#25 Hey Techies, Get in The Slow Lane!

When Stockholm cancelled its navigation aid for visually impaired people, they overlooked the bigger issue: even co-creating technology wasn't enough empowerment. It's time for users, techies + funders to go all the way.

#25 Hey Techies, Get in The Slow Lane!

In 2009, I met Boris in Stockholm. Elisabeth, a project manager at a small digital mapping company called Astando had arranged the meeting. Boris was blind. And Boris told me about how thanks to a small navigation aid, he could now go anywhere in Stockholm without assistance. In his words, he was free for the first time in his life. No need to ask for help to go anywhere. I have written extensively about this technology, e-Adept, in the past. It was developed through a remarkable collaboration between the City of Stockholm and three hundred visually impaired citizens, like Boris, to get it just right. They nailed it. Boris was very satisfied, ready to start what amounted to a new life for him. Project managers at city hall loved the technology also, it promised to save sixteen million Euros a year. Then e-Adept got cancelled, there was 'no sustainable business' model to be found. Boris, eventually, had to start asking for help again every time he wanted to leave the house.

C:\Users\TT93\Pictures\LLG STO Summit\LLG Summit & Award Stockholm 2011  2011-05-11 18-18-17.jpg
Boris (right) explains e-Adept, Stockholm 2011
In his words, Boris was free for the first time in his life. No need to ask for help to go anywhere.

For years now, I have chewed on the fate of e-Adept. Why did this meaningful technology that transformed Boris life (and many others) fail? In my mind, I played through the scenarios of the team raising venture capital, to get it right. Or building an open-source movement to let anyone assemble their own, use it, improve it, share the results. Just like the Firefox Browser. Neither of these paths were viable for two reasons. The first was infrastructure. No other city but Stockholm had the kind of high quality, real-time data on streets and roadworks that made e-Adept possible. Any effort would have had to not just build technology for the blind, but lobby city halls everywhere to make serious upgrades to their data infrastructure. Moreover, there was no entrepreneurial leader or movement to back e-Adept. Whilst the people in charge saw Boris and his peers as co-creators, they had no real power. To those leading the project, they were consumers of public services.

In attempting to crack the technical and financials of the e-Adept problem, we overlooked the much bigger issue: It had occurred to nobody, that co-creating the project was never going to be enough.

e-Adept failed because there was no place for it in the Fast Lane, and because it wasn't anchored in the Slow Lane either. Neither the commercial market, nor the return on investment mindset in government, was able to make sense of it. Looking back, I wish we all had known about how students built their own classroom technology with Serlo (see Story #22), and the many stories from the Slow Lane covered in this book. When trying to crack the technical and financials of the e-Adept problem, we overlooked the much bigger issue: It had occurred to nobody, that co-creating the project was never going to be enough. For e-Adept to really work, Stockholm would have had to make significant changes to the way they deliver care services. An uncomfortable process of change that would take many years. It was destined to fail, unless Boris and his peers took charge to keep up the pressure. That's what Dorica Dan achieved by putting rare disease patients on the national reform commission for rare diseases in Romania – with voting rights (see Story #20).

Solutions come and go, succeed or fail. The need stays.

The Double-Leap of Faith

City managers in Stockholm had already left their comfort zone when they involved visually impaired people in the design of the technology. Designers had rightly convinced them that users should be involved in developing such a transformative technology. Boris was the real expert when it came to his needs. What they missed, was the opportunity that Serlo and Project ECHO (see Story #24) saw: we can go all the way, when it comes to empowerment. High school students don't just use technology, they can build and control it, leading to powerful changes in thousands of classrooms. Dr Sanjeev Arora had similar trust in the capabilities of small town medical professionals. Why shouldn't they be able to treat hepatitis C, and then go on to teach others what they learned? Stockholm would have stood a much greater chance of transforming thousands of lives and saving millions of Euros if they had done the double leap, to real empowerment. Instead of building technology for people, it cannot only be built with people, but also by people. This double leap is what Slow Lane Principle #3: Share the Agency refers to.

Facebook let hate speech fester for fear of slowing growth. ECHO took a different path, one in which the technology simply followed the human relationships. Hundreds of thousands of people and partner institutions practiced the ECHO values before it became more automated.

Movements find different ways of applying this double leap of faith. At Serlo, students simply took matters into their own hands, and invited teachers, experts, and volunteers in as nothing more than equals. The technology is the defining product of Serlo, supporting teachers and students in the classroom. At ECHO, it is the human network and the knowledge it shares that are central to everything. ECHO Digital is nothing but a conduit for these relationships, that combine knowledge, mentoring and community. The technology simply has to keep up with the growth of the network and adapt to its needs to lower the barriers to entry. And incorporate the values of free learning and open knowledge that underpin the human mission of the ECHO community.

Your Patient Code

Startups typically chase the tipping point, when they have the critical mass to reap the profits of network effects or large-scale adoption of their technology. Their race to the top is fraught with attempts to find shortcuts to get there faster. Companies like Uber or WeWork have sunk billions to effectively pay customers for using their service, or simply give it away for free. Facebook let hate speech and manipulative algorithms fester for fear of slowing down growth. ECHO took a different path to technology success, one in which the technology simply followed the network of human relationships that Sanjeev seeded. Hundreds of thousands of people already adhere to the values and practices promoted by ECHO before it becomes more automated. Fifty-five thousand partner institutions help control quality and help replicate the values. By any standard, ECHO and Serlo are spectacular successes, without having to use aggressive tactics to take control of their markets.

Technology may or may not free up more of our time. Technology holds a much more exciting promise, to get more people into the circle of those who can contribute.

How they pay for technology matters, too. In 2018, it cost Serlo less than 1/10th to support a student than it costs Facebook to serve a user. And unlike Facebook, Serlo provides quality content. Serlo is so much cheaper to operate, partly because volunteers contribute a lot. More importantly, it doesn't spend tens of billions of dollars on marketing and buying up competitors every year, to pursue further control of the market. Funded by a non-profit association of people who contribute and benefit from Serlo, it has found a healthy balance that doesn't rely on fast growth. Financial transparency and shared decision-making in the team discourage 'big bets' and promote frugality.

Whilst ECHO is a much bigger animal than Serlo, it is also exceptionally cost-effective from Sanjeev's perspective. Hundreds of thousands of professional contributors are funded by their universities, and through grant money for research or services provided via ECHO. Sanjeev has to raise less than 5% of the whole cost of the platform, to operate it. Remember, he doesn't charge anyone for using the platform! All this means that Serlo and ECHO can build technology without having to achieve artificial growth targets, putting healthy human relationships first.

Serlo and ECHO aren't about freeing up time. They bring knowledge to where it is needed most, empowering new communities to create their own solutions.

Will A Bot Put Us All Into the Slow Lane?

When discussing this chapter, my friend Anthony Townsend asked me whether automation would free humanity up to spend more time in the Slow Lane. Imagine a world where robots and AI take care of our menial care tasks, allowing us to spend more time building movements and practicing social imagination together.

I prefer to frame this scenario differently. Technology may or may not free up more of our time. And we may or may not use that freedom to look after one another. Instead, technology holds immense promise to get more people into the circle of those who can contribute. That's what excited me about seeing Boris walk the streets of Stockholm. e-Adept was tailored to empower a small community, and held the promise to let them become truly active citizens, engaging in work, tourism, culture, and politics. Serlo and ECHO aren't about freeing up time. They bring knowledge to where it is needed most, empowering new communities to create their own solutions.

Hey Techies, Get in the Slow Lane!

Funders, technologists, designers, and regulators hoping to build technology for good should take a close look at how the Slow Lane works. Whilst the startup playbook is the source of much philanthropic capital, we cannot disrupt our way out of tackling complex human and social problems. What is needed is a new approach, designed for the long haul.

It is only when techies have the humility to truly see eye to eye with the people they hope to empower, that we can put technology at the service of social change.

This concludes The App, the Chapter on Slow Lane technology. In my next post, I will enter the final chapter, as we conclude The Slow Lane.