Solving problems that matter

Searching for Britain's New Radicals

‘We don’t bat an eyelid when a 21-year-old starts a company that gets acquired for a billion dollars, but shouldn’t the brightest minds of our generation be doing something more purposeful than building another photo-sharing app? What if those minds applied themselves to some of the major challenges of our time such as inequality, isolation and poverty?’


Year Here was featured in The Observer for the launch of Nesta’s search for Britain’s 50 New Radicals.

In it, I questioned why more of the youthful energy, ambition and talent that is so evident in the tech world couldn’t be channelled towards the most important and intractable social issues of our time.

If you’re a bright young thing with a great idea for a tech company in London, right now, you are often showered with money, sponsorship and press. With potentially huge rewards, there’s little wonder so many clamour to achieve their tech dreams – and create jobs and boost the economy along the way. But though tech entrepreneurs and their evangelists may claim to be solving massive and important problems, it can just come down to helping people order food faster, share more selfies or chat online.

I quoted Jeff Hammerbacher, a data scientist who built the tools that helped Facebook optimise their ads and give companies better access to their 1.3bn+ users. Jeff famously said ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads… That sucks’, left Facebook and went on to become Chief Scientist at Cloudera, a company that helps businesses and government use big data. Jeff’s new mission is to build tools that accelerate the pace of science.

The original article, in Business Week, goes on to label him a ‘conscientious objector to the ad-based business model and marketing-driven culture that now permeates tech’. We might perhaps imagine hoards of technologists and entrepreneurs becoming ‘conscientious objectors’ and shifting their focus to social issues. But people are more complex than that and tech folk shouldn’t be judged in such moral language for their career decisions. The real rationale for Jeff’s shift is a more nuanced blend of the departure of his boss, a desire for a new challenge and an interest in medicine bolstered by his own experience of mental ill-health.

Putting aside individual career choices, how smart and driven graduates use their energy and talents really does matter for the world. If more choose to solve the problems that affect people most, we will generate new medical discoveries that dramatically increase our quality of life, create new ways to support our ageing parents and build a more equitable society – rather than one where vested interests set the agenda.

We need to attract more talent towards social issues, helping them to learn the tools of the trade quickly and giving them the confidence and belief to build businesses, charities and campaigns that make a serious difference.

At Year Here, this is exactly what we’re committed to doing.


The original Observer article, featuring 2013 Fellow Indie Shergill and 2014 Fellow Ruba Huleihel.