Integrating Tech into the Work of Social Change

By Robert Phillips, President and CEO, Alluma

In the past decade, we have seen equity solidify into a broad and potentially transformative social change agenda. This shift reflects a desire to ensure every person in the United States is fairly included in a society in which we all have the opportunity to participate, thrive, and reach our full potential — with the ultimate goal being the release of the United States’ full capacity by unleashing the promise of all of its people.

The equity agenda has been expressed in general in the unfulfilled promise of the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 — the freedom of speech and expression, the freedoms of every person to worship in their own way, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear — and the country’s ongoing struggle with what Martin Luther King Jr. articulated as America’s three evils in his 1967 speech America’s Chief Moral Dilemma: the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war.

More specifically, however, the equity agenda is rooted in Roosevelt’s freedom from want and Dr. King's visions of the evils of racism and poverty.

As I’ve discussed in the past, freedom from want is a transformative idea that says the strength of a community is reflected in the circumstances of its most vulnerable. The evil of racism is the idea that racial injustice is still the burden of many and America’s shame, and the evil of poverty is the idea that there’s nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the resources, skills, and techniques to get rid of poverty. But we have yet to answer the question of whether or not we have the will.

These notions are so central to what we must strive for, yet they are often lost in the Twitter feeds of our contemporary discussions of politics and policy.


The strength of a community is reflected in the circumstances of its most vulnerable.


As we reflect today on the legacy of Dr. King, I urge us to reflect on this statement from the aforementioned speech on all the work that remains: “We have left ourselves as a nation morally and politically isolated in the world. We have greatly strengthened the forces of reaction in America, and excited violence and hatred among our own people. We have diverted attention from civil rights. During a period of war, when a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs inevitably suffer. People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst.”

Today, while progress has been made in the fight for justice and fairness, there is no area of our country that can boast of clean hands in the area of justice and fairness. Every region confronts a serious problem, and real inequity persists. Race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and economic status continue to be predictive of negative outcomes in economic and social well-being. Over the last four decades, the United States saw an explosion of new technologies – from the Internet to the iPhone, from Google to Facebook – but in that same period, the rate of poverty still averaged 13%. The legacy of an unequal society remains, and often manifests in new and unexpected ways as we march forward.

If we look at those issues, it’s clear that technology has played a role in amplifying inequity while playing little role in ameliorating it. I am not casting a finger of blame, as this has not been a function of conscious choice. If you look at the business model of technology, for the most part companies are incentivized by their investors to create value to users that will eventually translate into revenue in terms of products and services. That said, this dynamic often perpetuates disconnections and inequities, as it puts technology in service to users who are active consumers but does nothing to positively impact the health, resilience, and sustainability of communities and society. This is not its ambition.


The legacy of an unequal society remains, and often manifests in new and unexpected ways as we march forward.


Here’s an example of what I mean, which looks at one facet of Amazon’s business model. To Amazon, a customer is a customer. At least that’s how it starts. But over time, customers distinguish themselves from one another on Amazon’s platform. They browse. They buy things. They review things. They return things. The algorithms at the core of Amazon’s business model leverage the data gathered on a customer’s behavior to get smarter, better, and faster. That customer receives recommendations, discounts, and reviews based on past behavior and predictive analytics of what they might want or need in the future. After enough interactions, a customer is not just a customer, they are an individual: a whole, complex person with behaviors and interests producing rich data sets that can inform the choices made available to them.

This is just one example, and a similar model is at play with Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and innumerable other technology firms. And to be clear, it’s innovative and brilliant and there’s nothing wrong with it — until you look at it in terms of what isn’t happening, and whom it isn’t serving. Technology is amplifying the utility and seamlessness of the customer experience for those who are engaging with each of these services.

At Alluma, we focus on very different end-users, the people for whom freedom from want isn’t a reality, and for whom the evils of poverty and racism are all too real. We work to connect people to the support and help they seek. But something we have learned, which is not actually surprising because they are people, is that these individuals are as complex in their motivations and behaviors as anyone else. And so are the government and non-governmental programs that provide them with help. Like Amazon, we know we must understand these individuals as whole, complex persons, or else we will miss the opportunity to give them the same seamless experience that someone buying an air fryer would have with Amazon.


“…[T]rue compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” according to Dr. King.


Imagine a world where the same underlying actions and conditions that have enabled Amazon to provide an incredible scale of change were used to create a similar degree of social progress. This goes far beyond assistance programs. What if technology were used on a scale similar to Amazon, for example, to identify geographic pockets of need, where help and support could be predicted and readied for deployment just as communities asked for it? The result could be lower costs and better outcomes, stronger communities. Less inequity.

When we have seen technology enter into the social change space, it tends to show up in two ways. Either with the temptation that technology can be used for “scaling up” intervention as the only path forward — that they can reach more people by removing the human factor from their work — or as technologists with visions of utopia.


What is needed is not more technology seeking to push social change, but rather a push to integrate technology into the work of social change.


With great respect to those who are trying, these efforts are often lack the one thing that must be at the heart of any social tech venture: the ambition to generate social value through a net positive impact on communities and society. It’s great that Facebook, for example, wants to help register people to vote, but “…true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring,” according to Dr. King. Put another way, the hard fact is that Facebook is built to generate value to a user by inducing them to use Facebook to generate money for Facebook, not participation.

What is needed is not more technology seeking to push social change, but rather a push to integrate technology into the work of social change. Another effort to give every child a laptop will not provide freedom from want, nor will it address the evils of racism and poverty if the child has a new laptop and is still hungry, homeless, and “othered.” Our social justice interventions might be different if technology were used to amplify effective social solutions.

Technology is a necessary component of social change. It would be wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise. In fact, we need more and better technology in the social sector. But while technology is necessary, it is wholly insufficient.


Our sincerest tribute to Dr. King is in our actions to honor his spoken words and unfinished work for as long as it takes.


We don’t have all the answers, but this is some of what comes to mind for me when I think about the work for a just and fair society that provides us all with the opportunity to live the lives we all dream of. It inspires me to think about the kinds of things we might achieve with the tools we have today if we rise to the challenge set out by Dr. King one year before his assassination: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."

Our sincerest tribute to Dr. King is in our actions to honor his spoken words and unfinished work for as long as it takes.

I welcome your thoughts on how we can integrate technology into the work of social change in a meaningful way to advance a social equity agenda.


Robert Phillips leads the strategic direction, fiscal stewardship, daily operations, and overall management of Alluma as CEO. A healthcare advocate and philanthropist, Robert joined the Board of Alluma (then Social Interest Solutions) in 2006, and became President of the Board and CEO in 2017. Follow Robert on LinkedIn and Twitter.