I had the opportunity to see Pope Francis when he addressed Congress in Washington recently. It was a beautiful early autumn day and a pleasure to be out on the Mall. It’s an inspiring speech - you should check it out - but my ears really perked up when he mentioned technology and the critical role it can play in building a more just society today. Francis has been called many things, but a civic innovator isn’t a label I've heard before. However, his message was spot on for our work in technology for democracy.
“The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
As a summation of our whole purpose, proper application of technology with a goal of building democracies that are inclusive and sustainable is spot on. Tech, in this section on the challenges of a modern economy, is a central element in Francis’s recipe for a more just world, in an “integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” NDI is in the democracy support business in large part because we believe that more open, accountable societies are better for their people. This includes more equitable - or at least more transparent - distribution of wealth, and the ability for the marginalized to advocate and organize to make their voices heard.
Technology can play an important role in this, from exposing the hard data behind complicated national budgets to giving those excluded communities a chance to raise their voices together or organize around the challenges they face. However, none of this is a given. Technology is a reflection of society; it is more likely that even disruptive new developments will empower the powerful and enrich the wealthy. As technologists who care about the social good we all have an obligation to make sure that we consider these factors in our work.
As Francis said, "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power.”
Technology, reshaping so many aspects of modern society, also holds the potential to revolutionize the relationships between the citizens and their leaders. If we take these transformations as an opportunity to build political structures that are more inclusive, better tap into the needs and ideas of citizens as a whole, and build systems more accountable and transparent to the people, we can, as the Pope exhorted us, "put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral."