How Afrofuturism might provide a framework for thinking about technology charities

Technology charities of the future

As charities go through digital transformation and use more and more technology in their work, we should expect that technology to fundamentally change what it means to be a charity and to have a positive effect on the world.

It’s likely we’ll see ‘technology charities’ emerging in the not too distant future in the same way technology companies have come about over the past few decades. For charities using technology to enable their work, and those that use it as core to how they create social value, now is the right time to start to consider how to understand and approach the technology of the future.

“Technology is never neutral and it’s always concerned with the future. So why not look to a frame that’s also about imagining futures and takes questions of power head on”

Taylor Owen

The problem with tech-optimism

The idea that technology makes things better, by default or purely because it exists, has come to be known as tech-optimism. The tech-optimist perspective believes that any social and environmental problem can be solved by developing more technology. But this belief, and it really is just a belief, has history and it has issues.

Much of the tech-optimist perspective with have today grew up with Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture and the ideal of the young white male founder. This perspective gets epitomised in the tech billionaires like Bezos and Musk but really it’s deeply embedded in all tech culture that prioritises convenience for the user and effects at scale. What it lacks is an understanding what it means for someone to not have access to things, or any consideration for the people who get left behind or who are negatively impacted.

Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite for making mobile phone and electric vehicle batteries is mined in the Republic of the Congo, by hand, often by children (Frankel, 2016). Would mobile phones be different today if Congolese children had been involved in designing the first iPhone?

The problem with tech-optimism is that the people designing the technology have never been affected by it. They don’t have enough experience of the barriers that discrimination and inequality create. They are removed from the consequences. And the problem with almost all technology is that it is rooted in this kind of tech-optimism.

Charities then, as a force for good in the world, have to think critically about how they view their use of technology in achieving their mission. It isn’t good enough to adopt an academically-unsound, environmentally-damaging, socially-unequal tech-optimist perspective just because it’s dominant and because using technology helps ‘their’ people.

There has to be another way.

Finding a shared perspective

In 1994, cultural critic Mark Dery came up with the term “Afrofuturism” in an essay titled “Black to the Future.” Black people, he wrote, have “other stories to tell about culture, technology and things to come.”

Afrofuturism, it’s aesthetics, stories and philosophies existed long before Dery named it.

Jone Johnson Lewis, a women’s history writer who has been involved with the women’s movement since the late 1960s, says, “Afrofuturism can be seen as a reaction to the dominance of white, European expression, and a reaction to the use of science and technology to justify racism and white or Western dominance and normativity.”

Julian C. Chambliss, Professor of English at Michigan State University, says, “Afrofuturist works ask audiences to think about how society can be made safe for everyone.”

Ian Forrester describes Afrofuturism as, “not just an aesthetic — it’s just as much a framework for activism and imagining new technologies”.

Add all of this up and Afrofuturism, with its recognition that the global status quo is one of political, economic, social, and even technical inequality, offers a way of looking at technology, how it is developed and used that challenges tech-optimism. Charities recognise and share that worldview too. When they look at the world they see its problems. So there’s some overlap there. Perhaps afrofuturism offers a lens to help charities look at technology in a different way.

Looking at charity technology

It’s this lens for imagining more inclusive technology that makes afrofuturism a useful framework for the future of technology in charities.

It means not only grappling with technical considerations but also the sociocultural implications of how the technology works and how it might be used. It means including people who are affected in the decisions that affect them. It means going beyond recognising and then accepting algorithmic bias and access issues. It means charity technologist educating themselves about the issues in the global supply chain. Perhaps it means using refurbished laptops to take a stance on cobalt mining, or selecting hosting services that run on renewable energy, or collecting less data. And it definitely means making conscious choices that are for the greater good.

There is no perfect solution that immediately ensures a charity’s use of technology is net positive, but challenging the dominant tech-optimist way of thinking about technology and considering other perspectives like afrofuturism will be vitally important for the technology charities of the future.


Chambliss, J. C. Why Afrofuturism matters: Deep dive into the cultural movement and its tenets.

Danaher, J. 2022. Philosophy & Technology 35: 54. Techno‑optimism: an Analysis, an Evaluation and a Modest Defence.

Frankel, T. C. 2016. The Cobalt Pipeline. Washington Post.

Königs, P. 2022. Philosophy & Technology 35: 63. What is Techno‑Optimism?

Ogbunu, C. B. 2020. How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend.

Owen, T. 2021. C. Brandon Ogbunu on Afrofuturism as a Tech Framework.

Johnson Lewis, J. 2018. Afrofuturism: Imagining an Afrocentric Future.

Winchester, III, W. W. 2019. Engaging the Black Ethos: Afrofuturism as a Design Lens for Inclusive Technological Innovation. Journal of Futures Studies, December 2019, 24(2): 55–62.

Horizon scanning for product managers

I’m increasingly convinced that the success of a product is less to do with what goes on inside an organisation and more about how what’s going on outside affects the entire system that the product is part of, including the organisation, the users, suppliers, competitors, etc., etc.

If I’m right, then product managers that focus on internal tactical improvements, things like what format the roadmap should take or how to write the perfect user story, aren’t going to have the impact they should. Product managers that know what’s going on around their product and how to respond to it and the ones that will make their product successful.

So, I’m trying to figure out how product managers might do this kind of horizon scanning and sensing how to respond. One idea for the scanning part is looking at trends.

Macro trends

Macro trends are “major shifts in consumer behaviour that will direct the business landscape in the long term. They have a cross-industry impact and evolve over time.”

A product manager might look at:

  • Technology trends, especially emerging tech.
  • Social trends
  • Government policy changes
  • Economy

A good place to start is looking at macro trend reports:

These trend reports are often sales and marketing for the company providing them, and lack any information about where a trend came from or where it’s going. Instead they tend to just be a snapshot of ideas so should be considered critically but having some idea of what things look interesting and impactful

Micro trends

Micro trends are “business and economic trends that are associated with specific market sectors.”

Every market sector has trends; fashion, food, transport, etc., etc.. Some sectors change more often and more quickly than others but understanding the micro trends for the sectors that affect the users of a product,

A product manager might look at:

  • Employment within a sector
  • Influencers, new entrants and organisations with history
  • Media, especially advertising
  • News coverage

Understanding trends

Trends don’t exist in isolation. Understanding the difference between micro and macro trends and how they affect each other is also an interesting consideration for product managers. Not easy for anyone to ever understand fully, but definitely worth exploring.

What next?

I’m going try to create a systems map with a product in the middle and the micro and macro trends that affect the product through it’s users.

Can product management tackle wicked problems?

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems.

Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber

Product management, at least as typically practiced, uses the scientific method as the basis for answering questions and establishing new knowledge.

Rittel and Webber claimed that science cannot deal with wicked problems.

So, can product management tackle wicked problems?

Not the tactical product management as we usually think of it, and not even where product management is able to act strategically, but perhaps where product management can effect systems change.

Product management that seeks certainty will never tackle wicked problems. But product management that embraces uncertainty, and works with complexity, maybe that can.

What product/market fit might look like for charities

The concept of product/market fit was created by Andy Rachleff, from Benchmark Capital, and Don Valentine, from Sequoia Capital. And then popularized by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. This means the concept has a very specific context and history, which makes it slightly problematic for other contexts.

With that said, let’s see how the concept might be applied to a charity context.

Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market

– Marc Andreessen

In a charity setting, the dynamics of product/market fit are very different.

The market isn’t made up of customers who are or aren’t willing to pay for the product, which means that willingness can’t be used as a signal of fit. For charities, the market is three-sided with the user, the funder and the charity. A good market would be one where the people are facing a significant problem that funders want to support solutions to.

Charities tackle wicked problems. Even the most successful products are only ever a small part of solving wicked problems, which means the product can’t provide clear signals of how well it is satisfying a market need.

Product/market fit is an important concept for charity product management, but it needs a lot more work to understand it properly.

Standards to assess products

Good products are:

  • Accessible
  • Cost-efficient
  • Data usage
  • Ethical
  • Maintainable
  • Managable
  • Performant
  • Private
  • Safe
  • Secure
  • Sustainable
  • Usable

Naturally occurring work in progress limits

If work is waiting 90% of the time, then only work is ever in progress for 10% of time. Does this impediment to flow create naturally occurring work-in-progress limits?

Work can be waiting for all kinds of reasons. It can be waiting for approval, waiting for someone to become free to pick it up, moving between roles.

Reducing the time work is waiting is one way to reduce the time it takes to get value from that work. But sometimes that isn’t possible, so it’s necessary to work without applied work-in-progress limits.

How we define ‘in progress’ matters. Is work in progress if it has started but isn’t finished? Or is work in progress if it has been started, is actively being worked on, but isn’t finished? In which case, work that isn’t being actively worked on is ‘work in waiting’.

One perspective sees time spent ‘in waiting’ as waste. If that work was finished sooner, then more value would be realised from it.

But, having work ‘in waiting’ creates a natural limit to work-in-progress.

Delivery management and product management: perfect partners

If product management is a science, delivery management is an art.

If product management is about analysis and hypothesis, delivery management is about relationships and harmony.

If product management is about the destination, delivery management is about the journey.

Product and delivery are complementaries, opposites but fitting together to make a strong whole.

What valuable, viable, feasible means in charity product management

Product management attempts to reduce the risks associated with building a solution that isn’t valuable, viable or feasible.

Marty Cagan describes these types of risk:

  • value risk – whether customers will buy it or users will choose to use it.
  • business viability risk – whether this solution also works for the various aspects of our business.
  • feasibility risk – whether our engineers can build what we need with the time, skills and technology we have.
  • (Cagan also includes a usability risk – whether users can figure out how to use it, but for simplicity I’m going )

For a charity, these risks show themselves in slightly different ways, but a product still has to be valuable, viable and feasible.


The value risk is tackling a problem no one wants solving, or providing solution no one wants to use. To be valuable, the solution has to tackle a non-trivial problem that affects enough people significantly that it’s worth solving.


The viability risk is tackling a problem that the charity isn’t the right one to be tackling. To be viable, the solution has to fit the organisation strategy, be a legitimate problem for the charity to be tackling, and be fundable.


The feasibility risk is of not having the skills, knowledge, technologies, to create the solution. To be feasible, the solution must be within the capabilities of the charity to build and, just as importantly, maintain.

Valuable, viable and feasible

Creating a solution that is valuable, viable and feasible is the challenge of product management in charities, but reducing the risk of not doing so is the value product managers bring to charities.

Charity mission and vision for defining boundaries not goals

I’ve written previously about why I don’t think charities should be working to put themselves out of business.

Maybe we’ve misunderstood mission and vision and that’s where we get the idea from.

If we think of a charity’s mission and vision as a goal to achieve then the logical conclusion might be that once the goal is achieved, there is no longer a need for the charity to continue to exist.

But if we think of mission and vision as setting the boundaries for a charity, defining the area of influence, it’s market space. Now the charity can do any work within in that space. Even if they solve a particular problem, they are free to shift their efforts to a different problem or expand their space and continue to do good in the world.

How new changes get adopted

Rogers’ adoption curve model, a model for understanding how new ideas and practices are adopted, helps us create a realistic approach to bringing about any new change.

How adoption happens

Roger’s adoption curve tells us to expect that for any new change, the number of people adopting that change is different throughout the lifecycle of that change. A few people will adopt change early, more as the change becomes generally accepted and there will be a small number who take longer.

Roger's Adoption Curve
Blue line shows the breakdown of types of adopters by percentage. Orange line shows the total percentage of adoption over time.

We can take this knowledge and use it to help us make change adoption easier. Rather than think that everyone will accept a new change at the same time, we can identify the early adopters and work with them first to get the change embedded. Once these few have accepted the change, it’s easier to move onto larger groups of people.

For example, suppose we want people across an organisation to change how they manage projects:

  • Innovators – Start with a small number of projects managed by people who are confident in using and accepting new ideas and techniques.
  • Early adopters – Projects managed by people who have worked with the innovators and have seen the new approach in action. 
  • Early majority – Projects managed by people who are aware of the projects managed in the new way but haven’t been involved in them, and are proactive in adopting new practices. 
  • Late majority – Projects managed by people who aren’t aware of the new project management approach but are open to adopting practices.
  • Laggards – Projects managed by people who aren’t aware of the new project management approach and are not open to adopting practices. 

How to make adopting change easier

With all groups of people, there are things that can make it easier to accept the change. Successful adoption has five key characteristics:

  • Compatibility – The more it fits with existing behaviour and tools, the more easily people can make it part of their working process. 
  • Trialability – The easier it is to try before having to commit to using it, the more people will start using it. 
  • Relative advantage – If it is better than the alternatives, then people will see the value of using it. 
  • Observability – The more people see others using, the more they will want to use it.  
  • Simplicity – The easier it is to learn, the faster it will be adopted. 

For any kind of change in an organisation, trying to get everyone to adopt something new at the same time is much harder than using proven knowledge and techniques to bring about change over time.