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Character-Driven Tech: Part I

Dr. James Gough is a McCain Global Leader and a former military and aid doctor, having served with the British Army and the ICRC in Afghanistan, Egypt and Bangladesh. Beyond the field of medicine, he served with the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a diplomat and co-founded a U.K. charity promoting and protecting the wellness of those who serve the Crown to protect the nation. He is currently COO of a multi-national technology scale-up and the Founder and CEO of One Shot Immersive, a social venture providing life-saving educational technology for humanitarian crises, conflict, and disaster.

Many of the most impactful and lasting experiences of my life have been short in time, long on content, and enduring in the connections they create. So, it seems the McCain Global Leaders program will be such an experience. The program has a cohort of 26 people, each determined to spend their time on this planet serving a cause greater than oneself.

It is a very humbling room to enter. It is also uplifting and energizing, reassuring and profound.

The McCain Institute’s mission has never been more prescient. Character-driven leadership is essential, undervalued, and currently on life-support throughout the democratic world. This deficit comes at a time when we need good people leading more than ever before. Our democracies are under great threat from both within and beyond our borders; international mechanisms sustaining our peace and security are being flagrantly undermined; all the while our planet is dying.

There is a deficit of value-driven leaders in the tech sector that I have witnessed, but there are early signs that this is changing  – a new type of leader is beginning to emerge. The sector needs a new model if this new crop of tech leaders is to play a meaningful role in a world that needs them to step up. It requires the people with power to lead as if they were serving. This includes the founders, the investors and the employees themselves. No other sector has the collective potential for the scale of change we require. Whether it is advances in blockchain technology to track the sustainability of the clothes we wear, or breakthroughs in machine learning to aid state organizations in finding illegal arms. So much can be done with readily available technology, and yet the people with these skills are trapped in a commercial cycle of wants over needs.

To live, to endure and to lead through your values is something Senator John McCain did to the admiration of people of all persuasions. If there was even just a fraction of his commitment to serving a cause greater than oneself within this sector, it would be game changing for our very existence and economically sound in the long term.

I spent the first seven years of my professional life in military, aid and state service as a doctor, and briefly as a diplomat. I have spent the last seven years in the tech sector. I knew it would be a tough conversion. Coming from a service background, you can perhaps afford to be a little purest, particularly as a doctor. You are clear on the institutions’ values to guide your day to day. You can also, for the most part, turn a blind eye to the bottom line. It is in some ways a moral privilege. In business, and more specifically in tech, the dreams of recurring revenues begin to outweigh values as the pressure of investment takes hold. Many founders realize, too late, that the company they now run is not the company they set out to create. They are forced down a trodden path of the investment playbook. Once held ideals inevitably drift into the background.

The idea of “serving a cause greater than oneself” is not impossible in tech, but it is like pushing water uphill. In 2018, I founded One Shot Immersive, a virtual reality medical training company. We focus on conflict, disaster and austere environments. I initially went to the Syrian border to test the concept in 2018 with a group of Syrian surgeons. It was a resounding success, and since that first trip, we have delivered mass casualty triage training in Yemen, Syria, Somaliland and Somalia, in concert with the WHO and the David Nott Foundation. Using virtual reality, we train people to make triage decisions over who lives and dies in a mass casualty. More recently, we have translated a “Stop The Bleed” experience into a 2D Ukrainian version, sharing it widely through social media immediately following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of our journey, I did what most eager founders of product companies do – set off looking for investment. Very quickly, I began to realize two things.

  1. Now I had my own start-up, I had to be very clear on my own values. I could not rely on the military or the state to tell me what or how to think. I had to actually know them and believe in them.
  2. The problem I was addressing, no matter how desperately it was needed, did not have the market appeal I envisaged it would. To put it starkly, there is no money in saving poor lives.

When investment offers began to trickle in, it felt even more stark. It felt like a choice between values and value as investors began to shift the strategy towards a more lucrative customer. Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, describes this so well in his 2020 Economist article:

“Amazon is one of the world’s most valuable companies, yet the Amazon region in Brazil appears on no ledger until it is stripped of its foliage and converted to farmland.”

The tech sector has morphed from the progressive into the regressive over the years. Technology start-ups are now being “stripped of their foliage” to create something that provides clean recurring revenues at the expense of wider society.

My journey with One Shot Immersive has been an immensely satisfying one, but equally disheartening to see the lack of progress we have made in scaling something wholly good. Much of this points, no doubt, towards my own decisions and failures. However, if I take a step back, it is also a broader systemic problem. The free market does indeed find its way, but it does not find its way naturally towards serving a need beyond its own ends. It was not built for that, and we should not expect it to do more than it does without intervention. In the film “Don’t Look Up,” humans are seen continuing along the path of personal gain, all the while failing to address the planet-ending meteor that is about to strike Earth. I argue this is exactly what is happening in tech. Tech has made its billions addressing the pain points of the rich and continues to do so. Multiple ‘Sustainable Funds’ have appeared on the scene, such as Vanguard’s US ESG Fund, only 1% of which is invested in energy. Much of the remainder (40%) is funding the usual suspects within tech and finance. A mantra of “do well by doing good” covers up the underlying self-interest and “greenwashing”. It is evident that the vast majority of these funds do not address the greatest risks to our existence, as laid out in the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2022. This only serves to proliferate the abundance of pseudo-progress from the business sector.

As a McCain Global Leader, I have the opportunity to work with geo-political experts and technology partners to understand more about the global challenges we face. Tech can indeed be successful both economically and socially, but it must open its eyes to the real needs, not just the market wants.

In Part II, Gough will further describe the work he is doing at the McCain Institute , how he and his fellow McCain Global Leaders are testing some of the ideas and concepts being taught as part of the program – and propose a new model for the creation of a more character-driven tech sector.

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DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

James Gough
Publish Date
August 18, 2022