The other night, I went to an event about women, tech and innovation. I meet a lot of "inspiring women" in my job – and there are a lot of them out there – but this lot were something else: young women working with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, completely reimagining how our healthcare system could work, powered by the internet. I felt like I’d looked through a keyhole into the future and it looked very exciting.
But, as these women spoke, a common theme cropped up. They weren’t all coders, they weren’t all pure-data scientists who sleep, dream and eat in algorithms, but they were instrumental – if not essential – in bringing the forefront of tech development into the real world. As one woman, who had a company that brings AI to businesses, said, “I am a bridge-builder.” And what a great thing to be.
For the bridge-builders in that room, their job is to take what seems difficult to understand, unfamiliar and even frightening or threatening to the rest of us ( "deep learning", anyone? No, me neither) and translate it into a thing that could help young women in Pakistan, for example, or help a business develop or people monitor their own healthcare. They are translators, mediators, enablers, fixers. Like a team of Cilla Blacks, they are looking to matchmake in order to get the best deal for everyone.
They are the people who see the bigger picture – one that is far, far bigger than their own personal ambitions. They are outward and forward-looking; they are generous by nature and innovative in thought
In tech, bridge-builders are essential. For those of us who haven’t grown up with coding on the curriculum (that’s anyone over the age of six), the digital world can be daunting. It moves and morphs quicker than you can tweet. It feels male (still) and exclusive and dense. And yet it *is* the future – it is something we should all feel familiar with and utilise. And so those women finding ways to bring the grey T-shirt brigade together with a start-up founder who has worked in physical retail for 30 years are not just necessary but great forces in democratising skill sets.
And bridge-building has even become a whole economy itself – from Airbnb to Kickstarter. The sharing economy is a very modern, digital business model that is fundamentally based on being the bridge between two separate parities.
And, while I don’t begrudge anyone making money out of a good idea (it’s my life ambition, after all), these platforms aren’t necessarily the bridge-builders I admire the most.
The bridge-builders I admire aren’t doing it for profit – and that’s not why I think they are brilliant – they are doing it because they are the sort of people who can connect dots, as if they see the world as a network board, all lit up with flashing lights, and they can see who needs what and when and where. And they are doing it because the combination of those two things, of bringing those two people together, of passing on that email, of making that introduction, of working to promote that tricky idea to that new audience, will be better for everyone. The thing about the bridge-builder is that they don't create a temporary connection – they forge a lasting link, a bridge that others can cross in the future, again and again, a connection that turns on a light that will help lots of people see something more clearly.
And yet, despite their ability to help others shine and understand and benefit, I can’t help but feel bridge-builders are a bit overlooked. Because they aren’t the ones writing the code or designing the app or creating The Thing. We have historically always fawned over the genius of creators, but what’s the point of having a bloody good idea if nobody knows about it? I don’t mean to get all philosophical with on you on a Monday morning, but a great creation, surely, is only really great if people can use it, see it, appreciate it? If your brilliant new project falls into the internet and no one understands it, does it really exist? Well, yes, because your bank balance has the evidence, but I think you get the idea.
Bridge-builders are everywhere – they are the people in your office who probably make your office work; they are the people who allow you to flourish and show you how to make your day that bit easier. They are the people who see the bigger picture, one that is far, far bigger than their own personal ambitions. They are outward and forward-looking; they are generous by nature and innovative in thought. They have the rare gift to understand sophisticated, tangled ideas and translate them into a simple structure. They have spotted how we can help each other, not just ourselves.
Why we dismiss them is hard to say. I’m yet to collect a data set on them (they’ve probably already done that and are about to send it to me in a clear, concise email, no doubt). But let’s not forget the bridge-builders – we couldn’t get anywhere without them.