When I first became a partner at DOJO4, things were rocking steady, decent clients were finding us with little or no effort on our part, and a general sense of creamy, rich ease pervaded the business. Nevertheless, our then CEO and I spoke often about the longevity of the industry and the fact that DOJO4’s success was tied to the bubble-like nature of the tech industry.

The painful truth is that solving the problems of human and environmental disease is one of the only guaranteed growth industries. Tweet This Quote

We talked a lot about business development and how to best insulate ourselves in the long term against an eventual downturn. At the time, I could not foresee the tech bubble bursting any time soon, but the answer to where we should be putting our energy for long-term stability and success was crystal clear to me from the get go: human suffering.

That’s right. The painful truth is that solving the problems of human and environmental disease is one of the only guaranteed growth industries. That may sound like a dismal pronouncement, but I also see it as the greatest opportunity of our time. At DOJO4—and many, many other tech businesses—we have all the circumstances in place to apply our skills, talents, and ingenuity to solving real problems, using the same technical and design innovations that we had been applying mostly just to commercial endeavors.

Making that shift would allow us to engage our work in a genuinely meaningful way and allow us to have a sustainable, impactful business at the same time. This line of thinking can run somewhat counter to conventional business-school wisdom. Make money and help people at the same time? No way. Helping people and the environment is the domain of NGOs, non-profits, and philanthropies.

Technologists can solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to move in different directions. Tweet This Quote

This reaction is an unfortunate outcome of our cultural approach to altruism. Donating our time and money for the benefit of others can be a wonderful thing but it is not the only—maybe not even the best—way to galvanize our best efforts for the benefit of ailing social and environmental systems.

The relatively recent rise of social entrepreneurship has exposed this approach and solution—using the power of business to provide innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems, tackling major social and environmental issues, and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, these entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, selling the solution, and persuading entire societies to move in different directions.

At their best, this is what technologists can do, too: solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to move in different directions.

Writing code that directly alleviates human and environmental suffering is a living, breathing opportunity. Tweet This Quote

With my outsider’s perspective on the tech industry (I was educated as a scientist and have spent most of my career in documentary film), I continue to marvel at the fact that the most inspired technologists have essentially the same qualities as entrepreneurs (such as the willingness to self-correct, share credit, and break free of established structures).

Unfortunately, we’ve squandered a lot of our developer smarts and talent on creating commercially self-fulfilling junk food for the mind and an intricate digital economy stickily entwined with proprietary software, profits, and data appropriation. Many technologists feel like they are stuck with that as their only option. But, if you really want a better world, a successful career and a more meaningful life, writing code that directly alleviates human and environmental suffering is a real option and a living, breathing opportunity.

Acknowledging that solving ‘real’ human and environmental problems is a valuable growth industry is the best business decision we’ve ever made. Tweet This Quote

It is possible. Several years after those initial conversations at DOJO4, we’ve committed to that triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. We see that the alleviation of human, social, and environmental suffering is the best use of our energy because this ‘sector’ has essentially endless needs, and is thus a fertile, demand-full market; it draws on the best qualities of developers’ innate approach to problem-solving and knowledge-building; it allows us to feel more engaged in a meaningful life, and that means we do better work.

So far, acknowledging that solving ‘real’ human and environmental problems is a valuable growth industry, and choosing to put all our eggs in that basket, is the best business decision we’ve ever made.

About the author

Corey Kohn

Corey Kohn

Corey is the COO of dojo4, a creative software design, development and media team in Boulder, Colorado.

  • Sally Rosloff

    Sounds great but I need examples. What projects are you working on that illustrate this? With details and how successful. Would be great to know!

  • My feeling is that successful examples of this are happening all over, all the time. Any project that uses technology to tackle real issues, and employees people gainfully to do so, could be considered an example. In my case, a lot of the work detailed at http://dojo4.com/work are case examples of this, e.g. our work for Greenpeace, Stand Up To Cancer, Off.Grid:Electric. The trick is that the code is most usually essentially the same no matter who and what it’s written for, but it is more likely to get the full focus and attention of the people who write it when it feels like it’s making a meaningful contribution. In this way, we’ve been able to do more to ensure successful projects, because the contributors feel engaged and dedicated to the outcome of their work.

    I’d love to hear other examples here. And what are the pitfalls and opportunities that other entrepreneurs have experienced?

  • Carlos Bruguera

    Corey, I love this… This message truly touches some part of me that has been connecting with this very intent through science and technology. There must be a “higher” purpose for all science and all human knowledge.

    As a computer scientist, I want to dedicate my life to developing truly disruptive tools so that humankind is able to seamlessly align with its natural evolution. And I’m talking about evolution of consciousness.

    I’m curious about knowing your views on technologies such as Bitcoin. In my opinion, this innovation seems to be a fundamental milestone for financial and technological decentralization. How do you think we can use the same principles (distributed consensus, decentralized processing and incentivized security) to hack human suffering?

  • coreykohn

    Carlos, I like your thinking! I agree that it’s exactly the type of approach you’re talking about that will (and does) allow us to innovate solutions to difficult problems. How can we use the Bitcoin model and technology to improve things like food security and access to effective medical care? And how can this type of technology be applied to sourcing processes for improving and stabilizing local economies, encouraging the equitable distribution of wealth and access to information, etc.?

    An important piece of this for me, is that this movement toward “developing truly disruptive tools” will be more and more effective, the more we value it. When we’re able to build these tools as part of having viable and healthy businesses, it creates value in the process and does the double duty by reimagining businesses, and potentially the economic ecosystem, as a disruptive and generative tools themselves.

  • Nick Isaacs

    As a former business student “Make money and help people at the same time? No way” was not once a part of my business education (or any other business-school programs that I can think of). Rather “create value” was the message. Letting that bit slide, the rest of the sentiment is excellent. There is unbounded possibility to solve “real problems” as I call them. A bit of a hand-wavy term to describe what you have referred to as “human suffering”, a term I will henceforth be using. It is easy for the best minds to fall into building “commercially self-fulfilling junk food” because the infrastructure is there to support it. You can apply for a job, arrive on day one, receive your computer, desk, assigned tasks, sizable paycheck, and get right to work creating value. There doesn’t seem to be this same infrastructure in place for the problem of solving “human suffering”, which is a problem. There should be more DOJO4’s in the world, creating the infrastructure needed to get bright minds right to work creating value solving for these issues.

  • coreykohn

    Hi Nick-

    Thanks for shining a light on what could be considered one of the inherent goods of business: to create value. This is so important because when that essential value is understood to be that which benefits people and the environment, the result can be a powerful combination of financially, socially and environmentally increased worth.

    As social enterprise moves to the forefront, there is less and less veracity in glibly mentioning that helping people and making money is out of the realm of business-school understanding. Plus that was likely missing the point in the first place (!), since as you say, the primary endeavor of business is to create value. But I believe the conventional focus on singularly increasing economic value, in many cases over all other forms of worth, has the flaw of missing the opportunity of creating huge amounts of value that are polyvalent and sustainable.

    As more and more entrepreneurs and jobseekers put more and more stake in building and working for businesses that are creating ‘real’ value, the more this will become a economically ingrained standard. This may feel easier said than done, but it does happen, is happening and will happen more and more. It’s obviously about more than just finding a job, but here are a few resources that may be helpful:

    * http://www.rework.jobs/
    * http://www.idealist.org/
    * http://www.escapethecity.org/opportunities
    * https://netimpact.org/careers
    * https://www.bcorporation.net/community/jobs-board
    * https://skollworldforum.org/jobs/
    * https://socialenterprise.us/resources/jobs
    * http://www.namac.org/job-bank/

    At dojo4 we’re working hard right now on opening up these types of options particularly for programmers and designers. More on that soon…

    Anyone with more resources to share?

  • Sign up for newsletters from accelerator programs in the space you’d like to explore too. They often give funding and job updates for their startups. Google something like “social entrepreneurship programs” and I’m sure tons will appear.

    “I believe the conventional focus on singularly increasing economic value… ” This reminds me of a fundamental misunderstanding that—and stealing from @disqus_Wa5SlhFwVi:disqus here—is often taught in business schools and confirmed by mainstream media and society at large. We tend to forget that economic value is one metric of the value that we create in society—and it’s a lagging indicator of success (rather than a leading indicator) that I believe stems from a flawed (or lack of) understanding of value. I like what Professor Sterman talks about in systems dynamics at MIT: “Side effects are not a feature of reality but a sign that our understanding of the system is narrow and flawed.” We categorize environmental and societal effects from business activities as externalities, and that is where I think “business value” goes wrong. (Business in my opinion is something like a network of mutually beneficial relationships between individuals, which means value is more than money because we’re talking about physical, psychological and other ones too… )

  • Karl Bolinger

    Corey, this was a great article. I think it is filled with passion and wonder that many people miss, even with very fulfilling lives. No matter what we decide to do for a living, it is in everyones best interest to see how we can preserve our world and better the human race. Unfortunately, I don’t think that our society filled with the overwhelming greed of consumerism and capitalism will truly allow an industry that will do just that. Although, it is said in the US that the middle class sustain the country, they are heavily influenced by the upper-class and upper middle-class (who usually provides the income of middle and lower classes and has the most weight in power and monetary value).

    I believe that the food, medical and pharmaceutical work together in their strategies which often have negative impacts on the human race and the environment. GMOs ->Animals -> Humans/Environment -> Healthcare costs-> increased need for pharmaceuticals. The cycle or mapping could go in so many different directions.

    Before looking at the ways technologists can make an impact lets look at what is already happening. A movement for better organic and holistic foods for everyone. Here are a few examples on our food:

    Monsanto sues farmers for seeds: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx
    Holistic Doctors Dying? http://www.davidwolfe.com/breaking-29-holistic-doctorspractitioners-found-poisoned-some-nearly-dead-another-attack-on-alternative-medicine/
    Nanotechnology in our food? Yes. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/nanoparticles-foods-raise-safety-questions
    Cancer research is Fraudulent? http://www.rense.com/general9/cre.htm

    Those are just a few examples. There are so many other things like gender equality, ethnic equality, religious freedom and the like that heavily influences what good could be done to improve the world and our environment. So you see solving human and environmental issues may be a great opportunity but will it really be accepted by those who “run the world” and are heavily invested in capitalization of human and environmental suffering? If it was something that was considered by these “great influencers” they would have already started to reverse the suffering, with their power, influence and in some cases wealth. We would be living in the utopia now. The real market is influencing these same people or groups of people to reverse their interests and investments for the greater good – not just a few but at least the majority. This is what technologists and coders could do with their influence if they could manage.

    All in all, whats really needed? Hard to tell, people and the way they use and react to things are completely unpredictable. I guess only time can really tell.