SOAPBOX – Tech for Good: walking in the footsteps of medieval monks to harness collective intelligence and technology for social good

Máirín Murray is a tech innovator from County Down who is on a mission to motivate others to join the Tech for Good movement.

I recently delivered a TEDx talk along with my Tech for Good Dublin co-founder Ellen Ward about the power of using technology to make a positive difference. We take inspiration from the first techies and innovators, medieval Irish monks on the Island of Nendrum and blacksmiths who in their day forged tools to sustain life in their communities.

I’d ask all of you to become part of the Tech for Good movement. Many local companies and founders are already leading lights, such as Irene McAleese from See.Sense and Dr David Trainor from Sentireal.

Like modern day blacksmiths we can work together to make tools that serve and empower our communities. To forge new connections. To hammer out practical solutions. To shape technology towards new positive purposes. Together we can change our world for the better, and make a positive dent in the universe. If you’re interested in setting up a Tech for Good group in your town or rural community, please reach out to us and we’ll help get you started.

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In light of all the news stories about the harmful impact of digital technology – it’s easy to want to run in the opposite direction and forget that harnessing its power is essential if we want to have real positive impact on individuals our communities and regions.

I come from a tiny village in County Down called Ballygowan. There are Ballygowans all over Ireland. Ballygowan means Baile an ghobhann, the town of the blacksmith. Blacksmiths were the techies and tool makers of their time. They used what many would argue is the first technology ever invented: iron. They did make swords and spears that caused harm. But they also made ploughs to help grow crops, the fire grates or hearths to keep the home warm, vessels to transport water. They made tools to sustain life.

That was the Iron Age; here we are now in the digital age. And the same principles apply then as now. Any technology can be used for either good or bad; it’s up to us to shape it to make sure it has a positive impact.

Some blacksmiths were the tech for good pioneers of their day. Way back in the Iron Age the social good was about sustaining the life of the village. Whereas now we have challenges that are more complex and exist on a global level. They can seem over whelming. Take your pick: seas filling with plastic, shortages of doctors globally, climate crisis. But big problems are also really motivating: they provide us with a clear direction. As US President John F Kennedy explained, they wanted to go to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. Big challenges are exciting, scary even and they give us an opportunity for incredible innovation and learning. The street protester’s sign says: ‘The seas are rising and so are we’. People are finally waking up, they get it now. The good news is that there’s wide spread acceptance of the big problems we face.

The language is also catching up with The Guardian now calling ‘climate change’ a ‘climate emergency’. Greta Thunberg says that we need to get angry and transform that anger into action

Make no mistake, we are living in revolutionary times. The status quo is not an option. But there needs to be more than taking to the street? How do we harness this energy, this revolutionary zeal, into something practical? Living today, we don’t have to look too hard to find a purpose, a why?

People are naturally problem solvers. What makes us human is our ability to make tools and to fix things. This is where technology comes in. It provides us with practical ways to have positive impact. Digital technology is so powerful in terms of its ability to connect us globally, to scale, to automate, to share.

And the planet is literally awash with techies. In Ireland there are 100,000 people working for tech companies. Globally there are millions of software engineers. Imagine if we could focus all these technical skills, all this knowledge, into coming up with solutions for the things that really matter. Steve Jobs said: ‘we’re here to put a dent in the universe’. He understood that it’s a basic human need to want to have an impact and that tech enables this.

A few years ago we thought that the founders of tech companies were like rock stars, gods even. And they did make huge dents in the universe but many of these companies and products are having really negative impacts: all of us have seen the news stories. Even if you have an official positive purpose for a tech product, that’s not enough. It’s essential to be alert to negative unintended consequences and to address these as a priority.

Not everyone needs to be a coder. But it is important for us to become tech aware and tech literate so we can appreciate the potential of new tools and influence them, even if we’re not involved hands on in making them.

Let’s take a step back.

I told you I’m from County Down near Strangford Lough. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Near my home are the remains of an ancient monastery on the Island of Nendrum. The monks there were world innovators. In the seventh century they learnt how to harness the power of the currents and tides.

Archaeologists confirm that Nendrum is the site of the earliest water tidal mill in the world. This provides us with a clue to how we can really harness tech for good. Monasteries were collectives, communities of learning and doing – and brewing! – that came up with local solutions but shared knowledge through networks of global reach. They were also motivated to work for the social good.

Tech for good communities are popping up over all over the world. Tech for Good is more than a hashtag. It’s a global, grassroots movement. There is no rule book to follow. We don’t have all the answers on how to harness tech for good, but we are committed to learning from each other and building a collective intelligence.

Ellen Ward and I set up Tech for Good in Dublin and we are proud to be part of this movement. Tech for Good Dublin is a community of over 1,500 techies and non-techies from all walks of life. Everyone is welcome. Tech for Good is the movement of and for our times.

The big opportunity today is to harness the power not only of the of tides like medieval Irish monks. But to harness of our collective intelligence, abilities and voices and use digital technology for social good.

Join us and become part of the Tech for Good movement. Like modern day blacksmiths we can work together to make tools that serve and empower our communities.

Photo credits: Alan Stockdale (Nendrum), Blacksmith (Jonathan Bean)