Building the Future

Educating Tomorrow's Leaders in an Era of Rapid Technological Change
Policy Paper
Dec. 17, 2018

The Building the Future report made a strong case for the need to create a community of practitioners invested in exploring and building the nascent field of public interest technology. Through 17 in-depth interviews, academics and practitioners shared that a key barrier to growing the field was a lack of shared principles, goals, or even a definition of public interest technology as an academic discipline.

Inspired by the enthusiasm of faculty and students committed to engaging in work at the intersection of technology and public good, New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation brought together academic leaders to talk about public interest technology within academia in late July 2018. As Susan Crawford reflected on the meeting in WIRED, “many great movements start with small gatherings, single images, and a great deal of patience.”

That July 2018 meeting inspired an October 2018 JFK Jr. Forum event at the Harvard Kennedy School titled, “Crossing the Chasm: Why Now is the Time for Public Interest Technology.” The panel, moderated by David Eaves, brought together those pushing forward this work from every direction, including Ash Carter of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Vanita Gupta, of The Leadership Conference, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, and Latanya Sweeney of the Harvard Kennedy School. Together, they wrestled with a central questions: how to effectively make the case for technological innovations that serve the public good, and how to use this to inform pedagogy.

In order to find an answer to these queries, the panel highlighted the value of the hybrid education that public interest technology requires. Vanita Gupta noted one of the areas in which this would be useful: the “laws that were so hard-fought around the Fair Housing Act and Voting Rights Act are analogs that technology companies haven’t quite figured out how to deal with, and civil rights groups haven’t quite figured out how to make them apply in their world.” It is just these intersections that public interest technology education seeks to unmask and provide avenues of exploration for both students and faculty.

The educational institutions and leaders in Building the Future, and the conveners of the subsequent public interest events see themselves as part of a community charged with identifying the societal, ethical, legal, and policy implications of our technological innovations for the public good. Since the research conducted for this report, this small academic community has arrived at a working definition of public interest technology in the academic space: the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good. Most importantly, these practitioners at disparate universities across varying disciplines have agreed to engage meaningfully with each other to determine the questions and challenges that define this emerging field. They will share curricula, best practices, and students’ stories. Their aim is to develop a set of competencies, and career pathways that can make public interest both a field of study as well as one of practice.

For more information about this report and the current state of the Public Interest Technology university project, please contact Andreen Soley.

Key Findings

The initial findings of this research paint a bright picture of a set of programs racing to embrace public interest technology in response to a growing societal need and student enthusiasm. Among our key takeaways from university practitioners:

  1. Student demand for cross-disciplinary training is increasing: Engineering and technology students are increasingly interested in making an impact on the world and seeing the social relevance of their work. Non-technical public policy students recognize the power of technology as a tool for change. Schools report a marked uptick in demand for cross-over offerings.
  2. Practitioners are racing to respond with innovative programming: Forward-leaning faculty and schools are meeting this demand with a wide range of creative curricular and extra-curricular offerings. Universities are offering new courses, degree programs, and entire schools devoted to subjects like data science, technology for policy leaders, and the intersection of public policy and technology. Schools are also exploring new experiential learning opportunities, from term-time apprenticeships, summer internships, partnerships with local communities, and post-graduate fellowship programs.
  3. Academic leaders are recognizing the importance of public interest tech: At the highest levels of university leadership, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of this new field of interest, both to meet student demand and to meet the demand of the market and society.