Interview with Digital Agenda

21st August 2017

MyAgenda is DigitalAgenda’s Q&A with folk working on technology that is for a change. This week, Pete Trainor, co-founder of ‘human-focused Ai’ agency US, tells us why, in the end, it all comes down to people.

What’s top of your agenda for change?

“It’s time we changed the conversation from being about this thing called digital or technology to one that’s about humans augmented by information – some good some bad – ubiquitous global connectivity has changed the information construct and it’s having a major impact on people, behaviour, psychology and wellbeing. So let’s talk about it. My theory is, that when you take away all the so-called digital and technology, you’re left with the same thing we started with – people. My agenda is really about getting the ‘digitisation’ conversation back to a people not ‘users’ one. We’re not digitising behaviour. We’re behaving in a digital world.”

What are you doing about it?

“My book, Hippo – Human Focused Digital, sets the stall out a bit. I never really woke up thinking “oh I think I’m going to write a philosophy book today”. I’m just a designer. But to try and get the focus of the conversations back to people not mechanisation of tasks, I thought a book might give me a bit of a wider brush stroke. We’re also having a lot of fun working in universities, boardrooms and tech companies saying ‘lets build some stuff that truly makes a big difference to society’. That’s pretty cool. I’m obsessed with the extermination of the term ‘user’ and not because I can’t see people ‘using’ stuff, but because it’s the term that best embodies the mistakes we’ve made as product designers.”

How did you find yourself doing what you do now?

“Good question. I keep asking myself for same thing. The introduction in Hippo is called ‘The Accidental Polymath’ because I really feel that what I’m doing now is a brilliant fluke. Just a series of decisions that made me a designer. Even owning a business like Nexus is wonderfully odd to me because I never set out to do it. It just kind of happened. What I will say is that I got fed up working in huge agencies whose sole purpose was to sell digital stuff and fluff. Quantity not quality factories. I got to the point where I said “no more” and try and do some work that was meaningful.

How can technology help secure the change you want?

“Technology is a really beautiful gift. It’s testament to how amazing we are as a species that we can invent such powerful tools. With such awesome potential, we have to keep using it for some social good, too. So when I hear some agencies and companies banging on about digital transformation and ‘oh, we must use AI to super fuel our X, Y and Z’ and I ask ‘why?’ and it’s purely zeitgeist, I know businesses like mine need to exist to do the right things with it – like find a cure for suicide using data and behavioural analysis as an example. Technology is not only becoming the change I need, but also exposing and smoking out the charlatans and I love that.”

How are you using technology in your own work?

“Technology is a tool and we’re using it to amplify the conversations that drive society forward. The work we do in the suicide space is blowing my mind. To have the opportunity to reach that many vulnerable people, using a set of algorithms that were probably designed to sell more stocks and shares, is just an awesome thing. Technology is my soap box. It’s also the processor of such vast and complicated quantities of data, that without it we’d probably still be manually trying to solve a huge problem.”

What’s the project you’ve worked on that has made the most difference to date?

“We built an experimental app called Hippo (which is why I named the book Hippo too) that we used to prove my hypothesis that data can give some really vulnerable people help before they knew they needed it, just by scrapping the data off their phones that is already being collected by the big brands to sell more stuff. We used a combination of lots of pieces of technology that were being used for disparate things (AI for processing data and powering chat, telematics that was originally used for travel industry, social media sentiment analysis turned inwardly at one person, not outwardly at many etc) and pulled it together into what I would loosely identify as codified cognitive behavioural therapy. We ran the experiment, collected the data, shut it down and now we’re working on a version of that on a much grander scale. I’m super excited.”

What’s the biggest challenge for those wanting to make a difference through technology?

“Probably thinking that technology is the answer. It’s not, it’s an enablement for change not the change. Do we encourage entitlement or enlightenment? That’s the challenge. It’s a fine line. So the biggest challenge is probably thinking technology is a silver bullet. It’s not.”

What technologies are most exciting you in the space right now?

“Artificial intelligence. And not because it’s shiny, but because it’s interesting as a philosophical tension. For me it has the power, in the right hands and minds, to take away the screens and that’s a day I can’t wait for. A technology that’s got all the smarts, but stops us looking down at our feet and helps us look forward over the hills. That’s awesome. It sounds like a cheap shot, but I really thought the movie ‘Her‘ was a genuine piece of genius. A story about a human using technology that was so humanistic by design that it amplified his best qualities. That’s a future I want to be a part of.”

What would you have done differently in your work looking back?

“That’s the million dollar question. Something I also wanted to answer with the book. I guess it’s a double-edged question. If I’d done anything differently I wouldn’t be here, now, trying to do something more meaningful. So in reality I would geniunely have done nothing differently. But, if I had my time again, and I knew then what I think I understand now, I wouldn’t have been more respectful of the technology I was manipulating. I’d have paid more attention to the artefacts I was asked to create. I’d have asked the question ‘why?’ a lot more.”

What’s your advice to people looking to do good through digital?

“Just damn well do it. There’s literally zero time for looking at your feet and thinking ‘I can’t do it’. Sure you can – just get dirty with it. Learn to code, learn to hack, be a rascal and just crack on. We all have something that means something to us. Use your gifts to fix it. Surround yourself with people and projects and content that has a purpose. I love working with businesses like Mycarematters, which wants to create happier outcomes for people with Alzheimer’s, Route21, setting up a platform to connect young people to apprenticeship opportunities, and the Bright Little Labs edtech crusade. Use these projects as inspiration and reminders that if you have the will you have the way. Doing good is not an exclusive club. It’s an inclusive club and there’s an eco-system of technology for good businesses that is well worth being a part of. Be silly, not sensible. Innovation lives on the fringes.”


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