Last week at SXSW I had the honor of moderating an evening hosted by my co-founder and partner at SHFT.COM, Adrian Grenier, on the topic of Social Good and Technology. I’ve spent the past six years producing and publishing creative content on and around issues pertaining to this theme. At SHFT, we use cultural subjects like film, music, food, policy, and design to inspire people to shift to a more conscious approach to the world — particularly around environmental issues. And technology comes into play at many turns.
The first challenge was keeping a conversation buoyant with 27 people eating a great meal. But I realized people coming together to break bread and have dialogue around a particular idea has been something we’ve done a lot at SHFT and Adrian and I do it for dinner parties at our own homes. So I dove in and it was fine. It was more than fine; it was fascinating.
The topic forced me to look more deeply at what motivates us to get active and engage around any given social issue. Because it takes something pretty strong to knock us out of ourselves and do something for the greater good. Salman Rushdie said recently that people today seem to be finding meaning in their outrage. That struck me. There are a host of issues to feel outraged about in the world that make us want to do something. That spark to engage can also come from a feeling of empathy, a personal experience, or even simply identifying a problem in need of a solution.
Adrian and I built SHFT.COM because we are passionate about the crisis our environment faces today. We also bonded over an approach. We were sick of seeing doom and gloom environmentalism, or the finger-wagging , guilt-inducing preachy kind. Most importantly we felt the ghettoizing of the category of “green” was wrong. We set out to throw a brick through the glass of environmentalism. We need to fold sustainability into the very fabric of our lives, not put it in a box. If we don’t think of ourselves as part of the environment, of a complex arrangement of things to which we are fully connected, we’ll never get it right. So we were motivated by a kind of outrage and the meaning we found in it. This is what sparked us to take our filmmaking backgrounds and create a modern environmentally conscious digital content platform that inspired people to take part and engage. Not eat your spinach and then go back to business as usual when you’re done.
At SHFT, we make a lot of digital short series; we curate a shop of environmentally friendly, responsibly made products; and we take part in various other activities including an app we created called Food Tripping, which helps users find better, healthier food when they’re on the road — all of these initiatives and business arms depend on technology to bring the products, stories, and information to the user. Technology has played a huge role in our social good endeavors. Getting our message across and our stories told depends greatly on technology. With SXSW as a backdrop, this topic resonated and spoke of our times. It’s hard to imagine doing anything meaningful today - social good or otherwise - without the use of technology.
One of our next initiatives is the Dell Legacy of Good Short Documentary Film Contest. For this, we are looking for like-minded filmmakers to create more inspiring stories on the circular economy movement and the role of technology in creating a better future (and there’s $45,000 in prizes from Dell, Adobe and RED Digital Cinema and production support from SHFT.COM to the winner to help create the short film). If you’re a filmmaker, please submit your initial ideas by March 31, 2016: https://filmfreeway.com/festival/legacyofgood.
Some of the personal stories from guests at the dinner that night included one guest who described his epiphany of quitting college to see the world, winding up working to fight forest fires in the Midwest, realizing how delicate nature was, and returning to college to find a way to use tech to change the world. Another was a woman who runs a non-profit who found inspiration in her son and in making the world a better place for his generation. Another woman talked about an initiative she drove for women in tech to scale their businesses; and another, who is head of brand at a large company was struck by a program around wood headphones that help a hearing impaired person with every purchase - a product we had featured on SHFT a couple of years ago, which inspired me as well.
Adrian spoke of his mother who instilled a sense of responsibility in him and empowered him to do whatever it is that he put his mind to. He also said that one of his talents has always been to bring people together — I can attest to that — and he vowed that this dinner would become a continuing collaboration for all those assembled.
After dinner a great band called The Skins played and the party grew from 25 dinner guests to about 250 dancing guests rocking out to the band that Adrian brought from his hometown in Brooklyn to Austin. Another example of his bringing people together for the social good? I think so.
By Peter Glatzer