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15 Sep, 2020 - 4 min read

In conversation with… Taurean Butler; Innovation Advisor at Tech Futures Lab

If Tech Futures Lab sits at the forefront of technological education in New Zealand, then our innovation team sits at the forefront of the forefront. Taurean fronts the “elevation of tech from functional to having social impact” branch of innovation. If it sounds lofty, it should. Taurean has incredible perspective.

“I studied the neuroscience of decision- making at Stanford University, specifically measuring neural responses in people to map the biological reward of the decisions that we make - basically dopamine levels are tracked as a marker for reward.”

(When a conversation starts this way, you just know you need to bring your A game!)

People think of dopamine as a pleasure hit - and it is in a way, but its importance lies in it being a driver for motivation. “There is a famous psychological study where people were given $20 dollars to either spend on themselves or on others. It turns out that those who spent it on others had an increased sense of wellbeing. At the end of the day, $20 is $20 is $20, but when it is used for something other than self, something magical happens and that $20 becomes more than $20. And in response, we feel better. On a biological level, our brains are motivated and get reward from helping others. Proof that people like doing good things. People are good. “

I love that because of what it means for us and the future of tech. At the end of the day tech is an outward manifestation of an idea. An idea that came from a human. We are currently living in a time that is fuelled by fear. The best way to capture our attention in a world drowning in content, is to rely on sensation and extreme. When it comes to tech, the “threat” of automation grabs most of the headlines: AI and robots will take over the world and humans will be at the mercy of the monsters that we have created.

But humans created tech and humans are instinctively motivated to do good: “We’re good,” says Taurean, “it’s gonna be ok.”

And if it’s not?

Enter Taurean’s real passion: repurposing tech for good. This isn’t for rogue tech, it’s for tech that has been built for one-dimensional functionality only. “We don’t have to build only great things, but we can change things that already exist and infuse it with purpose and meaning.”

Case in point? Years ago, Taurean was in Australia when he discovered a rhinestone-encrusted ATM. He was in Sydney during pride month and discovered that ANZ had created a GayTM. “The actual tech is large, functional and really quite ugly, but this had been elevated to something meaningful.”

At the time he was working in a bank in New York (exploring motivation to address customer debt) and he mentioned this to a colleague. Clearly this resonated on many levels within the bank, and Taurean was asked to roll out a similar campaign in New York. Bank charges were donated to The Trevor Project - an American non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth - and the bank donated $1 000 000 to the LGBTQ community.

“It was profoundly moving to have been a part of that; to have people advocate for good and to get something good going. I am fascinated by thinking beyond function and putting tech in an emotional space; and going one step further and asking, how does tech help you be better?”

This is where innovation comes in.

“It’s amazing hearing Priti - Tech Futures Lab’s Innovation Director - speak to business about innovation. It’s not just about good ideas. She really asks businesses how committed they are to innovation, how much they are willing to believe in it. You drive innovation by tapping into your whole self.”

“It took guts, it took ‘showing up’ at my work in the bank to talk about the GayTM, it took someone else believing in and advocating for our whole selves, and it took daring leadership to run with it. But it was a game-changer for our team, our department and for the bank as a whole. It took blood, sweat and tears, it took careful strategy, it took late nights and weekends - because innovation does not keep business hours - but everyone on the team gave their all because they believed that what they were doing was good, they were getting their dopamine hit and were motivated to do better not for promotion or title, but from true belief.”

I love talking to Taurean for all that he makes me think of, but most of all because he confirms what we would all do well to remember: that we humans are wired for good.

“It’s gonna be ok.”