“we could immediately see a better way” — rebecca rae, reason digitalBack
The hope is that you’ll love your job, whatever it turns out to be. But nobody really expects to. Or if they try to expect to, or try to love, they soon get told: you’re naive.
It’s strange and sad that the attitude to work is that we shouldn’t enjoy it, given it’s where many people spend the majority of their conscious hours. If you don’t spend those hours miserable, it’s like you’re playing some advantageous trick on society; if you confess to enjoying the company of your ‘work’ friends, it’s treason of your ‘real’ friends. The real friends you see maybe once or twice a week; the work friends you see ten times a minute. Hell is other people when you spend every day together and you’re not supposed to get along.
And hell is work when you spend every day doing and not enjoying it; but that it’s hell is an open secret that can’t be spoken. Ask why it should be this way, and you’ll be told it’s just the way the world works. The desire to enjoy your life is fine, just don’t bring it to the workplace.
“I love my job,” says Rebecca Rae, and we had asked only if she enjoys it, because after talking to her for half an hour in the Lever Street offices of Reason Digital, where Rebecca works as Head of Strategy & Insight, we had the feeling she did. We barely got the question out before she upgraded enjoyment to love.
Rebecca started out as a designer, working in a discipline where utopia is always in conflict with reality; or, less dramatically, where better conflicts with worse. Somewhere inside every designer is a compulsion to make everything better, because their trained eyes can see everywhere improvements, and their trained brains can work out how to make them. Watch for that moment’s critical flash when you show a designer your brand new coat, listen for the forlorn catch in their voice as they tell you it’s nice, wonder if they’re even conscious of you reading in their momentary expression that they want to move that one button half an inch lower so that, three months from now, that button won’t pop off, throwing you into negotiations with a Kafkaesque supply chain until you settle for moving another button, weakening the whole, until so many have popped that soon you’re replacing the whole damn coat. How much better a world it would be, thinks the designer, if that button was in the right place.
If design could make the world better by moving a button, imagine the more of the good it could do, and how great it would feel to do that more; which is what draws a lot of designers to the work.
“I nearly left the industry,” says Rebecca, right after telling us she loves her job. “As a student you’re in design college and you’re really idealistic, and you think you’ll be working on projects you love all the time, and it’s going to be really dynamic, whatever that means.
“Then you get your first job and it’s not like that at all.
“I started out in design and now I lecture designers too, and they’re actually just pixel pushers, and they’re working on a brand that means nothing to them. And, of course you are! You only like a few brands, so it’s unlikely you’ll be working on a brand you have an affinity with. So you’re working on meaningless stuff.
“I went through my career like that. I worked in all kinds of areas; fashion, sport, SEO, digital marketing, design, all sorts. I loved it in a lot of ways, but felt really disillusioned with the brands I was working with, because in my spare time I was working with charities and really interested in politics. It just didn’t marry.
“I hate capitalism and I hate buying stuff, and in my spare time I was trying to reduce the amount of stuff I was buying. I was veggie and didn’t have a car, but in my day job I was selling cars and meat. It got to a point where my life and career had become so different that I was ready to bail. I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
We don’t know how close Matt Haworth and Ed Cox ever came to bailing on Reason Digital, but as founders, they followed a similar path towards disillusion in the company’s early years. Originally they took on agency work for anybody, but that made them no different to anybody else, and that meant they couldn’t make the difference they wanted to. They changed their focus to a sector that wasn’t clamouring at their door. There were agencies working only in the fashion sector, or sport; Reason wanted to work only for social good.
“You would suspect charities are a hard audience, but there are over 100,000,” says Rebecca. “Some are bigger than others. They’re starting to realise they can deliver a better service through digital, and fundraise much better. They realise digital is a big way forward, and they need our service.”
Reason are now eight years old and have forty staff, and work on their own products as well as agency work; and by working with charities and charging a low daily rate they find opportunities to design things better through digital. They’ve built up a bank of specialist knowledge by working on thousands of charity websites, so now they can pool resources to make, say, an excellent hospice lottery platform affordable for the hundreds of hospices that need one; and by learning about existing tech within the sector, they’re getting to the detail of how it can be improved. And then improving it.
“Surprisingly charity shops have a lot of tech behind them that I never knew about, that is nothing to do with us,” says Rebecca, “Although I wish it was. Everything they get they scan, and it goes into a database that matches the prices of things like old records. So tech is already improving things like that; even if you think it’s a little old lady volunteering in the back of the shop, she’s there scanning stuff.”
What Reason were able to improve was the donation process, through an app they built as an in-house project, called Gone For Good.
“It helps you donate stuff you don’t want to charity shops,” says Rebecca. “It’s very hard. You have to choose a charity, find one that can collect, you’re ringing shops and they’re busy; the whole experience is a user experience nightmare.
“We thought we could easily make it better with an app, similar to Gumtree or Freecycle, or Vinted for fashion; we could use those principles for giving to charity shops. Take a picture of a sofa, pick some charities, they accept or reject; it helps charities avoid wasted journeys by seeing something in advance, and they get more donations because of the promotion around the app.
“It’s been incredibly successful; it’s won awards and got a lot of users in just a couple of months. There have been over a thousand donations, so if you think of an average cost of sale it’s adding up, going directly in the pocket of charities.”
Reason faced a different set of challenges, with a different criteria for results, building the app Rebecca is proudest of, developed with local organisation Manchester Action on Street Health.
“MASH work with street sex workers, who are the most marginalised members of society, and incredibly vulnerable. They’re open to attack at all times.
“MASH are underfunded because nobody wants to fund a sex worker charity; people would much rather sponsor donkeys or puppies or children. But they run a help centre and what they do is beautiful and amazing and we love working with them, despite the fact they’ve got no budget. We struggle not to work for free.”
MASH’s office had an Ugly Mugs Board, where sex workers could share reports and descriptions of attackers and incidents with each other people dropping into the centre.
“But that was a really slow way of alerting people. It could be weeks before another sex worker sees the notice, and by then the attacker has moved on or stopped.
“We could immediately see a better way of doing it with digital, by thinking about dating apps, geolocation and alerts. We built an app that sex workers can use to alert others that something has happened, so it’s grassroots, it doesn’t involve police, it’s immediate, it’s local.”
It also needed testing, because designing for marginalised users can only be done with the involvement of those users.
“We usually start with desk research, like, ‘How do old people use the web?’” says Rebecca. “That’s not really possible with sex workers, so we did primary research. We did a survey of phone types sex workers use, so we went Android first, and made sure it worked with older versions. Then when we tested prototypes, we redesigned it to remove the original white background.” That could have dangerously illuminated a sex worker trying to use the app in a risky situation. “We codesigned it with the workers themselves, and if we hadn’t it could have potentially killed people.
“It’s being rolled out to more areas now, but it’s a hard thing; we can’t do a marketing campaign, because we actively don’t want the public to use it. It’s got to be something on the ground. We already know it’s saved somebody’s life, so we’re hoping it can save many more.”
The excitement with which Rebecca talks about making a difference — whether through increasing donations to charity, saving a life, or producing a new website for a good cause — underlines the relief she felt when, on the point of bailing, she discovered Reason Digital and went to work for them.
“I was just blown away by what they did,” says Rebecca. “You automatically care about every brand you’re working with because it’s not soap, dresses, shoes, meaningless objects that you don’t care about. It’s a real cause and you’re actually saving people’s lives with the website you’re making, the marketing you’re doing, or the social media you’re working on. It automatically gives this entirely new meaning to everything you do in your work life.
“We’re all very passionate about what we do. We wouldn’t work for Reason if we weren’t. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, I absolutely love it.”
It has moved beyond being a job, into a podcast and event series, originally both called Tech For Good MCR, now expanding with a new identity, Tech For Good Live.
“I used to work part time on a community radio station for fun,” says Rebecca. “I presented and produced a show, then did my own podcasts. I missed it.
“Ben also worked at the same radio station; we’re both old radio people who missed radio, so we decided to do a podcast about what we know, which is tech for good. What we know is tech for good, our day to day is tech for good, everything we do is tech for good; it kind of consumes your life a little bit.
“We recruited Jonny, Greg and Paul and it all fit together, so we did a podcast and it was a shambles. We got really drunk. We might air it one day when we’re famous.”
They’ve sharpened up since then, although the crack of cans and the siren call of Mancunian police can still be heard in the background, as the team critically dissect new developments in tech solutions for charities, fundraising techniques, and the age-old question of cats versus puppies.
“It’s recorded as live, so it’s easy to edit in our spare time; we’ve got the sound quality nailed, the content’s good, it’s kind of fun. It’s what we know and care about, what we talk about in the pub after work — because we’re geeks — but recorded. It’s aimed at people at charities who don’t know the latest, or people in the tech sector wanting to apply their skills to tech for good. There’s been lots of nice feedback so far.”
There has been a strong response to the events too; sixty people turned up to the first, “From nowhere. We have relationships with organisations, fundraisers and charities, so it’s easy to pull people together, and the community built itself from people with an appetite for tech for good.
“Which is amazing. I love to see that there are people who want to do good in the world; they come, have a chat, get inspired, then go and do their own tech for good projects.”
A phrase has crept into the last few paragraphs, a phrase that you might not have heard before, but that you have — thanks to these paragraphs — now heard a lot: tech for good. Twenty-first century stories of technological change so far have been dominated by competing media platforms and their multi-billion dollar valuations — Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify — with social or environmental change restricted to either the philanthropic tendencies of those organisations’ beneficiaries turning benefactors, or the huge investments of folk like Elon Musk, determined to make science-fictional concepts like electric, self-driving cars or building a new civilisation on Mars a reality.
It has been difficult, against the backdrop of these monolithic modes of disruption, to understand the potential for tech to have impact on a local, social level, but agencies like Reason and people like Rebecca are helping to make the possibilities clearer. Tech for good is the concept, and it’s becoming a movement, fuelled by greater interest in the reality around us that was nearly lost — and still might be — to the pull of that tiny phone screen and the realities that are in there.
“I’ve lectured for seven years in business schools and art schools, and I’ve noticed that students are becoming more interested in social good,” says Rebecca. “There’s a shift in the way people are thinking, and a growing interest in what we’re doing at Reason.
“Corporate businesses are clocking on to that shift in people, using Corporate Social Responsibility as part of marketing, to look more ethical and appeal to more people; they’re responding to the way people on the street are changing.
“We can look really cynically at that as greenwashing, as marketing rather than doing good. But the only way it will progress is if corporations really do become more responsible, because people will suss them out. Maybe I’m being an optimist, and this is a utopian fantasy, but it’s based on ten years in this industry and seeing people become more socially aware. They will have to act on that and put their money where their mouth is.”
To actually use tech for good sincerity is essential, but what Rebecca and Reason demonstrate is that tech for good is seriously and sincerely joyful. CSR might begin as a slice of a corporation’s marketing budget, but when it’s used with integrity and begins to have social value and make a difference, it becomes inherently rewarding, and it can become the most enticing, energetic aspect of a jaded, clockwork business. Who wouldn’t want to be in Rebecca’s position, doing the best job in the world? Tech for good’s mission is not only to enact social change, but to demonstrate that tech for good is possible. You don’t have to do work you don’t care about. You can do Rebecca’s job.
“There aren’t loads of tech for good companies across the north,” says Rebecca, “But we’re starting to see some pop up. Sheffield Tech For Good is run by a similar organisation to ours, and there are a few design for good and PR for good agencies we work closely with. It’s still definitely a niche, but we want the community to grow.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester — issue 04