fix power imbalances; and developing partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others. In contrast, the term 'cultural competence' can be critiqued for implying that one might achieve mastery over a finite topic, whereas the term 'cultural humility' suggests a lifelong commitment to self-reflection and redressing power imbalances."

As I was reading it, I couldn't help but think about it from a future of work and technology perspective. Call it technology humility. I had a great chat recently with someone active in the civic tech space. People like him understand technology, live and love it and see its potential in sectors like ours. But they also see the problems of technology arrogance, attitudes from civic tech folks that reject what you might know or your experiences, focusing not on what you have done, but only on what the future holds. And, of course, they hold the keys to that future and you're mostly in their way.

When it comes to technology humility, I'm reminded of this from 1996, which has guided my views on technology and helping others see its potential in their work: How to help someone use a computer

"First you have to tell yourself some things:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.
  • If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.
  • A computer is a means to an end. The person you're helping probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable."

I think it's an important starting point when approaching technology.

I do like the idea of technology humility, but the concept of public interest technologists has been gaining some prominence. So, instead of reinventing terminology, let's go with something emerging, being studied, and that we can make use of in our own work.  


If you're interested in cybersecurity, online trust and security and privacy in general, you should be reading Bruce Schneier's work. I learned about public-interest technologists from him. 

It's a fit for our sector. I think the values of public interest technology align with CCR's 12 Core Settlement Values, and provide us a way of looking at technology as something that serves us, rather than us serving it. 

From Schneier:

"The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as 'technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.' A group of academics recently wrote that public-interest technologists are people who 'study the application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good.' Tim Berners-Lee has called them 'philosophical engineers.' I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus: by working on tech policy, by working on a tech project with a public benefit, or by working as a traditional technologist for an organization with a public benefit. Maybe it's not the best term­ -- and I know not everyone likes it­ -- but it's a decent umbrella term that can encompass all these roles."

Make sure you also check out his regularly updated list of Public-Interest Technology Resources (which I just discovered and now have a lot of reading to do). 

New America defines Public Interest Technology as "a field dedicated to leveraging technology to support public interest organizations and the people they serve. For decades, public interest organizations have worked to improve the lives of the general public. They work on issues that shape our everyday lives, including protecting the environment, human rights, child welfare, and reforming criminal justice.

As public interest technologists, we seek ways to ensure technology allows and enables public interest organizations to best serve all people." 

Back to Schneier:

"Public-interest tech is the intersection of technology and public policy. It's technologists working in public policy, either in or outside government. It's technologists working on projects that serve the public interest: working at an NGO, or working on socially minded tech tools. And while it requires an understanding of both tech and public policy, everyone doesn't need to have the same balance of those two disciplines -- and everyone certainly doesn't need a CS degree. What's required is an ability to bridge the two worlds: to understand the policy implications of technology, and the technological implications of policy.

I've met public-interest technologists who are hard-core hackers, either degreed or not. But I've also met public-interest technologists who come from a public policy background, or from a social science background. Since effectiveness requires blending expertise from different areas, it matters less which one came first."

According to a really great report, Getting the Work Done: What Government Innovation Really Looks Like, "The phrase 'public interest technology' is fairly new, and most often applied in the context of career paths and creation of a specific field. Needs and opportunities to do this work and explore this field were captured in the 2015 A Pivotal Moment report, which focuses on how to improve the quality and number of technologists working in civil society organizations and government at every level."

In Getting the Work Done, the authors discuss how innovation, while eventually incorporating technology for solutions isn't about technology: "one of our early findings was that the phrases 'public interest technology' and 'civic tech' didn’t resonate for many practitioners because they didn’t connect their work inherently to technology. Despite the fact that many people we spoke with work for digital services or technology teams, they de-emphasized the technology part of their work. People talked about improving processes, introducing service-oriented models from the private sector, and changing the building blocks of how government solves problems: incorporating user research, human-centred design, agile work processes, open data, prototyping, iterative design and metrics. Many of the ideas teams are working on tackle not only one instance of a problem, but how government approached problem-solving."

Let's get practical

I know what you're thinking. What does this have to do with me? I'm not a technologist?

That's OK. I'm not either. And we don't need to be in order to move this along.

The tech sector is moving this idea along. MIT's Ethan Zuckerman wrote a deeply interesting and informative piece recently,Training the next generation of ethical techies:

"We need people who understand new technologies well enough to analyze them and explain their implications to those who would govern them. My guess is that this sort of work doesn’t require a PhD. What it requires is understanding a field well enough that you can discern what’s likely, what’s possible and what’s impossible... I’m imagining a generation of students who have a solid technical background, the equivalent of a concentration if not a major in a field like computer science, as well as a sequence of courses that help people speak, write, argue and teach technological issues. We’d offer classes – which might or might not be about tech topics – that help teach students to write for popular audiences as well as academic ones, that help students learn how you write an oped and make a convincing presentation. We’d coach students on teaching technical topics in their field to people outside of their fields, perhaps the core skillset necessary in being a scientific or technical advisor."

If the techies are pondering all of this, how do we meet them halfway? How do we ensure that, in the typically overwhelmingly technical conversation so many of you have with tech consultants who overcharge you to make you feel like you don't know anything, you can guide your organizations down the right path? We've all heard stuff like: 

"We'll leverage agile frameworks to provide a robust synopsis for high level overviews. By capitalizing on low hanging fruit to identify a ballpark value added activity to beta test, we'll engage iterative approaches to corporate strategy fostering collaborative thinking to further the overall value proposition. While we organically grow the holistic world view of disruptive innovation via workplace diversity and empowerment, we'll pull in user-generated content in real-time with multiple touchpoints to dramatically visualize customer directed convergence without revolutionary ROI. These positive deviants will drive operational change management inside of workflows to establish a framework made up of seamless key performance indicators that maximise the long tail. Keep your eye on the ball while performing a deep dive on the start-up mentality to derive convergence on cross-platform integration."

Hey, everyone has their lingo. But, sometimes it feels like civic tech and other techies over-use lingo when they should be figuring out how to talk to us in our language. 

It’s worth noting that the language being used today to describe innovation – client-centric, co-creation, open, transparent, empowering communities, addressing vulnerability, knowledge sharing – is language that our sector is rooted in, as are approaches to service provision, program development and system change. When I started working in the sector, program/project development and community engagement used popular education approaches and language. For example, the Spiral Model of learning, from popular education theory and practice, which looks a lot like "Agile methodology." It's perhaps not that surprising that there is a similar software-development spiral model (see, we're actually not that far apart!)...

So, don't be intimidated by the language. Don't be intimidated into thinking that you don't know anything.

But, do learn.

Beyond the lingo, of course, there are things our sector could be doing to become more literate in all of this. You'll find allies among public-interest technologists, as well as within the non-profit tech community. You should look at technology from a social justice and service lens, recognizing that there is a digital divide, and that not everyone has access to technology, or wants to access services via technology. 

Much has been written, identified and codified in other human service sectors such as where digital fits in mental health services for children and youth, in 2013. Notably, the U.S. Social Work sector has recently outlined standards for Technology in social work practice (PDF) that can and should be easily transferred to the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. Resources can be borrowed from there for the settlement sector.

Other tools such as NetHope’s Digital Nonprofit project, TechSoup Global’s ICT4NGO Assessment tool, Principles for Digital Development, or TechFugee's 8 Guiding Principles provide digital assessment, guidance, and road maps across broad capacity areas and should be evaluated for adoption and replication in the sector. 

I could go on. For now, let's start connecting with allies out there who are aligned with how our sector should want to use technology and learn from them, as well as teach them how equity, justice & inclusion need to become cornerstones of their work, as it is with yours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *