I like the question “If you could invite any six individuals to dinner, who would they be?” I also like one of the responses that I have seen to this question: “I would get a bunch of wine and invite Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, and Ann Coulter.”
On my short list of the individuals I would invite is Kevin Kelly. Kevin is the founding executive editor of Wired Magazine and a fascinating author. His 1998 book New Rules for the New Economy was tremendously helpful to me in navigating the boom and bust of the Internet market while I managed an Internet mutual fund. His newest book, What Technology Wants, is considered by many, including me, to be brilliant.
So, it was a special treat for me when I was given the opportunity to take a walk with Kevin on a beach today in San Francisco. I was able to ask him some questions that I knew he would have a special take on, such as his view of Singularity.
Regarding topics that are relevant to our work at SJF Ventures, Kevin had never heard of impact investing, and he doesn’t follow the venture capital world. But Kevin has given a lot of thought to the relationship between technology and “good.” So, I was eager to hear his thoughts on this matter.
I started by explaining that in the world of impact investing, the positive impact elements of cleantech are fairly clear and readily acceptable. He politely inserted that he believes that over time some of the technologies that we deem to be clean today will be seen less clearly as clean in the future. (Another topic for another day.) And then we turned to more traditional technology, which many individuals struggle to associate with good or bad.
So, which kinds of technologies did Kevin consider “good”?
Kevin believes that technologies that increase choices for individuals tend to be inherently good. The Internet is a prime example, for it greatly increases the opportunities and choices presented to individuals. As part of this theme, Kevin noted that we all have unique qualities that are special. So, technologies that provide us more choices and open opportunities to connect with that which is special about us are inherently good.
Kevin also cited technologies that expand dimensions of participation, increase common wealth, and enhance qualities of relationships.
Kevin further noted that he associates “good technologies” with those that are convivial, or breathe life into the world and our experiences. Weapon technology would be the opposite.
Finally, Kevin noted that the type of technology, or the species of a certain wave of innovation, can be important. For example, a smart phone like the iPhone or Android was inevitable, according to Kevin. But it matters which choices the developers made when creating the phone. Is it an open system like Android or a closed system like the iPhone? How damaging to the earth are the materials that are used?
I am still digesting Kevin’s comments. Our view at SJF Ventures on the fit between impact investing and technology-enhanced services is that we look at the output of the service to determine if it passes the sniff test of creating a positive difference. Some specific examples, such as an online community that brings together diabetes patients, are clear fits to us. Some verticals, such as education software, are clear fits to us. And some horizontal themes, such as services that yield strong employee engagement and empowerment, are clear fits to us. There are also some themes that we deem to be positive, such as tools that democratize access to information, that might not have been captured by traditional views of socially responsible investing.
The fit between technology and positive impact is one that we continue to ask ourselves and push ourselves to define or frame. I am very thankful for people like Kevin who have thought deeply about the relationship between technology and “good.” It helps provide some fantastic fresh thinking on what that marriage between technology and impact investing should look like.