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[ ShelterTech in Davos 2019 ]I had the chance to be in Davos this year with the Global Shapers to represent ShelterTech at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. What had started in 2016 as a local community project was going to be under the spotlight of the most exclusive gathering of world leaders.
Despite the five thousand sessions scheduled in the convention center, there were no talks, panels, workshops or events on homelessness. There were no lectures or discussions on the science of volunteer-led organisations. This reinforced our objective to put homelessness on the agenda at Davos and promote the emergence of volunteer-led tech organisations for social good.
While the talks and panels, workshops and events all put income inequality at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals, homelessness was off the map. I was in the room during the viral panel discussion on “The Cost of Inequality” and asked how our generation, already convinced by the arguments, could join the fight. “Join the system, but keep your principles” is, in essence, what I got back.
ShelterTech has a powerful story — one of co-creation and altruism. Our volunteers spend hundreds of hours every month building Askdarcel, installing WiFi in shelters and community spaces and building new tools to help San Franciscans escape homelessness. During our weekly datathon events, tech volunteers spend an afternoon working with Community Representatives who experience homelessness to vet information about social services. During our dinners, the tech and homeless communities meet and connect around everyday life in San Francisco.
The Digital Divide does not only separate industrialised and developing countries. It doesn’t only oppose workers whose jobs are made obsolete today and those who will be digitised tomorrow. It creates a gaping hole at the heart of our societies, in our cities, between those who can use modern digital tools, and those who can’t. The Lifeline program is crucial for putting a smartphone in the hands of every American in need, but the Internet wasn’t designed for people who experience homelessness — just try googling “I am homeless what should I do?”. It is an illusion to think that market laws — supply and demand — will one day cater to the needs of these forgotten communities.
Instead, it will take a new generation of tech organisations, startups, and nonprofits to bridge that divide. These organisations will design new tools and applications for use cases that have so far been largely overlooked — a new Internet. From user research to business models, these products will be based on new design assumptions, taking into account accessibility, literacy, bandwidth and battery optimisation, and socio-economic realities.
Davos kept talking about “scale”, forgetting that people are driven first and foremost by their local community. It hailed “sustainability” as an end in itself, forgetting that what matters is an organisation's impact, not its survival.
We built a team of volunteers to avoid the trap of the homelessness-industrial complex: the end of homelessness will be the happy ending for ShelterTech.
Davos ultimately brought a new energy to ShelterTech: a validation that what we were doing was unique, important and generalisable enough to matter. It forced us right out of our comfort zone and was, in many ways, a challenge to the status quo. With so many people inspired by the story, what was stopping our growth if not our own ambition? With so many cities facing similar issues around homelessness and tech, what was slowing down our expansion if not our own resources? And with such committed, hard-working volunteers and Community Representatives, what was limiting our impact if not our own timidity?
The participants at Davos, and particularly the delegation of Global Shapers, were a precious mirror in which ShelterTech’s reflection looked brighter and bigger — what more encouragement do we need to continue working to make it so?