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Marc Andreessen, Florence Nightingale and building in a vacuum


If you want to get a structural engineer excited, ask them what they could build in space. Freed from the constraints of gravity and aerodynamics, a single human could move skyscrapers like LEGO bricks. A fraction of the rocket fuel needed to escape earth’s pull could move mountainous objects. You could build mind-bending machines, like a Dyson sphere, in a vacuum.

The problem is, should you ever want to bring them back to earth, they would disintegrate on entry and collapse under their own weight on landing.

Which is what came to mind when I read Marc Andreessen’s energetic rallying cry to build. Marc, one of the most impressive entrepreneurs and investors of his generation, called for the technology community to pick up arms and start building solutions to the hard challenges, from clean energy to better education and effective healthcare. This is the right call. But if, during the financial crisis of 2008, a senior banker had looked at the global situation and wrote a thought piece entitled ‘it’s time to finance!’ they would have been rightly pilloried. Calling for more of the same won’t work now either.

Software businesses didn’t cause this crisis. It is thanks in part to our software infrastructure, the deep foundations of code and the endless hours of engineers’ effort, that we are able to continue to function as an economy at all. But just as much as it’s time to build, it’s also a time to listen and understand why these hard challenges haven’t been solved already, because we can’t continue to build in a vacuum.

There is undeniably a culture in many technology businesses and entrepreneurs that considers politicians, policy, civic institutions — in fact, anyone who isn’t a potential user or customer — as a distraction from the focus needed for a business to thrive. This is the vacuum in which much of the world’s most successful modern technology companies have been built.

But building new energy systems requires deep engagement with both politics and policy. Solving persistent healthcare challenges means solving for every edge case. Expanding education and skills demands an understanding of the structural challenges in society that prevent many communities from accessing these services in the first place. All of these challenges require a different mindset, a willingness to engage with government, an engineering culture that considers the second order consequences of what they are building and boards that think beyond their fiduciary and legal responsibilities to their social responsibilities as well.

If we want to learn how to build in times of crises, it’s worth looking at the innovators and entrepreneurs that tackled such complex problems before us. Which brings me to Florence Nightingale.

May 12, 2020 will be the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Nightingale is famous for many reasons, but above all for the impact she had on the welfare of soldiers in the Crimean War.

Seeing the appalling condition injured soldiers lived in after returning from the front line, she researched the causes of death, advocated for and created new methods for capturing and presenting data and worked with other great innovators of her time, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Dr. Edmund Parkes, to design and deploy entirely new ways of caring, including a new type of hospital in Renkioi. She broke the rules of war, healthcare and being a woman in the process. She came at every problem not as a weary practitioner, but as an entrepreneur anxious for change. By some estimates, Renkioi hospital improved the fatality rate by 90%.

But this is not where Nightingale had her greatest impact. On returning to England, she found that the biggest challenges in healthcare then were not huge, technical problems, but behavioral and political ones. So she looked to change the institution of nursing itself, while bringing people along with her. She set up the Nightingale fund to train nurses who would go out and practice her new approach in American, India and Japan. She worked with multiple governments to change the laws around home sanitation. She wrote extensively, simplifying her language to make it more accessible and creating texts that served as the foundation for modern nursing. Two hundred years later, the British government managed to build a fully equipped ICU hospital in central London in just nine days, which we now call the Nightingale Hospital.

In this crisis, rules are being broken. And as we emerge from it, it won’t be business as usual. If we want to, and we should, build things that make us more resilient, have more impact and change more lives, then we have to approach these problems differently, as well. As Florence Nightingale found, the most complex challenges are not technical problems that can be solved by engineers alone, they are societal ones.

What this looks like in practice is complex. You can start by thinking about your internal culture, with tools like consequence scanning from Dot.Everyone, to consider the impact of what you’re building beyond your first users. You can start by looking at how a new generation of companies are engaging with policy problems through the work of funds like the Govtech Fund or Public.io. You can start by engaging with projects to tackle some of the fundamental weaknesses in the web that have been exposed during this crisis, such as Demos’ The Good Web Project. And if you’re interested in improving how your board works, you can get in touch with us to be part of Balderton’s Good Governance projectg, as well.

As Marc rightly said, it is time to build — but it’s time to build sustainably, too.



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