Searching for Impact

Many years ago, I was summoned to attend a meeting at the US Embassy in Tallinn. I had just arrived in Estonia, and so I was not sure what to expect. I only knew that I was to attend a meeting of USAID contractors to be run by the top USAID embassy official. We all waited in the conference room until the door burst open and the USAID official took his seat. He said “The Senate is asking USAID to show that it has having impact in the countries where it operates. So, please tell me what impact you are having here.”

Having just arrived in country, I was quite sure that I had had no impact so far. But other contractors were more confident. A flury of hands went up. “I’ve had impact!” They all said in loud voices. But one after the other, the USAID response was “that is an activity or effect or progress, but not impact!” Eventually, the meeting ended with little consensus on what impact was, let alone the meaning of life.  There was considerable grumbling as we shuffled out of the embassy and back to work.

So what is impact? Having thought about it for many years, I know now that it can be whatever you want it to be. It depends on what measures you use for “value added”. And the weird thing is that we spend most of our days without a clear idea of what value added is. So for example, what is the value added of a smartphone? It adds capacity, but what impact does it have on your life? Oh dear. Here we go again.

This raises a question about where we are headed in this new century. We are confident in our ability to use technology to solve problems. And yet, we are not so sure what are the problems that need solution. Could it be that after a half century, we finally succeed in building a better … to do list? It sounds silly, and yet, if you look at the list of “mind blowing” inventions coming our way, the first is an “artificially intelligent personal assistant.

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