November 29, 2021

Technology and Advancing the Public Good: A Q&A with Mark Frischmuth (MPA ʻ19)

Evans Alum Mark Frischmuth (MPA 2019) believes that technology can help solve challenging social, economic, environmental, and civic problems while empowering all members of society. At DemocracyLab, he is building on that vision by connecting tech-for-good projects with skilled volunteers and socially responsible companies.

What contributed to your decision to pursue a career in support of the public good? Was there a defining moment in particular?

I have always been motivated by a search for meaning and majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. Two sources of meaning I have found are authentic personal relationships and contributing to the public good. A spark of insight the day after the 2004 Presidential election motivated me to explore how technology could be used to crowdsource public policy by mapping connections between the values people believe, the objectives they seek to accomplish, and the policies they would like to see implemented. It was from that exploration process that I formed DemocracyLab in 2006, and it began a long journey that eventually led me to the Evans school and my full-time dedication to advance public interest technology.

Can you share a bit about the work you are currently doing and what a typical day in your work looks like?

DemocracyLab empowers people who use technology to advance the public good by connecting tech-for-good projects with skilled volunteers and socially responsible companies. Our platform and programs help tech-for-good projects to launch without funding, volunteers to upskill and advance their careers, and companies to build cultures of purpose. DemocracyLab is a volunteer-driven organization and thousands of hours of volunteer labor have been contributed toward the research, design, and development of our open-source online platform. I spend time every day coordinating volunteer efforts, engaging with current and prospective partners, reaching out to companies to solicit employee engagement opportunities, and building relationships with prospective funders.

Can you share how diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to your work and the work you continue doing?

Our world and our communities face many very difficult problems. Many of these problems were created by systems that exploited people, land, and resources for profit. I believe that addressing these problems will require the voice, perspective, and talent of as many people as possible. I believe an extroverted culture of inclusion leads to diversity, and that open-minded and respectful teams of diverse people can create communities and products that advance equity. I have experienced much personal privilege in life, and feel a responsibility to use that privilege to create greater equity at whatever scale I can.

If there was one thing you’d want people to know about your work, what would it be?

One of the most important effects of DemocracyLab’s work is that it increases the sense of agency of members of our community. We help people recognize that they have something valuable to contribute to solutions to public problems, and, that their response to these problems is within their control. The infrastructure that DemocracyLab creates has positive impacts on many other problems in society. By activating skilled volunteers and encouraging them to contribute their talents, we make it possible for organizations addressing a host of other issues to pursue their missions more effectively.

Looking back on your Evans School experience, what stands out as being particularly impactful during that time?

While the Evans classroom instruction was invaluable, I found my interactions and conversations with my classmates to be the most impactful aspect of my Evans experience. The diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of my classmates helped me better understand my own worldview and challenged me to think more broadly. The education I received at Evans helps me see my work in the larger context of society and to better understand the complex range of stakeholders whose engagement is important to the success of my work.

What are 1 or 2 resources that inspire you personally or professionally?

A book I read long ago that stuck with me is Ken Wilbur’s A Brief History of Everything, where he made some very interesting points about systems thinking. The biggest takeaway for me was that any particular thing can be understood simultaneously as a whole, as a sum of its parts, and as a part of a larger whole.