Tech for Good startups consider the unintended consequences

In East London’s X+Why co-working space we welcome 10 early-stage Tech for Good founders to begin considering the potential consequences of their ventures on people and society. Naturally the room was set up with very good coffee, plants in macrame hangers and post-it notes adorning tables, but this was no ordinary Shoreditch tech start-up workshop.

We’re getting ready to introduce Consequence Scanning to the latest cohort of Bethnal Green Ventures, who are all building solutions to some of the UK’s biggest social issues, including sustainability, civic engagement and mental health for LGBTQ+.

We’ve been running Consequence Scanning workshops at a range of events and a variety of organisations for about four months now, but this is the first time we’ve run it as part of a Tech for Good programme, where the overwhelming purpose of a product is to benefit vulnerable groups or achieve mission-based objectives.

Building something that aims to radically improve the lives of people doesn’t automatically eliminate the possibility of negative side-effects. And if you’ve given up your day job to do so, assessing where responsibility lies and exploring the unintended impact of your product or service, can be a particularly painful process. 

But even if you’re building something with the best of intentions for your users, there’s still the potential for unintended consequences elsewhere. As our 2018 research into public attitudes to technology finds:

“While 50% of respondents feel that technology has benefited them individually, only 12% believe that technology has been positive for society overall.”

The best way to ensure your product doesn’t have any negative impact on users or society is to accept this early on in your product’s lifetime, before something unforeseen occurs…

Unintended consequences don’t have to be scary

Unintended and negative consequences don’t have to be scary. They can help to inspire a company – anonymous participant

The Bethnal Green Ventures cohort was ready to dig deep to ensure that their startups benefited those they had set out to help.

In a warm-up exercise, the ventures were challenged to see how far they could stretch the unintended consequence of a product or service. 

This often comes with an element of hilarity, with consequences inevitably leading to mass hunger, widespread obesity, nuclear destruction or the ultimate annihilation of the world’s population.

But returning to the middle of the spectrum there are very real consequences that they had not previously considered: could more time spent dating lead to a decrease in global activism? Would outcast individuals attempt to fit in with a marginalised group if it helped them access support? Could private, digital support for childcare lead to a decrease in Government-funded services?

Exploring and understanding consequences gives the founders the opportunity to mitigate or address potential harms or disasters before they happen.

It surfaced many existing concerns that I had not addressed or fully thought through – workshop participant

At the end of the session, all participants agreed that they felt better equipped to deal with unintended consequences which could arise as a result of the workshop. More than three-quarters also said they would recommend Consequence Scanning to other tech organisations with individual remarks on how easy it would be to incorporate into a product design process.

It’s not just about mitigating harms, it’s also about creating better products

One key benefit of doing Consequence Scanning in a group is the collaborative approach to problem-solving. We saw each startup actively feeding into one another’s products, assessing risks and organising action plans, and then taking back learnings to apply to their own product. This collaborative environment created by Bethnal Green Ventures ensured that the founders were able to get different perspectives on the consequences of their products and help on how to tackle some of them.

This paved the way for open conversations, and when sharing insights at the end of the workshop some founders raised far deeper concerns: are we really promoting an accessible brand? Are we aligning with our values? Would our pricing model end up widening the social mobility gap, when we’re trying to close it?

Alongside these concerns participants also shared new opportunities, finding new areas for monitoring impact and success, secondary user groups and crossover with other startups. Some of these positive consequences led to useful and productive discussions around rebranding or redirecting their audience focus at an early stage.

When Consequence Scanning pulls up unintended consequences this reveals an opportunity, not just to mitigate the potential negative impact, but it also to make what you’re building even better; to reach a more diverse audience, ensure a more reliable product, and bring about secondary changes for those you didn’t originally target.

And it was with this energy and optimism our participants left X+Why, ready to tackle challenges which have the potential to make their ventures change more people’s lives for the better.

BGV workshop

You can find out more about Responsible Innovation on our standalone platform TechTransformed. Get in touch if you’d like us to run a Consequence Scanning session with your organisation via [email protected].