044 – An Interview with our Incoming Director, Kate Fleming

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
044 – An Interview with our Incoming Director, Kate Fleming


David Stern introduces Kate Fleming, IDEMS’ incoming director, discussing her alignment with IDEMS’ values and their shared focus on complex data and community problems. They touch on the challenges of merging technology with social impact, the importance of community-based tech initiatives, and the goal of scalable solutions within a social enterprise framework. The episode highlights their mutual vision for addressing global issues through collaborative efforts.

[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m David Stern and I’m delighted to be here today with our incoming director, Kate Fleming. Hi Kate.

[00:00:17] Kate: Hi David.

[00:00:18] David: Really excited not only to have you on board on IDEMS, but to be doing a podcast with you.

[00:00:24] Kate: I know I’ve listened to, I can’t say all of them, but many, many of them. They’re great.

[00:00:29] David: They were never intended to be great. They were just intended to get out there and to actually get our stories out there. But it’s great to hear that some people are listening and that they’re enjoying.

[00:00:38] Kate: I’m not sure I’m a great sample. I do have a vested interest, but yes, I think they’re excellent.

[00:00:46] David: Well and of course, from here on out, you’re now going to be probably part of this and become a regular voice.

[00:00:51] Kate: Yes, I am. I hope. Yes.

[00:00:55] David: I guess we should start with why is it that you’re joining IDEMS? Danny and I, since we started, before we started IDEMS, we said, okay, we need to have at least three directors. And we had been singularly unsuccessful at identifying, we had three potential candidates over a six year period. And all of them, it didn’t turn out to be a good match for reasons which are all very good and sensible.

One of them was they couldn’t afford to join us because the salary was too low and they had family commitments. A second one actually felt that it would have been too much responsibility and actually went into academia, but fantastic person. And you’re the third candidate that we seriously considered. And somehow you’ve decided it’s a good idea.

[00:01:46] Kate: I love low pay and lots of responsibility.

[00:01:49] David: Exactly!

[00:01:51] Kate: Yay! Yes, I do. Well, mainly because I have been out in the world, as you have too, and realizing how rare it is. It’s a bit like dating where you kind of have your list, I think, of what you’re looking for, but it always somehow isn’t quite right. And then you find values alignment and, you know, the things that actually really matter and it’s like this is really rare to find this. And I think when I met you and we really… Well, we can talk about how we met. When we actually properly ended up digging into things we realized how much…

[00:02:26] David: No, no no, sorry, we should start with when we first met.

[00:02:29] Kate: Okay.

[00:02:29] David: Because that’s a much better story.

[00:02:32] Kate: It’s so anticlimactic because the first meeting was so unremarkable.

[00:02:39] David: We were at an event of some form and as you do you’re chatting to lots of different people and I met somebody who was very interested who was doing some building tech for sex workers and I thought well very interesting nothing to do with us and and you on your side.

[00:02:55] Kate: And I met this guy who’s working with data scientists in Africa and I thought very interesting but what does it have to do with me? I think we talked a little bit more and then we just…

[00:03:04] David: It was a good conversation.

[00:03:05] Kate: It was a great conversation.

[00:03:07] David: I enjoyed it immensely.

[00:03:08] Kate: Yes, me too.

[00:03:10] David: Lots of good stimulating stuff, but obviously no alignment whatsoever.

[00:03:14] Kate: Exactly. Exactly. And then I gave a presentation about what I was working on, which I can talk about more, but you were the one person in the audience who was like, oh! I get this. You completely got it and got all the dimensions of it from the technology to the business model, to the community piece, all of it. And even more than that, you could see other applications for the technology and the problems, the context, all of that. I was doing a lot of getting people to, in any way, see the things I was working on. Whereas we immediately leapt to just a different kind of conversation.

[00:03:51] David: And it was because in some sense, we were working on the same problem with one exception, and you really cared very deeply about privacy.

[00:03:58] Kate: Yes.

[00:03:58] David: Which is, too hard a problem for me. And our audiences don’t really need that. It’s not that privacy isn’t important, it’s that deep privacy, as you’re talking about, is a maths problem, which I recognize how hard it is. You know, I’m not scared of maths problems, but I know how hard that was. And so that’s the one part of your piece that we haven’t been working on yet.

[00:04:23] Kate: Yes, although intersectionally, I mean, they’re fundamentally data questions. And what you spend a lot of time thinking about is how do you get underserved, neglected, overlooked communities participating in ways where they are contributing data, but also have control over their data, have say over what happens to their data. We are on the same problem.

[00:04:48] David: Total alignment, we’re on the same problem, the same page.

[00:04:51] Kate: Yes.

[00:04:51] David: With the only exception, our audiences generally don’t need national security level data protection.

[00:04:57] Kate: Yes, yes.

[00:05:02] David: And I know how hard national security level data protection is because actually a lot of the people that I was a mathematician with and so on, this is what they go into. And it’s proper maths you’ve got to do behind that in a sort of really serious way. It’s not that I’m not interested in such problems. It’s that I have no illusions about the fact that however much I love the maths, and however hard most maths problems I’m willing to take on, that’s a hard one.

[00:05:28] Kate: Yes. Which I knew. However, I also think, because I am a non technologist, I never had the illusion that I would be the one solving the problem. So I only had to find really brilliant people who were really interested in a hard problem and brought the expertise. Your problem is that you were thinking, well, could I solve this?

[00:05:49] David: Exactly.

[00:05:52] Kate: Yes.

[00:05:52] David: Normally I’m the person you’d go to for that sort of thing. But for this problem, I would have to go and actually get the world experts on this. Because even the word experts are really skimming at that problem. This is cutting edge.

[00:06:06] Kate: Yeah.

[00:06:07] David: Difficult, difficult stuff.

[00:06:09] Kate: Yeah. And just for a bit of context, so the problem is really, how do you make sex work safer, but also reduce human trafficking and exploitation? And right now in tech, you have too much data, too little privacy, people don’t participate, or they get knocked offline. And so it basically creates all kinds of room for harms. At the same time, the tech is really important. And there’s all this data about how the internet created this massive intervention in sex work, reducing every kind of violence, homicide, everything.

You know, it’s just this like systemic change in a profound way. So there’s obviously value there. But you also see there’s all kinds of human trafficking and things that emerge. And I feel like we can so easily go down rabbit holes here. But, you know, a lot of that has to do with business incentives. I think from the outside it’s like, well, why can’t we solve human trafficking?

And it’s so much more complex than that. It’s a social problem. It’s a technical problem. It’s a governance problem. It’s a business model problem. So I could get into all of those. But I, through the lens of this single problem, came to see all of the things that you all at IDEMS have identified in much more holistic, systemic ways. So in the end, we converge in the same place of seeing all the same needs.

[00:07:29] David: And it’s just exactly that point that, you know, we see exactly that same complexity and complex mess across the board and we’re coming at it from very different angles because quite often we’re coming from other marginalized groups all over the world, but in all sorts of different cases who have exactly that same intersectionality of complexity which is cutting across tech, society, business, you know, all of these different things.

And you just, as you say, had arrived at this understanding from a single problem perspective, whereas we’re coming at that problem from a, okay, can we actually try to sort of work in this complexity to build, not for a single problem, but across problems. And that’s really, I think, where we’re coming from.

And I think there was maybe a point at which, before we discussed you joining IDEMS, there was a question of well, is the tech we’re building what you need for your problem? And because of the privacy issue, the simple answer to that is not anytime soon. Because that problem is really hard and it would be substantially more difficult than the rest of the problem in some sense to solve.

[00:08:46] Kate: Yes, and I think a variable, and I suspect this will come out more for IDEMS work as well, is much more of the need to put community first. So, particularly for sex workers, they have had so much tech kind of inflicted on them. They are so much at the mercy of tech. There’s a sense of fatalism, forced helplessness, all these things. So, you know, so, so much of getting it right is giving people a voice, allowing them to participate, getting representative inclusion, all these pieces that are really governance and community convening problems, much more than they are technical problems, even though they relate closely.

[00:09:27] David: This is why I can’t wait to get you to Niger, because this is where our work with Fuma doing this with the poorest farmers in the world, almost, bar none, you know, has been doing all that. And we’re supporting that work in a small way but we’re learning from it. And so absolutely that is central to our thinking. And they have that strength of community able to do that, able to take data ownership and run with it. These are the things which are needed in terms of your governance and all the rest of it.

So, that’s something where, as you say, we’re so aligned on that. That’s central to everything which we’re thinking about. But at the same time, it’s getting into actually building tech that way, thinking about tech that way, is so new. I don’t normally say that because everything we’re doing is just redoing what other people are doing, but slightly differently.

But that real community aspect, starting with the community, enabling, empowering that community in that way, thinking of tech as playing that role, I’d argue is new. I really haven’t seen that being taken seriously.

[00:10:42] Kate: I think the big issue, and this actually came up, I had a call the other day with a researcher who’s exploring technology and sex workers and why all of these projects that are trying to get off the ground fail. It’s just that the tech is so expensive and it’s so hard to do.

Communities would like to take more control over their technology, they’d like to have autonomy, they’d like to be able to build stuff at the grassroots level and have it be able to operate eventually at the scale and interoperability where you’re not just getting isolated in a little island, trying to create something.

But the thing you see is no one can raise money. It’s nearly impossible to raise money. Definitely don’t have the tech expertise, you know? So to get anything off the ground is prohibitively difficult for the cost and for just accessing the talent. So I think there is real hunger at the community level. I think it’s why you see a lot of community activities focused on advocacy to change existing technology. Because it’s the one thing that seems like a possibility.

Well, we’re never going to be able to build our own thing. We just are stuck with what is. So let’s just try to change, you know, meta or whatever. And it’s like, well, I’m glad you’re fighting that fight, but good luck.

I mean, they’re answerable to shareholders. They have completely different interests and no matter what people advocate for, no matter what regulation you put in place, and regulation is a blunt instrument, it’s not going to be precise enough, and some of these are from the ground up problems. The idea that regulation can come and solve this complex system that is 20 years in the making, no, it’s not going to happen.

But I mean, it could be better. I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t fight that fight, but yeah.

[00:12:25] David: Absolutely. And it’s a question of if it’s the only fight you can fight, right, you got to fight it.

[00:12:30] Kate: Yes.

[00:12:31] David: The simple truth is, as you said, the thing that we’ve got, which I think you recognized, is we have the pipelines to be able to recruit the talent. We have the ways to be able to actually get people to be able to engage in this without it necessarily becoming prohibitively expensive because broadly we’re coming at this from a not for profit perspective, but run as a profitable business. And it’s that combination, this is business model innovations.

We’re part of social enterprise UK, we really believe in social entrepreneurship, but even within that space, there’s no one I know really following our model except for this very interesting group in Bristol who are running nurseries. And they’re following actually a very similar model, they’ve come to very similar conclusions, they’ve got similar legal structures. They’re building from the ground up in very similar ways to us in certain ways. And so, we’re not alone in this thinking. In fact, 20 years ago in Italy, this was the standard way of thinking about social entrepreneurship. It’s just not taken off in certain ways.

[00:13:33] Kate: Well, and I think also you have a lot of legacy systems. So there’s so much interest in platform cooperatives, but cooperatives are a product of the industrial era. The problems it was solving were local community related, they were quite geographically precise in ways that allowed for similarity of problems, of laws that are governing the context, all of these different things. And so to try to, you know, cobble together the whole digital ecosystem or the logic of scale digital products. Which is like to take that away as losing all the value of what tech is. And then, to put that onto a cooperative, it’s nearly impossible to make it work. Well, I think.

[00:14:17] David: And don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of tech groups who are like us, coming from this very social angle, you know, the whole open source movement, which is now really established and old and doing well in many ways. They are, in terms of tech development, they’ve proven themselves. They’ve proven to out compete in terms of business models. They’ve proven to be able to be sustainable, scalable, you know, all the rest of it in different ways. Competitive in terms of business models. But that’s not the same as being community focused.

And this is one of the key things, that actually that combination of bringing in some of the learnings from those communities who are doing great work with some of the more community focused impact learning, you know, this local impact. But it’s got to be global because you’re talking about tech. So it’s sort of global and local at the same time. That’s, that’s difficult.

[00:15:13] Kate: No, and I think that is, I would say, particularly as everyone is obsessed, and it legitimately is a topic to be interested in, in artificial intelligence. But nearly all of the data that exists, I think it’s North, Northern, Western. You look at what venture capital has funded and where those, you know, those are middle class at worst consumers, or even if they aren’t, if they are poor people, it’s like, well, what were you trying to get out of them? You were trying to figure out how to monetize some pain point. It’s like, the data is so, is so incomplete.

[00:15:49] David: Well.

[00:15:49] Kate: It’s so not. Yes, you’re the data person.

[00:15:52] David: Let me come on this a bit, because I’ve been working a lot in contexts where people are trying to use tech, including AI, in very low resource environments. And the point there is worse, that people don’t recognize that the mechanisms and the models that they’re using are naturally exploitative. When you start using that with, you know, I’m going to come back to Niger because I grew up there, I love it, but you go to Niger farmers in really rural areas and you’re trying to get tech which is going to be able to exploit a profit out of them. No, these are people definitely below the absolute poverty line, two dollars a day. That’d be amazing in that context to be able to give a baseline salary of 2 dollars a day to everyone, you would transform their societies.

And so you’re getting tech, you’re building tech, which needs to extract a profit out of them.

[00:16:45] Kate: Yeah.

[00:16:46] David: But that’s the model of what tech is being built for. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t have commercial models on tech, where you get your cut, which gives a profit, which sustains the development. But if your base point is starting with serving people like that. That can’t be your base commercialization model.

[00:17:04] Kate: No, I think we both agree. There’s plenty of room for venture capital backed commercial tech. It’s just that it can’t be the only solution. Like right now it is across countries, much of tech innovation has just been seeded to venture capital. And then what are venture capital’s incentives? What are their goals? All of that? Well, it’s not impact. And as much as there’s this emerging social impact investment category and people looking at different things. It’s still relatively small.

[00:17:33] David: And tech in that, you’re finding, because we haven’t been looking much.

[00:17:37] Kate: Right.

[00:17:37] David: But you’ll find the intersection between social impact and tech is even smaller.

[00:17:44] Kate: It’s really difficult. Well, because tech is expensive, it comes back to that same problem of you need significant resources. I will say immediately that trying to help sex workers closes off a ton of avenues for funding. So my experience is not necessarily representative. But I still, you know, I am around enough other tech social entrepreneurs to know that they struggle with all of these same problems of how do we take funding? How do we stay true to our mission? You know, how we are getting stuck. It’s what happens to everybody. You can make a certain amount of progress and then you just get stuck. You can’t ever scale. You certainly can’t compete in any way. You can’t…

[00:18:21] David: Well, when you say you can’t compete, there are good examples that happen.

[00:18:25] Kate: Okay, you can compete.

[00:18:26] David: You can compete.

[00:18:28] Kate: That’s an overstatement.

[00:18:29] David: If we couldn’t compete, then we would not be here. I believe we can compete.

[00:18:34] Kate: Yes. Okay. Fair. I agree. You can compete. Yes. I love when I make some gross generalization and you immediately, well, let me clarify. I like to sweep and speak in grand generalities.

[00:18:50] David: I think this is a really important one because it’s not just that you can compete. I believe there’s good evidence that done well, there’s social enterprises in some sense have a history of out competing. You know, you’ve got the Red Hats, you’ve got the WhatsApps and so on. That then got bought out and became part of something bigger.

But while they were socially impactful social enterprises, very commercial, of course, they out compete and they grew in ways which made them global, successful organisations. And you can go through a list of others in different ways, but those two stand out and everyone knows them. No. Everyone knows Whatsapp.

[00:19:29] Kate: Yes, and I would say we share optimism. If I really thought there was no chance to compete, I wouldn’t be here. I would have just thrown in the towel.

[00:19:39] David: What I think is certainly true is that it is hard to compete.

[00:19:44] Kate: Yes.

[00:19:45] David: That is a statement I would have no problem with. And we found this every step of the way. That actually trying to combine the social enterprise with the tech, everything is set up to make our lives hard. If we’d set up as a pure business enterprise, there is nothing we wouldn’t have got, we’ve got at the moment. And we’d be able to get an overdraft for our bank account. The things that would be so much easier, we’d be able to get loans in very simple ways, because we’ve got a demonstrated profitable track record, and growth trajectories.

It’s been really hard work. We have got some loans which have helped us in certain ways, but it’s the exceptions and it’s hard work compared to if we weren’t a social enterprise, and similarly if we were just a social enterprise without trying to build the tech, our profitability would be absolutely fine. We wouldn’t have a problem, because we’d just be offering no services, but we wouldn’t be scalable. We wouldn’t have those potentials for scalable impact. And it’s that intersectionality which has been so hard.

[00:20:45] Kate: Yeah. I still think a big issue in all this, and I see it working with you as much as in my own work, a lot of it is just the challenges of connecting with the other like minded people. And I think there are so many people out there who are thinking about these issues, who are trying to find solutions, but they’re often in these little bubbles and wherever they are, or have small communities. But then they bump up against these well oiled machine of traditional tech, or traditional social enterprises.

[00:21:14] David: Yes. This is the key point, which I think you’ve got. I come to sort of social enterprise UK, which I love. It’s a wonderful community. Every piece of support or anything that they’ve offered to me has pushed me in ways which my analysis of the situation demonstrate would be bad for us. They are all pushing towards, oh, why, why are you limited by guarantee? If you were limited by shares, you could get equity. Equity is the way you should be doing.

Now we have very strong reasons why in the long run equity leaves us vulnerable in different ways. This is something we’ve discussed. We could see equity being a vehicle which is sensible for components, but not for the whole.

So we’ve thought that through from the beginning. We made concrete legal structures. But when we actually go to the social enterprise community, we get mentorship. The only thing anyone ever tells us is, ah, no, you’re making your life hard. Your life would be much easier if you just did this. And the point is, we don’t want an easy life. We want to do it right. We want to do it well.

[00:22:16] Kate: Yeah.

[00:22:16] David: And we believe we’re good enough to get away with that. To be able to do it well, despite it not being easy.

[00:22:24] Kate: Yeah. And I think one of the things that I found so interesting in conversations when I was out in the world was sometimes the people who get it are in really unexpected places. Some of the best conversations I had were with old school venture capitalists, because actually what they really are into is pattern recognition, new opportunity, all these different things where they see like, oh, the time is right for really new models, new ways of thinking, like we kind of, we’re kind of tapping out.

You know, this model, which is a lot of B2B SaaS or whatever it is, you know, there are these kind of tried and true paths. And I think there is a hunger on the investor side, on the impact side for really new ideas. But the challenges of finding those people… And I will say, this is part of why I’ve joined you is to help you tell the story better, help you…

[00:23:13] David: It’s us!

[00:23:13] Kate: Us, us, I say us.

[00:23:15] David: You can get away with it while you’re just an incoming director.

[00:23:19] Kate: Us. It’s us. Yes. No, but really thinking about how do we make this land where people start with something that’s quite understandable and then the more, ideally, we hook them and then they’re on the journey to complexity with us. Whereas right now, I think the reason we get along so well is we both love all this complexity and we love jumping.

I mean, even this conversation I’m recognizing just has jumped all over the place because for us, these all coexist really comfortably and logically. They are so intertwined. But if you’re not, if this hasn’t been something you’ve been thinking about for years, it’s just like, what are you talking about? Just have one topic, take me through it. And I think it’s overwhelming quite quickly. That challenge of just making it way easier for people to understand what the value of this is.

[00:24:13] David: This is not a bad place to finish this first podcast because we were not out looking for a new director. I think people listening to this can get an idea of why you’re such a good fit for us, why we really value you coming on board and helping us in so many different ways. But not least, as you say, to recognize that much as we love and we’re really good at working in complexity, that’s why we get along. That’s not necessarily how we should always be presenting ourselves, which is one of the problems when I do some of the presenting.

[00:24:45] Kate: Oh and especially when it’s your own thing and you have nurtured it all along. I mean, that was the challenge for my work was getting it to a really simple story where people can follow the narrative and just come to the end and be like, I get it, I get what is happening here.

[00:25:02] David: Let me be really clear, you are so much better at that than me. But even so, when you were telling your story, I got it. Not everyone else did.

[00:25:10] Kate: I know. Well, I would say, a final comment on my thing. I think one of the things particularly around sex workers is all the things people want to help on poverty, human trafficking, violence against women, people really want to help with those things. But they often don’t want to have to acknowledge the fact that some of the context for those might be things that you’re not comfortable with, they’re not part of your world and you have to be open to solving problems that might not be the ones you thought you were going to solve. But I think the number of conversations, and I will not say this broadly, but there are definitely people who really want to fight human trafficking who completely get, you can’t do anything until you can separate the consensual people, protect them from people who are actually trafficked.

But there are lots of people who would really like to help human trafficking and never have to acknowledge that there’s ever consensual sex work that this would ever be part of society, that this is a thing. And I forget why I went down that tangent, but I guess just to…

[00:26:08] David: My understanding of why you went down that tangent is exactly because where you’re coming from, or where you’ve reached, as I understand it, when we started interacting after I got what you were trying to do, it was me trying to help you to get that story so that you could get out and actually have different inroads in. But reaching that place where you’ve recognised in some sense that it’s not the right time. You know, you’re not giving up on the fact that this is a community that needs help, that needs to be served, that needs support.

But the obstacles to serving them at the moment, you’re finding insurmountable. Whereas you look at what we’re doing and you say, oh, I can do that. And if I do that, then maybe the problem that I was trying to solve is no longer insurmountable. It becomes achievable. That’s sort of what you’re getting towards.

[00:26:59] Kate: That is exactly. Yes. And I’m helping develop tools that will let other people who maybe are better suited to solve this problem, solve this problem. I am not wedded to being the person. It’s just that I saw that, well, something needs to happen here. But I would be very happy to have tech that lets other people build way better solutions than I could ever dream of. That’s just, you know, it becomes possible.

[00:27:25] David: This is exactly why you’re such an incredible find for us, an incredible match, because that’s the nature of how we work. And you know this because of our work in Africa and so on. We don’t want to actually be the ones doing things, because we just keep seeing problems all over the place in the world.

And we recognize that we have skills that can contribute to this, which is exactly what you’re saying you had for that specific problem. You saw that you had skills which are not widely available, you know, this problem needs people with those skills to come in and actually think about this hard, move the dial.

And this is what we see all over the place. But a big part of what we try and do in our work in general is make ourselves redundant. And this is, I think, one of the differentiating factors. And we can do this because we’re a social enterprise in the way we’re doing it. If we can actually make it so that people don’t need us anymore to do these problems? Great!

[00:28:21] Kate: Right.

[00:28:22] David: We’ll move on to do other problems. There’s so many problems!

[00:28:24] Kate: Yes, there’s no shortage of problems. Yeah.

[00:28:30] David: If we can get a problem where it’s no longer difficult, and other people then take it over and actually are the ones to really drive it forward because you can actually do it now. Perfect. We can move over. And that’s at the heart of what we are, and at its essence, that’s what you’re saying in that particular issue. It doesn’t have to be you. In fact, you’d be happy if someone else could do it. But you don’t believe anyone else can do it, because you know how hard it is.

[00:28:55] Kate: Well, and the networks, and just, just. Well, I could talk about that for a whole episode, so we won’t go down that path.

[00:29:04] David: Let’s call it a day. We have definitely established it’s going to be interesting having nice podcast episodes. We’re going to have lots more episodes together and discuss a whole load of different things. And I look forward to those immensely. This has been great fun.

[00:29:17] Kate: I do too, David. Thanks.

[00:29:18] David: Cheers. 

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