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Published October 22nd 2018

Interview: Jenni Lloyd on Whether the Future of Tech Can Work For Everyone

We chat to Jenni Lloyd about her work on various projects that highlight and fund technological innovations that benefit the public.

Jenni Lloyd tells me she doesn’t think of herself as a woman in tech, although technology seems to be a thread that runs consistently throughout her career so far. Perhaps Jenni doesn’t consider herself as someone working in tech because a love for digital isn’t what drives her – instead, her mission is to change the world.

Jenni’s enjoyed a varied career across a number of different disciplines. She started out studying sculpture in the late 80s, having never touched a computer – but that wouldn’t last long. “I’m interested in making things, but I never had a plan. I’m crap at planning,” Jenni says.

Having learned Photoshop and Quark while working at a local newspaper, which she hated, she worked with multimedia companies. One of her early roles involved designing interfaces for museum information kiosks and educational CD-ROMs. Later she worked as a web designer at the BBC where she got involved in early trials of the remote-controlled interface behind the red button.

One of her most pertinent roles was at NixonMcInnes, one of the first social media agencies in the UK. “There was a kind of assumption there that the democracy of the early web would lead to a wider egalitarianism in society and business,” Jenni said, going on to explain the ways the company incorporated democratic decision making into its general running and how they unashamedly wanted to change the world. When the company dispersed, Jenni took the opportunity to start her own business, working on projects she cared about.

Now Jenni works at Nesta, a charity set up 20 years ago with an endowment from the government. It’s purpose is to develop innovation for the public good. She works in the Government Innovation team at Nesta, leading the ShareLab programme.

ShareLab is a grant fund that supports early stage entrepreneurs using digital platforms to address social problems. For example, when we spoke she’d just come off a call with the creator of Homepointr, a matchmaking platform that connects social landlords with referral agencies looking for suitable housing options for homeless and vulnerable people. She says, “It’s not innovative in and of itself – it’s innovative in that it’s a platform designed to meet the needs of  vulnerable people and make their lives better.”

Jenni has a skeptical view of how the big names in technological innovation operate, and I was fascinated with what she had to say about making technology work for everyone.

Is digital global?

As Jenni explains her current role, she says it’s closely associated with the ‘collaborative’ or ‘sharing’ economy – although the way the sharing economy works right now feels disingenuous. She says the big names of the sharing economy might be enjoying a lot of success, but they’re not sharing much with anyone.

Instead, many of the tech titans are doing more to impose their own values on countries and communities far afield from where those companies began.

“Digital is supposedly global, and not associated with place. But actually all things come from a place and carry the culture and mindset of that place within them.”

As the services spread, so does the Silicon Valley mentality from which they came.

“People think the web is global. It’s not,” she says. “There is a very small subset of the total population responsible for building our collective future.”

Jenni is concerned with the lack of diversity within those at the forefront of the digital revolution, many of them sharing similar backgrounds. It’s at odds with the idea that a democratic web brings together creators and voices the world over from all walks of life.

Improving lives at a local level

One way that Jenni works to celebrate digital at a local level is as Chair of Brighton Digital Festival . BDF is an annual programme of events, taking place over four weeks across the city, which explore digital culture and celebrate Brighton’s creativity and digital talent.

Brighton, the city in which Brandwatch was founded and is still based, is “a city of many parts,” Jenni says. As a tech hub about an hour from London on England’s south east coast, it’s home to a large number of well off people. Meanwhile, social deprivation in the area is clearly visible.

“Lots of people in the area don’t even know these kinds of jobs exist, let alone consider them as something they can access” Jenni says, talking about the roles in digital across the city. “Part of the festival is to expose the digital world to these people. Digital technology mediates so much of daily life for everyone – we want the festival to connect people from communities across the city with opportunities for expressing their creativity and understanding how digital culture is shaping their future.”

BDF is forward thinking and, while their resources are small, they have big dreams set out in their manifesto.

Building the future, not passively receiving it

Going on what Jenni told me, digital innovation can be seen as a bit of a paradox. While technology can undoubtedly change people’s lives for the better, the way it is currently produced and distributed doesn’t necessarily promote the common good. While a handful of companies are going global with their services and apps, the people selling or, some might say, imposing these things all tend to come from one place.

For Jenni, this isn’t good enough. Why shouldn’t technology work for everyone? And why should the world passively accept that the future revolves around the creations of Silicon Valley billionaires? She says:

“The future doesn’t exist – it’s just a set of stories we tell ourselves. We can change whatever we want to change. We can’t solve our current problems by just wishing for a better future.”

Through funding innovative projects from a diverse range of creators who work to help people of all backgrounds, as well as promoting the opportunities digital can bring at a local level (genuine opportunities, that is), Jenni is working to chip away at the status-quo narrative surrounding our digital future.

Towards the end of our interview, Jenni teaches me a word – Eudaimonia, meaning a state of human flourishing. She believes in a society that facilitates this for everyone, essentially so that we can all live our best lives.

That, she says, is what drives her current line of work.

Big thanks to Jenni for taking the time to speak with us. You can find her on LinkedIn here. And Twitter here.

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