There is an extraordinary opportunity, alongside Calgary’s rapidly growing tech sector, to support an emerging learning ecosystem for ‘tech for social transformation’. The Centre for Social Impact Technology was established in partnership with a variety of social impact organizations, academics and interested tech organizations to build on ‘tech for good’ towards ‘tech for social transformation’. The centre will be a place where tech professionals and social impact practitioners will interact with students, researchers, and the communities they serve to experiment, expand and build collective knowledge and capacity around the application of technology for social impact and tackling complex problems.
The centre is a node in a network of interested and associated data/tech-related initiatives, part of a pattern of increasing engagement from social purpose tech companies and organizations on various projects.
We derive our inspiration from initiatives within Canada, such as Edmonton’s Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator, and knowledge centres outside Canada, in particular the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the University of Southern California’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, and the UK-based Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at NESTA.
The Centre for Social Impact Technology is an ambitious, collaborative initiative that will explore diverse aspects of the social impacts of technology.
Calgary is in the early stages of a profound transition, from a resource-driven 9-5 culture, where economic and urban growth trumped all other values, to a diverse, knowledge-driven city, where purpose-driven companies thrive, and where quality of life and human well-being take centre stage. Seizing the opportunities of this very different future will require innovation. Technological and commercial innovation, but also social innovation.
Encouragingly, Calgary’s tech sector, which once was both stunted and dwarfed by the oil and gas sector, is growing at a faster rate than most were able to foresee. From just under 1,000 tech companies at the height of the last boom, to 3,200 and counting in 2021 (though these numbers may be overinflated). Exciting initiatives like Platform Calgary and philanthropist David Bissett’s transformative investment in SAIT’s School for Advanced Digital Technology are helping strengthen this still nascent but promise-filled ecosystem.
While it may be many years before Calgary is able to ‘catch up’ to other tech innovation nodes in Canada, there is at least one sub-sector that appears to be emerging as an area where the city might well have a competitive edge: ‘Tech for good’, or ‘social technology’. Calgary is already home to some remarkable social businesses with global or national reach, such as Benevity and Helpseeker, both certified B-Corporations, as well as many smaller companies and a burgeoning number of startups. Students, as well, are increasingly interested in social technology, whether through an entrepreneurial lens or by way of public policy or direct social impact work.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. Digital technologies are transforming civil society, community interaction and democracy itself in ways that are both liberating and disturbing. The social impact sector, not just in Calgary but throughout the Anglo-American world, is a by-product of past industrial revolutions, but its role has been more about cleaning up the broken pieces rather than influencing social and economic policy and generating new futures. This can, and must, change, as the safe, fair, inclusive, accessible development and application of tech is critical to the maintenance and growth of human dignity, collective action, and the future of our communities. As we point out in our publication In Search of the Altruithm: AI and the Future of Social Good (2019), the worlds of tech innovation and social innovation need to comingle far more than they currently do. And the social impact sector must become much more directly engaged in technology development, which, as we’ve observed in the aforementioned report, “can be made to be generative, beautiful, and not merely ethical, but rationally compassionate and just, enriching our lives beyond what we can currently imagine. But it will only do so if civil society — including citizens living at the margins, and people involved in social good pursuits, from artists and teachers to health professionals and social workers — become much more interested and involved.” We further observe that, while there are many organizations applying tech solutions in the service of ‘good’ generically, it tends to be focused on simply facilitating status quo ways of doing charitable or philanthropic work. Similarly, there are many companies, researchers and practitioners focused on the ‘responsible’ use of data or the ‘ethical’ design of AI and other tech. What we collectively now need to do is take this ‘tech for good’ and ‘responsible/ethical’ work to the next level, to design and apply tech for social impact.
There is also a convergence of interest in 21st century skills, work-integrated learning, and micro-credential learning opportunities in priority sectors and high-demand or emerging industries. We need cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral initiatives that can animate many of the skills and experiences that our economic and social transitions require, and that employers across sectors are looking for. This is why the integration of social and tech must also integrate undergraduate learning and new work experience opportunities.
The physical “home” for the centre is in the Platform Innovation Centre. The centre will bring together tech for good companies, social impact organizations, students, researchers and ecosystem builders to create a Calgary-based community platform to assemble, add to, disseminate, dialogue, and learn about social technology issues and innovations.
This is both an incredible opportunity to support Calgary’s economic future as a globally-important social technology hub, and an existential priority for the future of humanity (insofar as tech development absent social aims and human-centered design could have incalculably destructive implications for human communities).
The activities of the Centre for Social Impact Technology aspire to integrate insights on artificial intelligence (AI) social applications, inclusive usability testing, community prosperity data and metrics, collective knowledge policy and governance (particularly with respect to Indigenous knowledge), work-integrated student learning, advanced social systems mapping, and interdisciplinary, community-partnered, applied research.
To do this we are rapidly expanding our programming, collaborations and connections. We encourage you to take a look at our content, attend our webinars, and connect with us to help shape a socially transformative technological future.