WHILE TECHNOLOGY HAS put dazzling conveniences and insane riches into the hands of many, such benefits are not evenly distributed around the world—and tech innovation, so the argument goes, is also contributing to the ever-widening gulf between the rich and poor.
“The tech community works under the assumption that if you build great things it will affect everyone positively, but that’s not always the case,” says Jon Gosier, a self-styled serial “instigator” who has launched organizations focused on spreading tech-driven wealth more evenly.
Much of Gosier’s work has been focused on Africa, where he has invested in 16 companies in 12 nations. Among these are the tech services firm Appfrica and AfriLabs, a network of more than 90 technology hubs across the continent; Hive Colab, a workspace for tech entrepreneurs; EbolaDeeply.org, a news site covering the Ebola outbreak; and Abayima, a tech workaround that has helped activists in Uganda, Syria, and Egypt stay in touch when communication networks get shut down.
Gosier is now working in the venture capital field to ensure that more lower-tier investors get access to opportunities that can spread wealth more evenly, and deliver it where it’s needed most.
What excites you most about where tech is leading us?
Technology improves our lives and makes things more efficient. It brings lots of good. But we often get too caught up in the fancy aspects and don’t pay attention to negative outcomes. That’s the bigger issue, and we need to pay more attention to mitigating the downsides.
What are some of those downsides?
I don’t want to see the creation of a tech underclass. We don’t all have equal access to the technology, and that could be a big problem soon because tech is changing the way society works. Consider wearable devices that capture biometric data. They’re great for people who wear them. Healthcare professionals love them. But they’re expensive. So what happens if the medical field gets too dependent on devices that we can’t all afford?
On the international side, there are infrastructure issues in developing countries like Africa and parts of Asia. A lack of suitable tech infrastructure matters a lot, especially when it comes to things like disaster response.
How are you working on those problems?
I always wonder if there is a technology solution to a societal problem, so I focus on what I call “outcome design,” which means designing tech products that can provide better societal outcomes. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Internet and phone networks in Egypt were shut off, preventing activists from communicating. But we had developed Abayima, which allowed peer-to-peer communication between phones without networks using SIM cards. We could help keep the activists connected when the phone networks were down. Mobile technology is key. It’s critical to many people in the developing world.
How can investors in Africa get involved in businesses that create those outcomes?
People with the power and money have to be open to solving inequality problems. Africa has its own solutions, talent, and opportunities. They just aren’t taking responsibility for the role they play, while demanding responsibility from others. In Africa, we had many years of aid and colonialism which we can learn from. In both scenarios we failed to empower people, instead of being dependent on foreign nations.
How can your ideas apply in the United States, which has similar inequity issues?
We have much wealth, but we also have a shrinking middle class. Why? Because there aren’t a lot of ways for the middle class to develop wealth for themselves, and those options are getting smaller. We need to help the middle class generate wealth. Not staggering amounts, but enough to live comfortably. An inclusive environment isn’t created in a vacuum. It takes contributions from all sides.
You’re talking about new forms of investing?
Right. I’d like to get more middle class people active in this space. The current rules say you need to be an accredited investor and make at least $200,000 a year or have a net worth of $1 million. More than 93 percent of American households don’t fit that definition.
How do you change that?
We’re developing something called equity crowdfunding, where you’re buying shares in a startup: 1,000 people might invest $100 each. The company uses that cash to grow and the investors split the company equally. The crowd takes the risks but also gets the benefits. We need to make sure these opportunities aren’t just reserved for the wealthy.
Is this approach more powerful than, say, the Kickstarter model?
The key difference is equity. Crowd-funding resources like Kickstarter are great, but when it comes to places like Africa, there isn’t enough shared responsibility. NGOs, donors, philanthropists, and governments all believe that money will solve all problems. So they send money and blame Africans when problems don’t get solved. If I own equity in an African business and I only gain from its success, I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that success.