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Using tech to overcome inequality

During Techweek’18, social entrepreneur Derek Handley delivered a powerful keynote address. Here’s what he had to say about using technology to address social inequality.  Watch Derek’s presentation here or read it below:

“I watched a video the other day of a man demonstrating a machine unlike any to have ever come before it.  If there ever was an invention that had the potential to impact generations for centuries or even millennia, I would rank it right up there.

If you can imagine… there are two plates of metal, peppered with an array of symbols and indents. An older man lays them flat.  He picks up what looks like two dumbbells, but if you can picture, each with only one of the weights on it and instead of a weight at the end it’s kind of a cushion.  He rolls these dumbbells over a glossy black coloured surface over and over again.  Next, the sound of these dumb bells pounding on to the metal plates, over and over until they’ve had contact with every square centimetre.  A large sheet of paper slides into a frame hanging open, like a window above the plates… two pins slice through the paper.  The frame comes down.  The man pulls down a handle, like the lever to a giant safe.  And as he turns the handle, weights above the frame, push down on the plates below it.  He releases the pressure.  Slides out the frame.  Pulls out the piece of paper – holds it up.  And it’s two printed pages of text.  Side by side.

This, is the Gutenberg press. Invented in 1446.  And with it, the technology we now call the book.

Last year, one of our city councillors, Efeso Collins, took me around South Auckland to visit interesting people and projects.   One morning I dropped into see Ian Toki at the Otara library, which was filled with descendants of Gutenberg’s gift to mankind.  We spoke about the role that the library has in the community and what events and activities they hold and I asked him: when is the library busiest?  It turns out, it’s about 3.30-5.30pm.  Why do you think that was?
Is it…

a) because there were after school programmes, tutoring and music lessons to keep the kids interested?

b) because Sanitarium and Foodstuffs provided free food and drinks to encourage the community to engage with the library?


c) because Microsoft had partnered with them to donate a bank of computers and tablets that had an amazing array of apps and games for kids and parents to engage with?

The answer is actually D – because the kids do not have the internet at home and they need to do their homework and the only place they can get online after school is the library.  Many of them use cheap Android phones without data plans, to connect to WiFi to search and type up essays and assignments, on their tiny screens.  Many of the homes they go back to might have only a handful of books.  In their homes, they are barely connected to the present, let alone the future.

If you come to my house, you will see a five year old, privileged, fortunate, digitally roaming, every day, creatively and in his own way.  He watches a video on how to take apart and fix a vacuum cleaner.  He goes onto one explaining a volcano to understand what’s happening in Hawaii. He thinks the Hyperloop exists and is excited for me to take him on it.  He asks to learn how to code, because he’s heard kids on YouTube talk about it, so we pull up a website recommended by his school, Code Monkey and within half an hour a monkey is moving around a screen, over bridges and fields collecting bananas.  And within all of this, his brain is fed thousands of words a day.  All within the four walls of a home also filled with books, dozens of which are his.

A 20 year global study concluded just a few years ago, found children who grow up in homes with at least 20 books will stay in school significantly longer.  That same study identified that the effective impact of a child growing up in a house with a few hundred books, was the equivalent of an extra three to six years education, compared to children who did not.  Every single study in history – has shown that the more words and language a child is exposed to in the earliest years at three, four, five is directly linked to their likelihood to stay in and succeed at school.

Corporate prison planners in the US, forecast their future cell requirements by tracking the reading levels of eight year olds around the country, because there is a direct correlation between the reading ability at eight and future prison populations in the area.

Almost all studies in the world have a positive correlation between children staying in school and completing school, to their likelihood to stay out of jail, out of drugs, and into contributing to a healthy, happy society with a solid job.  So after 500 years, the mere presence of this flat, one dimensional, one way, static technology of books still statistically determines your chances and choices in life.

If we believe, as I do and I have witnessed, that the internet and a tablet accelerates the learning and discovery of a young child orders of magnitude beyond what a simple book can.  We have on one hand a child growing up in a home preparing for the space age, while the other is left behind in the bronze.

This Government has said 150,000 children do not have internet access in their homes. Even if it was a third of that, it’s far too many and will hold this country back from any hopes of being a leading digital nation in the coming generation.  Because far too many of our children will have been handicapped before the starting blocks, without a choice or a chance of catching up.  So while we are still closing the gap on a 500 year old technology that we know has a major impact on a child and community’s future.  Ever the optimist that I am, I still can’t help but see a gulf the size of the Pacific Ocean being allowed to open up before our eyes and I can’t help but believe that addressing that issue is perhaps the most important challenge facing us, if we want to innovate for good for all, not just for some.

Now, as these kids get older, become teenagers and eventually working adults like you and I, we face new challenges.  There is a famous experiment featuring a dog and a bell.  Pavlov’s dog came to know that every time the bell rang, there was food and his mouth would water.  After a while, just the sound of the bell on its own would produce the identical physiological response in the dog’s mouth.

Today’s bell is the ‘like’, the ‘heart’, the comment.
Today’s bell is the little red circle that shows how many new messages or alerts have come in the last two minutes.
Today’s bell is pulling the screen down in hope of a reward, which several of the key architects of Facebook feel deep guilt and disgust with and liken as no different to a slot machine.

If those are the bells – who then, are the dogs?  We are walking around, like Pavlov’s dog, with pocket slot machines for the mind, that some of us pull on 100 to 150 times a day.

We have created these vehicles and instruments of joy, collaboration and progress through modern devices and connectivity which when we turn on ourselves, can undermine who we are and chip away at our humanity.  They can take us away from the real world, poke at our self-esteem, create imaginary anxieties in our minds,  based on other people’s views on our digital bread crumbs.  They steadily lure us into bubbles that filter out the thoughts of people who don’t think like us, don’t like the same things us and don’t follow the same ideas as us.  We are seeing a culture of Gen Z’s so obsessed with how their lives appear on Instagram or Snapchat, versus how they actually are in reality.  We are seeing sleep troubles, posture problems, and spine issues in kids as young as seven years of age.

We are losing our ability to be alone with ourselves.
We simply cannot wait for a bus, a friend or a coffee without checking our phones.
We have never before been more connected in history, but many of us have also never felt more alone.  Youth suicide. Depression. Mental health. Loneliness.

These issues are surely not caused by technology, but with the anxieties and expectations of digital connectedness as it is today, I can’t help but think it’s hurting more than it’s helping.  We need to turn these technologies back on themselves and design a myriad of ways for them to be a part of the solution rather than just part of the problem.  There is a welcome boom in the US and the UK of digital services, therapy, and tools for mental health that we need here.  Here in New Zealand, we have a chance, and a choice, to use those tools of today and of tomorrow, for good.

But what exactly does tomorrow hold?

People say, ’20 years ago, who would have known the mobile would become a pocket super computer…’
People say, ‘who would have known… Amazon would become Amazon…”
People say, ‘who would have known there would be a Facebook that connects two billion people…”

Of course we knew.

Many people knew.

But only those who have the courage to act on what they know, create the future.

I can tell you who could have known.

The people who were listening.
The people who stopped, for a moment.
The people who took the time, to imagine what may come.
People, I hope, like some of you in this room.

Spending a week at somewhere like Singularity University in California, you come out with a fair idea of what is likely to happen in the next decades, thirty, fifty or more years.

It’s not the knowing that is the problem, it’s the doing.  The shaping.  The choosing.

Back in 2001, the Clark Government convened and established with urgency and priority, something they called, the ‘Knowledge Wave.’  There was a real sense of knowing back then, that the internet was going to change the world and our lives, and that we had this golden opportunity to spearhead a ‘knowledge economy’.  But the knowledge wave, ended up being just exactly that.  Our country stood, with a collectively dumb look on our face with full and complete knowledge, that the world was on the verge of entirely transforming and we stood there and waved at it.

Ten years later, Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan noted that, “the Knowledge Wave stands out as one of the key missed opportunities that litter New Zealand’s history.”

Are we willing to let ourselves be written about like that again in 2028?  Because here we find ourselves again.  Almost twenty years later, at the cusp of new worlds.  And, in those twenty years, yes, we have come far.  In despite of the knowledge wave, not because of it.  And with little thanks to any leadership from those concentric corridors of Wellington who are supposed to light and pave the way.  We have only really come this far because of the vision, tenacity and aspirations of New Zealanders across the country like yourselves, who said, ‘screw it’, if these guys don’t get it, let’s just get on and build our own digital nation with our own hands and minds.  But after twenty years of successive governments who have barely even paid lip service to embracing, enabling and aspiring to be a digitally led nation, economy and connected society, last year, it appeared to have all changed.  Both of our major political parties had committed to creating the country’s first position of Chief Technology Officer.  Whatever you think of the scope and power of that role, the mere acknowledgement that such a role is needed, seems to me a signal that maybe with the backing of our nation and the highest offices of the Prime Minister, we have another chance and another choice to create a collective future that looks unlike any from the past.

It seems to me, that at this time, on the cusp of new revolutions that will far outstrip what we have seen thus far and at a time when New Zealand has never before been looked up on in a more positive light by people throughout the world, as a beacon of hope and humanity.

It seems to me, that at this time, that the challenges of innovation for good for our nation, should have us:

  • forging ahead to create meaningful work and daily livelihoods for ordinary citizens, in the face of automation and in the end, artificial intelligence.
  • forging ahead towards a fully renewable transportation fleet with a purpose and a plan.
  • forging ahead with more capital, resources and ideas for many more bold new companies that shape the future.
  • pioneering protein, meat and milk grown far from the paddocks of a traditional farm.
  • answering, how we become better parents, brothers, friends, neighbours and citizens – face to face, not just Facebook to Facebook.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on the other side of the world a tiny country, for 100 years, became a sustained ‘hot bed of genius’.  It charted ground breaking advances in ideas of science, philosophy, engineering, technology, economics and medicine.  Leading Voltaire, the French Philosopher of the day, to state, ‘it is to Scotland that we must look for our idea of civilization,’  and what became known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

It seems to me that if this Government is serious, as they say they are, and we all are serious, which I know we are, that together, we have a chance and a choice to invite the visionaries of our generation from China to Chile, to join arms with New Zealand, in a bold adventure to create a model country of the future, which because of our size and our sensibility, we all know we can and should be:

  • fully sustainable.
  • fully prosperous.
  • fully inclusive, conscious and kind.

It seems to me, at least, that there is a very real possibility of a New Zealand Enlightenment ahead. Where we can bend the world in our direction if we choose to allow our humanity and not just technology, to guide us.


Derek Handley is the Chief Innovation Officer at Human Ventures, where he helps founders turn ideas into thriving early stage companies.  He founded, the Aera Foundation, a venture studio that fuses social and financial goals.  Derek is an Adjunct Professor at AUT in Auckland and a former EY Young Entrepreneur of the Year.  Derek is also the author of Heart to Start,   the story of a global startup plus a guide for turning ideas into action.

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