Curriculum for a Course in “Using Technology for Social Good”

At a Silicon Flatirons conference last fall, it caught my ear when David Clark, Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, mentioned that students are interested in using technology for social good and we don’t yet really know what it means to teach that. Students are putting that topic on the table. So it might take a very long time, but I’m beginning to compile resources to help with that discourse. Little by little, I want to gather writings (my own and links to sources all over the web) on what it means to teach the idea of “Using Technology for Social Good.”


One of the signature differences in Social Enterprises is that you ask WHY you’re doing something before you ask WHAT you’ll do. In traditional venture capital enterprises, the answer to WHY is “to make money.” The logic runs something like this: I have a fund and I need to return profit to my investors therefore I must find activities that return a profit within a given timeframe.

In the Social Impact realm, however, you have identified a set of concerns such as “an abysmally small number of women are participating in new tech startups” or “people in the world’s developing countries are getting shut out of being able to participate as full citizens in the digital economy” or “a few big players are dominating our ability to access information and create competitive products.” You notice these are broad concerns, not specific ones like: “I will create a tool that makes java development easier”.

Once you have the concerns, you begin to identify viable, small, actionable steps that move towards addressing that larger concern. You constantly stop and ask if the actions are moving you closer to addressing the concern. Your goal is to always be self-sustaining, to make money, hopefully good money to show the world it’s a win/win scenario to do this, all the while moving towards your larger goal.

Dr. Susan Heitler is a psychologist who has applied group conflict resolution theories to individual relationships. She identifies this need to put Concerns before Solution Sets. Her writings are very instrumental in formulating an overarching lens with which to view conflict resolution. I think this is a very useful place to start when considering using technology for social good. Inherently, the idea of using technology for social good is to affect group dynamics in a positive way, a way that reduces suffering and conflict in the world and increases opportunity for all.

From Conflict to Resolution:Skills and Strategies for Individuals, Couples, and Family Therapy, December 1993, by Susan M. Heitler

“Income Inequality” is the Wrong Question

I’ve been reflecting lots recently on the idea of income inequality. I think it is the profoundly wrong question to be exploring.

I think the question we are in fact seeking when we venture into that domain is the question of DIGNITY. Why do some people on the planet live in such total poverty while others live in abundant excess? It’s the absolute poverty that is the huge problem there.

What is unfair is the endless bottom, the fact that human beings can fall to such desperate circumstances. When we tie the two together, that of limitless earning potential with limitless poverty, we produce confusing and problematic questions about equality, justice, distribution of goods on the planet, social class, access to capital, the list goes on.

If we began instead with a simple question: “What is the basic floor of dignity  beneath which a human being should not fall?” we will produce different concerns. We will focus on basic food, healthcare, housing and mental wellness. It is within our reach to answer at least the food, healthcare and housing pieces for every person on the planet.

The danger is that when we speak of doing so by forcibly redistributing wealth from others, you get into wars, generous people become recalcitrant and everything goes down the tubes.

We need to focus on providing this basic level of reduced human suffering and I think we will be surprised to find how many other problems of extremism and conflict are alleviated.

The Multilingual Digital Economy Around the Corner

There are over 6,000 languages on the planet, and just over 3,000 of them are spoken. In Europe it is a great concern to have languages be interoperable in online economies. Below is a photo from an upcoming EU report.


In my work with digm I’ve done a ton, and I mean a ton, of research. The recent conference I attended in Europe was part of that and it was super productive. I’ve been studying new technologies and new business models. I’ve been looking at how these are being applied in the cultural space.

One of the books I read on this journey is “Social Business” by economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus. He developed microcredit and Grameen Bank which helps an astonishing amount of women in poverty with microcredit. Anyway in this book he describes a kind of fourth leg to our traditional for-profit, non-profit, public model. That fourth leg develops sustainable businesses for people in poverty and helps them create their own businesses. It’s a good read if you are interested in seeing how things are unfolding in other parts of the world.

In Colorado the more popular ideas are around B Corps and B Certified companies. These are all companies that try to effect social good as part of everyday operations. While Social Business requires zero return to investors, it generates profit and profits are returned back to the venture. It’s appealing for philanthropists. I think part of my work will involve that.

I’m also looking at other ways to involve matching startups and investors with new research. For example, in the gallery where we were so interested in documenting artists work. Well in Europeana across Europe they have 40 million cultural objects from 2300 institutions as Linked Open Data. When I think of how hard Kurt’s father worked for 40 years to photograph and distribute the 35,000 images in his archive it blows your mind how quickly it’s advancing (and that was huge then).

The emphasis now is on helping startups use all that cultural content in commercial ways. It’s a very short time before we arrive at that same place in the U.S. with projects like the American Art Collaborative and Digital Public Library emerging. These have the potential to transform how we consume cultural content. And I’ll add: how artists leave documentation of their art (legacy) as part of the American historical record.

Too Serious?

I realized something today about myself. One of my struggles with my involvement in the arts has been that I am a pretty serious person. I grew up in healthcare and worked a good chunk of my life in that space and IT. Details matter there, often having correlation to disease, suffering, death. Early in my life I considered the human psyche as central to health, and as art explores the mind and our cultural influences on it, I was always attracted to culture.

Too often, though, the arts are placed in the context of entertainment, a distraction, a way to pass the time. I tend to see it as a vital expression of the human condition where someone (an artist) has put forth their whole life’s work and others walk by casually, perhaps ignoring it altogether. I get upset. I’ve seen too much depression, isolation, suicide in the arts to feel otherwise.

In Cuba, for example, last year we visited artist’s studios. These arranged visits that brought wealthy visitors to buy art were heartbreaking for me. On the one hand I could see the very humble and deeply good intentions of those visiting the studios. Our guide said to me, “why don’t you talk to the artist’s mother” who was standing nearby.  She shared with me how nervous they would get many hours leading up to the visits. With good reason: a work of art that casually sells for $12,000 represents 50 YEARS of the average Cuban’s annual income. Practically a lifetime. And that’s nothing as far as art goes in the international market. If the sale doesn’t happen, I know the despondent feeling that ensues. It was that desperation for hope, for a way out into the global community, that was heartbreaking for me. When my little Cuban cousin gave me her art, knowing I am in the art world, I thought to myself: “My child, I hope you never learn what I know.” I was there with very generous people wanting to learn and to make a difference and yet I knew her path would be very hard in the current circumstances.

I feel sadness when I see things reduced to spectacle. In an effort to help people connect with the ideas being presented and to be approachable, often the arts are presented in the realm of “entertainment.” In The Denver Post, for example, the section is literally called “entertainment.”

In the important book, Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust, about the purpose of art in our lives and of art museums in society, the former long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, and fellow museum director James Cuno, discussed the trend in our society for giant blockbuster art exhibitions. Instead they encouraged us to try to connect our communities with our permanent collections and shared, long cultural histories. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Pg 55 † “I offer an alternative museum experience: the permanent collection and the opportunity it affords for sustained and repeated engagements with individual works of art, presented without the hyperbolic promotional apparatus of the temporary exhibition. In this case, the permanent collection one object at a time.” (James Cuno)

Pg 73 † “The public has entrusted in us the authority and responsibility to select, preserve, and provide its access to works of art that can enhance, even change, people’s lives. And in turn, we have agreed to dedicate all of our resources – financial, physical, and intellectual – to this purpose. Art museums are a public trust.   …we can best earn that trust simply, by remaining open as places of refuge and spiritual and cultural nourishment.” (James Cuno)

Pg 199 † “I am still uneasy with the split between the public’s and the media’s perception of the museum. It has to do, I think, with the two worlds that have been created by museums: the world of the museum as an experience in and of itself, and the world of experiencing works of art….It’s now about “the experience of the museum,” of which the art is only a small part.” (Philippe de Montebello)

I experienced this at the international art fair, Art Basel, in Switzerland a couple of years ago. The first day I wore a jacket and pants and walked alone. I didn’t speak to many people. The next day I dressed very casually, with walking sandals, and casual clothes. I met a banker from Brussels on the train into town; we spent the whole day together walking around, seeing art. Everyone must have thought we were a collector couple, he my banker husband and me, casually holding culture in my disposable paper cup, dipping from the abundant punchbowl at my heart’s content. We spoke to half the fair.

I find the arts a very beautiful expression of the human condition and capable of transforming our psychology, something that medicine cannot always do. Somehow I will have to find a way for my participation in it to reflect my empathy for all that I have (sadly) now seen. I think I’ve concluded that it boils down to DIGNITY for me, helping artists feel dignity and heard, and helping those that want to share in cultural expressions feel welcome and validated.


Connecting Artists with International Audiences

Artists need to be connected with international audiences and the channels that exist for that to happen today are too narrow. Toward finding new solutions, I work as an art advisor and art philanthropist. I own a contemporary art gallery in Denver as a means of promoting local artists and hosting a community space for new ideas. In order to do this work efficiently given todays online world, I am working on a magazine and web platform called digm that addresses some of the inherent systemic challenges.

Survival of the Individual

Everything in our culture drives us to institutional (group) thinking.

Personal branding is getting viral as though not only corporations should be treated as persons but persons should be treated as corporations! Professional identity is linked to corporations/universities/governments/nonprofits as opposed to scholarship and original thought. Team sports, groups, schools identifying us with a brand. My work aims to support the survival of the individual in this increasingly complex world. I believe every human being deserves dignity and recognition without having to don the cape of a corporation, an ivy league school or brand name nonprofit. Remembering that we are human beings first— individuals— and sharing that is vital.

Storytelling: What I Want My Kids to Know

My mother is a great storyteller. She was born in 1936 and her generation seems to really understand the beautiful value of storytelling and learning throughout the lifespan. Every single time I speak to her she has a story to tell me, usually it centers around being humble and having respect for others and learning from them.

Last night as I dozed off to sleep my mind wandered and asked me, “If I wasn’t here tomorrow would my children know what I want them to know about me? Have I told them enough stories?” My mom has breast cancer and is undergoing chemo, so the realization that the time is now to do things you love has more clarity for me.

In this digital world, our artifacts are spread out all over. I have a mental listing of where my writings are, where my tax documents are, my favorite photos. However I have tens of thousands of photos just since I started using iPhoto. I easily have a terabyte of data associated with “me.” Of course my will is easily accessible and it has some pointers to info. I’m speaking more profoundly about my person: my experiences, learnings, love for the kids. I will slowly start to curate a (small) set of information I would want them to know. I believe in that process one develops a larger view of time and a deeper sense of gratitude for all we have.

Awesome Books for Kids

In an effort to expand our family vocabulary, I was looking at some of the kids book lists out there. You can put books on hold at the library with a future date. I’m compiling some kids lists in the library catalog so we can get them each week. Here are the lists.

Newbery Medal Winners
Awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award
The award is unique in being entirely nominated and voted for by teens. Inclusion on the nominations list does not imply endorsement by any adult as this is a program of entirely student-selected titles. Each year teens in grades 6-12 are free to nominate their favorite titles; a list of 12-15 titles is then compiled by the Blue Spruce Award committee based on number of nominations received. Adults do not nominate or vote for books, and publishers are not allowed to submit their books for consideration.

Alex Awards
The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. (American Library Association)

Pura Belpre Award Winners
Presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrities the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

Coretta Scott King Winners
Given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.

The descriptions above are from the Denver Public Library and ALA web sites.

Students and Art as a Means of Revealing Self

Each year we host some events in support of art programs in local schools. Today was the the opening of a photography show for Denver Public Schools during Month of Photography. It was an open call across the region’s high schools. About 300 submissions resulted in 75 pieces selected.

I’ve never seen so much diversity at an art exhibition in my life. Every museum educator’s dream. These kids were walking their parents through the exhibition. I heard an older Mexican dad say, “Mijo, y eso?” Son what is that? His son explained. Financially, ethnically, in terms of age, wow were there many kinds of humans here today. That was very cool. The best part was that the kids were guiding their parents and grandparents through. High schoolers are asking mature enough questions that the conversation moves beyond a child’s perspective. This is why I love art: these young people expressing themselves to their own families.

Hilariously, the teens playing guitar in back told the organizing teacher they like to play classic rock, like Nirvana! She said: “Oh my, am I that old that their “classic rock” is Nirvana?!”

In the quiet before the exhibition, I was glad to see some students get an award ribbon. I thought of their surprise and how much these kinds of events really serve as tiny stepping stones on a creative mind’s path. Later I saw some of the other students walk in and not get a ribbon. I wondered if the ribbon was worth it? Was this the beginning of the quiet silencing? Someone else saw your work and decided whether it should have a ribbon. I decided that’s the reality of most things in life. It’s definitely worth it for the ones who get that tiny bit of affirmation. I heard one mother say to a teen: “it’s an honor just to be in the show.” A valuable life lesson.

I was also impressed by how many kids took books off the shelf. Kurt’s dad would have been very happy. Usually adults walk in, admire the bookshelf and walk on. These kids were curiously pulling them off and looking. I tried not to stare in disbelief.

A community needs spaces like this, spaces to experiment, to be seen and to see, to walk through safely and learn. Thanks, Alexa, for having the show at the Gallery and Mark Sink for connecting us.

What Would You Do If Money Was No Object?

In my journey with digm, the most important question anyone has asked me was:

“What would you do if money was no object?”

Laura Merage, the founder of the art space RedLine, asked me this question on October 13, 2014, when I met her for coffee to show her my prototype of a new magazine for Colorado’s art community. Her husband owned Hot Pockets and so likely money is not an object for them, but for me with two kids in private school, a mortgage, a small business, money is very much an object.

Still it doesn’t matter who you are, that is the most fundamental question to ask yourself.

For the first 24 hours, I felt like a hammer fell on my head. I’d been working on this on the side with the Gallery for a year.

Yet, I knew my answer in my gut immediately! It was: “I certainly wouldn’t be doing this!”

I thought to myself. “Well, what would you do?”

My answer? “I would start a new tech startup to make aggregating cultural content efficient and I would make it so that you could see communities from around the world. A print piece might be one output of that, but the fundamental core technology would enable many outputs.”

I’m going to keep note of that day. For it was really on October 15th that digm was truly born. Until then, I was just pregnant.