London startup hub Plexal has teamed up with youth charity My Life My Say to create a new social inclusion unit and technology accelerator at its East London home. It is seeking to address some of the barriers that people of many different stripes face in taking a more active role in society, the economy and politics, through innovation and technology.
High on its agenda will be expanding the conversation around diversity in technology to include groups such as inner city teenagers, refugees and recent immigrants, and disabled people – all groups it is easy to exclude from a narrative that all too often centres on the experiences of white, middle-class, able-bodied people.
To mark the unit’s launch, Plexal has produced a report exploring attitudes towards technology and social inclusion in the UK. Among other things, it found that 65% of people though the tech industry played an important role in educating people and teaching them new skills, and a similar number thought tech companies helped people from different backgrounds to communicate with each other.
Just over half of respondents believed technology companies have a responsibility to support social inclusion, and people increasingly expect the brands and businesses they engage with to act as agents for social change – an attitude that was more prevalent in younger age groups.
Only three in 10 respondents felt that tech companies were effective in helping excluded people and communities to participate in society more fully.
In his introduction, mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the report showed that the general public was, broadly speaking, optimistic about the role the tech sector could play in improving the communities around it and boosting social mobility, but added that there was also a sense that the IT industry was not coming up to scratch.
“Tech companies, because of their reach and how integral their products are to our lives, have a huge opportunity at their feet – and it is also in their own interests to act,” said Khan.
“They are creating the services and products that shape how we travel, eat, work, or even find love. But if the coders and creators don’t look like the rest of society, how useful will their products be? Good design is inclusive and accessible by nature, and having a diversity of experiences and perspectives only encourages innovation.”
Empowerment through technology
At the unit’s launch event at Plexal’s base in what was once the TV broadcast centre for the 2012 London Olympics, Rezene Woldeyesus, co-director of sign language company Love Language, revealed that there are only 980 qualified sign language interpreters in the UK serving a deaf population of more than 180,000.
Woldeyesus, who first came to the UK as a refugee from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and is himself deaf, said: “The disparity between those figures is huge, so technology is essential in order for us to be able to really integrate into society, and looking towards how that experience of accessibility can be done well and designed well through education, right through employment and to services, that is our task together.”
Microsoft government affairs manager Tom Morrison-Bell said Microsoft saw disability as a “lens to innovation” and that the firm now looks to the strengths that disabled people can bring to it throughout the hiring process, particularly in development.
He pointed to several examples of how Microsoft is building features into its technology that were developed by and for disabled people, such as artificial intelligence (AI)-powered closed captions – coming soon to Skype video calls – or facial recognition for blind people. Such features could benefit everyone, he said.
“Many of those technologies that we take for granted today – the fact that you can talk to your phone, the fact that it talks back to you, the fact that it’s got a touchscreen – those are all technologies where people with disabilities were the first power users,” said Morrison-Bell. “The absolute need started there and then everybody else gets to use them.
“That is something that is always forgotten about. Innovation is driven by constraints that many of us are lucky enough not to have to face.”
Read more about diversity in technology
- Part of building a diverse technology workforce is creating an inclusive culture, which can be a challenge when those at the top come from a position of privilege and are unaware of issues faced by minorities.
- Women in technology have claimed diversity is still not a focus for their company in a majority of cases, according to research.
- During a wide-ranging Q&A session at this year’s Everywoman in Tech Forum, HMRC CDIO Jacky Wright set out why diversity matters when building government services.
- Each year, charity Stonewall releases a list of the top 100 LGBT+ employers. As technology becomes such a huge part of so many businesses, it has slowly begun to feature on the list.
Plexal said that if tech businesses did more to place social inclusion at the heart of their agendas, they stood to gain in terms of making their products and services more accessible to more potential customers; gaining access to new sources of diverse talent to help shape their businesses; potential new sources of investment from communities they had not previously engaged with; and more public support.
In September this year, 12 companies will be selected to join a new accelerator, OpenDoor, which will develop innovations to boost social inclusion and solve accessibility challenges. Applications for the accelerator will open on 3 June, and in the meantime, the social inclusion unit is encouraging organisations or individuals to come forward and help shape the unit’s agenda and focus.
“True innovation, when we embrace it, should feel like magic, and then it should be invisible,” said Plexal managing director Andrew Roughan. “And if it’s invisible, it’s in our everyday lives, it’s free to us, it doesn’t cost any money, but we all have to come together to make that magic.
“Those of you who are innovators or creators – where are your products? Come and show them to us, let us amplify them, let us accelerate them, let us make them change.
“Funders, big companies – think about how we can put your challenges to work. We don’t want a sponsors’ club, we want your challenges, and we want to make changes for your businesses that will create real dividends for your shareholders.”