Doteveryone exists to help create a fairer internet – one that is understood by all and driven by trusted tech. Launched by Baroness Martha Lane Fox in 2015, the independent think tank is now led day-to-day by chief executive Rachel Coldicutt. She talks to Catherine Eade.
Internet business torchbearer Martha Lane Fox has walked a golden – if admittedly personally challenging – path since co-founding Lastminute.com in 1998 and selling it five years later for a cool £577 million.
Despite the financial successes of individual entrepreneurs at the time, the emerging internet economy was far from perfect. The modern web, still emerging, had already experienced a crash, in no small part because the pursuit of pure profit by its leaders.
What was being created had the power to change the world. It needed to be understood. Something needed to change to help make sure this was about way more than just making money.
For Lane Fox, it was clear that her tech interests lay in way more than profit. After being appointed by the government as UK digital champion in 2010, she moved more full time into campaigning and advocacy, not least with Go ON UK, created in 2012 to help bring more people online and build digital capacity. Her elevation to the House of Lords in 2013 would provide a platform for that campaigning work.
Given her track record, expectations were high when Lane Fox chose the BBC Dimbleby lecture of 2015 as the platform to launch her latest idea: a definitive public institution that could show businesses, government – and crucially, everyday people – not only what is possible to achieve in the digital realm, but also how to achieve it with ethics and morals underpinning every decision.
Doteveryone was duly launched with the all-encompassing mission for “a fairer internet for everyone”. Its aim: to deliver mainstream change in the digital realm and help make Britain “the most digital nation on the planet”.
Lane Fox may have launched the campaign, and remains its figurehead, but the think tank is led day to day by Rachel Coldicutt, a Cambridge graduate with an impressive CV behind her – and glowing testimonials from those who’ve worked with her in a career spanning culture, television and digital innovation.
From English literature to becoming CEO of a digital organisation with various positions in between appears quite an “organic” path.
“That’s a nicely diplomatic way of putting it,” laughs Coldicutt, who as a lexicographer in the mid-90s “accidentally became a database architect” when all the big dictionaries were turning into CD-ROMs.
A move into online content saw her become part of the team that launched the Encyclopedia Britannica online in 1999.
“At that time there weren’t a lot of other people who had internet skills and actually the most common theme running through my CV is that I never knew what the next job might be, because it didn’t exist yet,” she says.
“As an English graduate I’ve always been very comfortable taking on information and concepts, looking at patterns. You use a lot of critical thinking skills, which means you don’t worry about not understanding the context. I’ve worked in the arts, with banks, with energy companies – and the challenges are kind of the same.”
What attracted Coldicutt most to the internet at the time was that no one knew what to expect. “There were no rules, which meant I could make it up to a degree. There was the freedom of working in uncharted space.”
While the internet is no longer seen quite so much as the wild west, digital and online services have few regulatory processes, specifically to protect consumer interests, – and this is one of the main issues Doteveryone seeks to change, alongside getting more women into tech and improving people’s understanding of the internet at all levels.
A central pillar of Doteveryone’s work is promoting what it calls ‘responsible technology’, which it sees as “shaping the digital world as much as it shapes us”. This is perhaps the most practical element of the think tank’s work.
Making technology more responsible in terms of how it’s developed, how it works for users, and how it affects society is key to the work of Doteveryone, explains Coldicutt.
Understanding the consumer response is critical to this sense of responsible technology. Hence the launch this autumn of the organisation’s digital attitudes survey, to try and assess what people think about the internet and how they feel about using digital technology.
“There’s lots of research and surveys looking at behaviour, and analysing time spent online,” explains Coldicutt. “But what we’re interested in is how people feel about the changes. How do you feel about the fact that you are suddenly looking at photos of a parent at your child’s school? How do you feel about discovering that a neighbour you’ve lived next door to for years has such different political opinions to you? These things are hard to measure, but just as important in terms of how we are shaping the world.”
Coldicutt’s passion shines through when she talks about the need for some sort of framework, or support, for people moving into the digital realm.
“Everyone needs to have a different kind of digital understanding,” she says. “The old axiom is that younger people understand loads more about technology and are well placed to teach older people. But the skills you need as a teenager are completely different to the skills you need as an adult: you’re trying to maintain a private life while dealing with your developing personality and sexuality, and that’s a completely different way of thinking and understanding the world to someone in their 30s who’s paying bills and booking holidays online. And that is completely different again to the skills you need if you are running a business.”
So is Doteveryone at heart about helping people to learn the hands-on skills they need at all levels?
“In its early stages the focus was much more about skills and inequalities,” she says. “Now, Doteveryone is more about understanding and critical thinking. One of the first changes I made coming in at the beginning of this year was to say, rather than just focusing on lots of hands-on delivery, can we go slightly higher up the chain?
“It became really clear to me that you need a digital understanding just as much if you’re the prime minister as if you’re a teenager. It isn’t enough to say ‘everybody needs to be able to send an email, do some research and pay a bill’. Everyone’s needs are completely different.”
That’s a point that Lane Fox made herself this summer, when she complained about a lack of literacy at corporate and political level. “The lack of sophisticated discussion about the internet and security in the media, and the knee-jerk reactions to the policy challenges from many parliamentarians, is an extremely serious problem,” she wrote.
Like its Go ON UK predecessor, Doteveryone is very much a digital champion for everyday people. But how much power does a think tank actually have? And how come Doteveryone, despite such a high profile founder and champion Lane Fox, is still relatively unknown?
“I don’t think it’s important to have widespread recognition,” says Coldicutt, pointing out that in its current incarnation the organisation is only nine months old. “It’s more important to have widespread influence, and we’re well-connected (partners in Doteveryone include the BBC, Google, BT and Sage) and I’ve been bringing together my experience in the technology and the public sector for many years.”
Although it will take time to become widely recognised, she says, the organisation is prototyping a technology Trust Mark to help people make more informed choices when selecting technologies to buy or use. The proposed mark could be used by consumers and retailers alike to better understand the choices available. It will be backed by a repository of information about the product or service.
Doteveryone has already begun the process of creating a directory of ethical and responsible tech initiatives and businesses.
“Technology has become highly financially valued but often human value isn’t considered. The possibility of starting a company and making millions, that’s the thing people chase,” says Coldicutt.
So what is Coldicutt’s view on the notion of ‘tech for good’? “We make too many things,” she sighs. “The tendency is often to create a new piece of technology to meet a need that people could be meeting another way. It needs to be less about making lots of new tech and more about understanding how to use it better to help people.”
Granted, innovation is a driving force for the economy, but is a lot of ‘innovative’ technology being produced just for the sake of it, rather than because of a real need?
“Yes. It’s really important that people who are creating new technology are creating it appropriately as opposed to innovating in order to innovate,” says Coldicutt. “You can be innovative in ways that are humble which fit better with the needs of people rather than trying to be sparkly and flashy and new.”
Another initiative sure to garner interest is the push to produce more “female-coded science fiction”.
“The tech industry is powered by myths and, largely, heroism. But today, our biggest companies and our most heroic stories are all centred on men,” writes Coldicutt in her inspiring blog about the project, an initiative to get some new stories out there which inspire young girls.
“We are moving into the next era of technology where we’ll be dominated by machine learning, and realistically most of the engineers will continue to be men. We need a seismic cultural change,” says Coldicutt.
In an attempt to affect change at a grassroots level in a more conceptual way, Doteveryone is researching some of the ways female roles in science fiction can be represented. As Coldicutt writes, “the opportunity we have as technologists is to continue to change the world completely; let’s do it in ways that represent as many people as possible.”
As someone who’s worked in many male-dominated companies (until recently – Doteveryone is dominated by female researchers, designers and makers) Coldicutt is all too aware of the continuing lack of gender diversity in business.
When you consider UK venture capital firms have only one in 10 women as decision makers; men run the five most valuable technology brands in the world, and only 9% of executive officers in Silicon Valley are women, it’s hardly surprising there are so many initiatives to ‘get more women into tech’. But as Coldicutt says, for the industry to really change it’s not just about obvious things like blind recruitment to address unconscious bias.
“Suppose all these tactical things aren’t working, what are some other options? Perhaps different kinds of science fiction could encourage a better gender balance.
“Technology is created by people who have dreams and aspirations and ambitions and if we can create some different types of dreams and aspirations and ambitions then great.
“The Nokia phone designers were clearly inspired by Star Trek, for instance, and there’s a huge extent to which the possibilities of stories influence the way people think about the future. New universal stories and shared reference points are vital and if we can create stories or legends about different kinds of heroism so that when people are standing around the water cooler at work the things they’re talking about aren’t just Warcraft but something different and that resonate with a more diverse set of people, then great.”
Much has been written about some of the outcomes of not having enough women in AI, and the consequences of having machines learning only like men.
Coldicutt wants to contribute to creating a culture where women’s worlds can emerge.
“Think about how things are prioritised with products. For example, Apple phones don’t have period trackers and yet they’re able to quantify every other aspect of health – there is a corollary in the fact that the new Apple HQ has an enormous gym but no childcare facilities. These kind of biases are baked into organisations and their products.”
The think tank clearly has its work cut out, but you get the feeling it’s a challenge Coldicutt relishes. Her energy and enthusiasm fizz throughout our conversation.
Lane Fox, who no longer has an official government role, but has been a loud and constant evangeliser for improved internet usage, stated her aim was to help make Britain a leader in technology…in fact “the most vibrant, creative digital nation in the world”. Is this likely?
“That speech was given before anyone had dreamt of Trump as president. A lot has changed in the last year or two and it’s difficult to be optimistic about Brexit, but you could say this is a whole new opportunity for Britain and that we can start to create new circumstances…but right now France is more likely to take that accolade.”
“We’re waiting to see what the next piece of government legislation will be with the next Digital Economy Bill. I can’t support Amber Rudd advocating the end of end-to-end encryption, but we are having good conversations with the government and bringing in a different voice.”
“We’re just the beginning of creating change. I think we’ve been ambitious but that’s OK,” she says. “We need lots of good people to get behind us and support us as partners. Some of the changes we’re trying to make at Doteveryone are quite big.”
Rachel Coldicutt – CV
Director of products and services, Doteveryone. Chief executive since 2016
Director of products and services, Doteveryone
Strategy director, Friday
Co-founder and director, Caper
Head of digital media, Royal Opera House
Creative producer and consultant, Lapwing Productions
Executive producer and acting head of market strategy, UKTV
Project manager, Victoria and Albert Museum
Interactive editor, BBC
Entertainment and lifestyle producer, BTopenworld
Assistant history editor, Encyclopaedia Britannica
Database editor, Cassell Concise Dictionary.
English/English literature, University of Cambridge.