SXSW 2019: Tech and Social Impact in an Evolving Era

A panel from varied sectors discuss the potential of tech — from the companies that profit from it to the institutions that teach it in schools — to facilitate social impact in the years to come.

by / March 14, 2019
From left: Nate Robinson, Nancy Giordano, Lindsay Clinton and Ashley Phillips. Zack Quaintance / Government Technology

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Technology companies, while financially powerful and influential in the way society progresses, do not, of course, operate in a vacuum.

In fact, given their size and influence on local companies, whether they intend to or not, large tech companies have significant social impact. Earlier this week at South by Southwest, a panel consisting of participants from varied backgrounds discussed tech and social impact, touching on everything from the way their decisions influence communities to how they can be more inclusive in the years to come.

The panel was dubbed “The Future of Tech and Social Impact,” and it was part of a day’s worth of programming called "The Future Of ___," in which the various participants filled in that blank. It was held in downtown Austin at the offices of the tech education and entrepreneurship entity Galvanize, with the panelists seated in front of a wide window that gave the audience a view of Austin’s viscerally modern downtown, in which the vast majority of major buildings are less than two decades old.

Perhaps the most notable line of conversation had to do with Amazon and the recent saga in which the company invited communities across the country to apply to be the home for its second headquarters, before accepting the New York City borough of Queens and then ultimately pulling out in the wake of community backlash.

Panelist Lindsay Clinton, a senior vice president with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said that her colleagues worked in tandem with Empire State Development, a group that operates at the state level. Clinton said New York City had been working to attract a major tech company since the economic recession in 2008, hoping to diversity the major pillars of its economy past just finances and real estate.

Ultimately, the community reaction to the social impact a second headquarters may have had is what undid bringing Amazon to Queens.

“We saw it as a really big opportunity to diversify our tech workforce,” Clinton said. “In many ways, it was a lost opportunity, and I do think Amazon could have done a lot more in terms of the process, in terms of engaging the community. The challenge was that it was a completely secretive process.”

Clinton said that she’s found it fascinating that the vast majority of conversations during the interactive weekend of SXSW seemed focused on how to best sell more stuff to more people, with nary a mention of making sure these companies are rooted in ethics, morality or purpose.

But there are a number of other campaigns, programs and initiatives in New York City, Clinton said, designed to foster tech presence there with a healthy social impact. These include growing the cybersecurity ecosystem to encourage related companies to start up there. To do that, stakeholders are working with universities to train the workforce in cybersecurity, teaching them not just to code but how to be advocates for themselves and what they do.

There was a sense of agreement at the panel that better skills training could ensure that the social impact of tech in communities was not lost jobs, but rather an increase in jobs for folks who already live in a given area.

Nate Robinson, the assistant vice president of the University of Texas at El Paso and formerly an engineer with Motorola and NASA, said that in his capacity, he’s involved with local K-12 education programs that focus on teaching storytelling, on helping kids to sell themselves as they fight to remain adaptable.

Ashley Phillips, the managing director for the co-working entity Impact Hub Austin, stressed the importance of communication, noting that young people needed to grow up envisioning careers in technology.

“People know what it looks like to be a nurse,” she said, “... but kids don’t play data engineer. We don’t know how to play that, we don’t know how to dream it.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.