✈️ On runways, part two

TL; DR – the “build for growth” runway of tech startups should shift to be about building tech for ethical growth. A shift that will change who does the work, what tools they use, and how they measure success.

Tech hasn’t always made people’s lives better.

In part one, I talked about the concept of the runway, an important part of tech startup world. It’s the time a venture can survive negative cash flow, based on money in the bank. The runway is about building for future growth. This means building for something that will affect a large number of people, not just a handful. And building something that can keep growing from its income and profit, once it has stopped getting funding from investors.

It’s powerful to think of money in the bank as a runway. It’s powerful to build for taking off, rather than for incremental change. But it’s equally powerful to understand that the world is full of tech products that have taken off, and not produced what communities truly value, or helped people shape the lives they truly want.

Facebook achieved product-market fit, got to billions of users, and is terrible for our wellbeing. Solar energy is going mainstream, especially in Africa, just as we understand the toxic waste produced by panels and batteries.

We’re also seeing how this might be true of tech that’s still emerging. Self-driving cars will increase congestion and embed social inequality. Facial recognition products perpeatuate systemic racism.

So, what do we do about it? In short, we we need to build tech not just for growth, but ethical growth.

Teams on the runway need to build not just for product-market fit, but product-market-ethical fit. Not to grow to an exponential number of users, but make sure they do no long-term harm to them. And do it while they’re building, without thinking they can deal with the ethical implications later.

But how?

Well, we could make the runway longer. Things built in one place first, for fewer users, or over a longer time to let the full effect of a tech product play out. A tech product will leave the runway not only when it proves it works and someone will pay for it, but assuredness over its ethics too.

For me, that’s a worst case scenario. Waiting means we miss out on things that could make people’s lives better in a big way. Global mobile phone cellular subscriptions have grown almost 9x since 2000. If we waited to be sure of the ethics of mobile phones across cultures… well, we’d still be waiting. And missing out on the huge, positive impact they’ve had.

This safety-first mindset inevitably leads to investing in what we know. But as I talked about in my previous piece, sticking to safe options has meant progress on life’s essentials – food, clean water, education, energy – is painfully slow. Which, in itself, is literally killing millions of people each year.

And besides, when will you ever be “sure” something is ethical? Ethics in tech is never black and white. It will always (rightly) be an ongoing debate. And to some extent, we’ll always have unknown unknowns that simply won’t reveal themselves until the tech is out there, at scale.

So rather than extending it, how can we make the runway a more ethical place?

I have three ideas.

The first is to add new people to the team that builds on the runway. For instance,

  • how about the ethnographer? Someone to spend time with the first one or handful of users, and see how a technology touches every part of their life?
  • or, how about the human rights lawyer? Someone to understand how tech can affect someone’s rights to things like privacy and dignity, both now and in the future?
  • or the architect, or urban planner? Someone to understand how tech can influence a built environment.
  • or even the psychologist? Someone to understand how technologies can shape someone’s mental health, for better or worse.
  • maybe the philosopher? Someone to draw from diverse schools of ethical thought, and reflect on the world the tech product is shaping.

At the very least, a team with the same lived experience as its users will improve the odds of a product built upon their values. One of the features of tech is that it scales, across cultures and demographics. Diverse teams mean you’re more likely to build for – and not against – more value systems. Investors like Ada Ventures and Village Capital are among those I’ve seen trying to make this happen.

My second idea is to add ethics-based metrics to runways. Teams build for whichever metrics they’re incentivised to hit. On runways today, that’s often whatever might lead to future growth, in users or income. That’s metrics like sign-ups, or monthly active users. What are the lead indicators that might tell us whether, at scale, a technology or product harms the environment? Or leads to mental health problems? Or reinforces social or gender power imbalances?

Last year, we were working with a drone startup transporting drugs and vaccines in Malawi (I wrote about it a few months ago). One of the ways we measured for ethical success was how many Malawians we hired as trainee pilots and operators. A way to build towards a product that added local jobs and included local voices and values.

My third idea is to create new methods. Over the last 20 years, teams have used approaches like lean startup, agile, and design thinking to make sense of what they build. Each method came into being in response to a particular problem. For lean startup, it was the uncertainty that came with building new tech products. Teams needed a method that systematically know that they were on the right track. For design thinking, breakneck technological invention required a designer’s sensibility to match products with what users actually wanted. And now, we have a world in which technology is raising more and more ethical issues. What’s the method in response?

There’s some great tools starting to crop up, from the Ethics Kit, to the Data Ethics Canvas, to Ethical Explorer cards. As well as tools, there’s also movements to make sure tech workers understand – and can critically analyse – the broader impact of what they build. The newly launched Logic School is a great example of this.

International development work is international. It happens across cultures, which means you have to understand how different value systems will respond to what you build. International development work also happens in complex, high-stakes contexts. After humanitarian disasters, or where there’s endemic poverty. You have to proceed knowing and sensing all the consequences of what you do. Over many years, it’s a sector that has had to refine ways of working and building ethically. It has a lot to teach tech startup world about the people, the metrics, and the tools you need to make runways ethical.

Build for growth, to have a large, sustainable impact in crises the world faces. Make it ethical growth, to make sure what’s built actually makes people’s lives better. Together, it’s how tech can help ensure flourishing lives.

🎬 Thanks to Fraser Hamilton for looking at drafts of this post.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Cover depicts first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers (1903).

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