Shifting Gears at The Engine Room: Why I’m proud of our work, and why it’s time for me to go

Alix Dunn

When I co-founded The Engine Room in 2011, the world was abuzz with possibilities, mostly about the role technology could play in making the world a better place. More equitable, more just, more accessible and more diverse. We started the organisation with the animating principle that in order for technology to make the world better, it would have to be designed and used with purpose and with care.

Today we are launching a recruitment process for my successor. This post outlines the problem we have worked to solve, our role in solving it, and the ‘why now’ of my transition out of the organisation.

Technology is not magic. If you’re reading this post, you know that technology doesn’t offer us shortcuts to a utopia. In fact, it often intoxicates us with the harmful misconception that our thorny problems are only a digital invention away from being solved. And in many cases it exacerbates existing inequalities and sidelines marginalised groups.

But, technology can be magical if we work collaboratively, think creatively, and proceed with caution. It can open up new relationships, lower the cost of working together, shed light on hidden power structures, push us to positive social tipping points and connect us across movements.

To ensure that our technology and methods reinforce our mission, we need to build infrastructure for collaboration and a more nuanced understanding of the role technology can and should play. We need leaders from all sectors and backgrounds identifying opportunities, shaping our tools, and learning out loud.

I am proud of the role The Engine Room has played in doing just that. We have pioneered new ways of thinking about the role of responsible data in social change and spearheaded many collaborations with amazing partners to shape new methods. We’ve asked hard questions in our research and worked to make that research accessible to diverse audiences. We have approached the role technology can play with nuance, integrity, and a focus on impact – not novelty.

Working with such a diverse and intentional group to build The Engine Room into the dynamic, thoughtful, and impactful organisation it is today has been a privilege, but the time is right for me to move on. Why now? For two main reasons. 1) We have considerable momentum and a bright, effective, and committed team in place that is well positioned for a transition; and 2) I believe that this community needs new (and more) leaders – and a primary way that happens is if people in positions of power move out of the way.

On the first, we have distinguished ourselves in our lines of work and have built a dynamic business model. This has driven our organisational growth, from a team of 3 co-founders, to a global team of 18 in 10 countries. To underpin this growth, we have designed robust and values-driven operational infrastructure and human resources practices. We have developed strong relationships with several key foundation partners who believe in our approach and support our long-game thinking. This positioning means that my replacement will have the time and the space – financial and operational – to get to know our team and the role.

On the second, our sector struggles with diversity and with re-entrenchment of colonial power structures. That’s not too different from the technology private sector or traditional ‘global development’ industries. But for the social change space, our methods should reinforce our mission. Our “why” should be directly connected to our “how”. I have always thought of The Engine Room as a space where talented and diverse individuals and teams could leverage resources to demonstrate their strengths and grow. I believe we’ve reached a point in our organisational development where my departure will create important growth and open up possibility for the organisation.

I love my job. But I think the time is right for a transition. I am excited to see what the organisation does next, and to watch with admiration as this team continues to make big contributions for many years to come.

As for process details, a post on the recruitment is forthcoming (now live here). I will stay onboard in my current role through the remainder of the recruitment process, and will support the new director, the board and the rest of the team as needed to ensure a smooth and effective transition.


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