The limits of startup land and appified thinking

by Callum Watts

The debacle around the development of the UK coronavirus contact tracing app has got me thinking about the role of technology and startup style businesses in addressing large scale social problems. The UK government’s shambolic app release, pursued at the expense of tried and tested human contact tracing, is an example of a larger trend of using technology led approaches to solve social and political problems.

In the US we see it in the enthusiasm with which Trump asked tech luminaries such as Peter Thiel to become key advisors to his government. In the UK we see a similar obsession with “startup land”, where Dominic Cummings has been attempting to hire developers, data scientists and ‘misfits’ into the civil service, apparently inspired by technology startups. Whilst software businesses have led to some incredible ideas that solve individual problems, I’m sceptical of the potential for these organisations to do anything truly radical when it comes to the societal level issues faced by governments. 

There is a double irony here. First, in spite of all their vaunted innovations, the superstar ‘social’ media companies have struggled to match their commercial impact with positive social impact. Secondly, the startups that are so often described with the language of revolution are largely ignorant of the history of true social revolutions. They are culturally disconnected from the reality of the social problems they are being asked to fix. Furthermore the politicians who are so enthusiastic about the potential of technology have a poor understanding of the scope of problems that it can actually solve. It is not difficult to see why this union is likely to end in disappointment for both parties.

I write this as an insider to startup land, with genuine enthusiasm for what it can achieve. There are fabulously talented people working in technology who have had a genuinely positive impact on the world. I have collaborated with dozens of founders creating new businesses, products, and technologies. Doing this is thrilling. And it is not just a technological story, there is an important cultural element that goes hand in hand with these innovations. The moments when you gain some key insight about a problem, or when a product hither to only imagined actually starts to work are pure joy. The round the clock excitement of working in small determined teams tackling apparently insurmountable challenges gives you a sense of purpose and ultimately, power. Much of the culture of Silicon Valley centers on the notion of founders; visionary individuals who can change the world through their ambition and leadership.

Certain thinking styles thrive in this environment. As do certain egos. This is exemplified by the charismatic founder armed with ‘appified thinking’. He (and it’s usually a white he) will be motivated by the belief that a sufficiently innovative piece of technology can create a paradigm shift within some market. This is captured by the corny mantra “there is an app for that”. By relentlessly focussing on a single problem and the people who have it, we aim to uncover highly efficient and scalable products. Accompanying this is a willingness to shift the focus of the business should the original problem prove too hard to solve, or not profitable enough. This is known as searching for product market fit. This approach allows best founders to identify and rapidly solve problems for many people at comparatively low cost. 

The reason this works so well in a market context is that the returns are potentially enormous, when the startup works. Every time it works you have a viable solution to a real problem that many people have. It’s often scalable, cheap and effective. And this approach creates incredible things, think AirBnB, think Monzo bank, think youtube, think Tesla, think amazon. Something striking about this list is that they were all built by and for upper middle class individuals. But these success stories are only a small proportion of the startups that actually get investment. The fact is that many startups end up being duds, involve no real technological transformation, and are sometimes pushed by snake oil salesmen and women. The founders of Theranos and Wirecard are just two high profile examples of this kind of brazen egotism. But even if true success stories are rare, this does not trouble investors who easily cover the cost of the duds with so called unicorns, companies that end up being worth a billion dollars or more. 

The possibility that a similar one-off investments in ground-breaking technology will solve a societal problem is incredibly attractive to politicians, and so are the methods that have worked so well in startup land. But typically, social problems such as inequality, education, social justice, and the environment are structural. They require broad based and co-ordinated changes in opinion, behaviour, and our shared expectations of one another, not narrow single point solutions. Why would the approaches that have performed so well in the context of the relentless pursuit of profit work in these new contexts?

Take inequality. In most wealthy countries where startups make their home, poverty is a relational problem, not just an individual problem (although the levels of absolute poverty in children in the US and UK are a disgrace). There is no way of dressing up redistribution with a fancy user experience, app design or better A.I. This is because you cannot solve inequality by solving it for one person. It is not susceptible to a point solution because it is caused by the distribution of wealth across a society; it requires sustained material transfer. Looking for a silver bullet will tend to mask the complexity of this problem. The impact of intergenerational wealth, public policy, mental health and the influence of money in politics are just some of the things that mean inequality cannot be addressed through design thinking or engineering. Technology innovation often has to minimise the complexity of real world problems so as to create a manageable space in which to develop products. This is great if your priority is to create users and make money, but it’s poorly suited to complex social issues.

Education is another area where technology has struggled to deliver the kinds of revolutions seen in the for profit sector. New apps, scheduling tools, all in one laptops, whiteboard technology all serve to make incremental improvements to teaching. But at some point there is just a resource problem around having qualified teachers and safe class rooms. And ultimately you need to pay for good teachers and safe schools. Appified thinking tends to devalue individual contributions and ignore those kinds of solutions though. In the lingo, hiring more teachers is not as scalable as a software based solution. Hiring teachers is slow and expensive and in no way ‘transformational’, it is the exact same approach that we’ve been using for centuries. It lacks the thrill I described earlier, it lacks the obvious scope of ambition that feeds the ego of founders. And undoubtedly some technologies which facilitate interactions, such as zoom, have made a real difference to access. They have provided a lifeline for education during lockdown, but it’s clear that these can only ever be complementary to existing teaching practice. And it’s painfully obvious there is very little which is as good as in person face to face teaching.

There is a broader point here about the value of human interactions. Startups often seek to replace or minimise these, as these are seen to be hard to control and inefficient. But in many contexts efficiency is at best of secondary importance. The negative impact that digitisation has on the quality and richness of interactions has become obvious when we look at the effect that lockdown has had. Seeing friends via zoom is a poor stand in for the real thing. But many tech startups seek to go further, and aim to replace social interactions altogether with bots and other automated approaches.

It’s not just that startup approaches won’t result in good solutions. By championing these approaches, we can end up eclipsing things which would actually work. The belief that things need to or can be reinvented from the ground up often serves to completely devalue historical understanding of a problem, and the knowledge of those already familiar with the problem space. But if we look at moments of true social innovation, such as the civil rights movement, we see that these movements are deeply informed by history and embedded within the society they seek to change. The pioneers in tech fields pay little attention to wider culture and history, and rather focus on technical know-how. The mantra of “move fast and break things” encourages people to keep trying new solutions with almost reckless abandon. Whilst this does pay a healthy respect towards learning from failure, it sidesteps the wisdom that says think before you jump. Those who object or resist ‘disruption’ are portrayed as rent seekers or luddites trying to protect vested interests.

In the meantime approaches that favour common sense, historical awareness, and ordinary human interactions get overshadowed. Social scientists, community activists, teachers, individuals who actually understand the problems at hand are marginalised. Don’t get me wrong, a clear focus on problems, questioning the status quo, and having a large impact are laudable goals. And it is certain that many of the innovations that have come out of startup land have changed the lives of millions. Furthermore technology can play an enabling role in addressing some social challenges. But if we get to a point where we’re favoring ‘startup’ and tech lead solutions to the important problems we face as a society, then community and human knowledge will be deprioritised, and the underlying problems will remain unaddressed.