White Mirror is a series that explores technology’s positive impact. In the seventh and final episode, you follow the life of Kelsi Doscher – a creative thinker and Director of Communications at Xerra Earth Observation Institute. Read how her deep examination of character and layers of privilege, has led to a realisation that technology is neutral – it’s our human values that determine how useful or harmful it will be. And how studying Earth from Space has unveiled that our world’s complex problems require unique perspectives.
Leave behind all of your expectations and preconceived ideas.
If while you’re reading this, you begin to judge the words or feelings that arise, try to suspend them… if only for a minute. You’re about to glimpse an alternate reality; one that’s available to you right now. Welcome to White Mirror.
Part 1: Conscious Character Building
Imagine moving yourself halfway across the world to prove that you can be stripped of your identity and still be successful. Kelsi Doscher is a kind, determined New Hampshirite. She grew up on an organic market garden farm in a small town and from very early on, watched her parents live with accountability to both the land, as well as future generations. From the jobs that they chose to the way that they lived, their values wove through the landscape they farmed. They chose their work environments and even attracted people who lived in their neighborhood based on these intentional character decisions. Being ‘good people’, talking about global warming well before it was making headline news, and living outside of mainstream norms provided a platform for Doscher’s now-mission to embed longer-term values within new technology.
Despite the relative comfort of their neighbourhood, it was impossible for Doscher to ignore the stark realities of living in a system that was designed—not for everyone—but for the favoured few. With the New Hampshire state motto “Live Free, or Die”, adopted in 1945 from an American Civil War Hero, Doscher grew to become more and more aware of the injustices of discrimination and inequality around her. These issues were long standing and deeply complex, carried over generations through divisive power dynamics between individualism and collectivism, state and federal, conservative and democratic. And now, the equality and freedom fought for by those Civil War Heroes is once again in question. Values stitched into the bed of the ‘American Dream’ appear to be unravelling at speed, as back home, Doscher’s friends and family face escalating racial tension as government and unlawful civilian militia patrol cities under the pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rising COVID-19 case storm and stark contrasts in state-by-state leadership, all beckoning the volatile presidential transition process.
Stepping back, could this have played out any differently, knowing that the U.S. has been built by, and more overtly than ever, continues to prop up those that are in power? From 1990 to 2020, the top one percent have increased their net wealth by $21 trillion, while the bottom 50 percent lost $900 billion.
For those who are able to observe themselves in the context of others—to see the differences and the similarities, and choose to give up power—affords a certain amount of privilege and a whole lot of self-awareness. To say “an unexamined life is not worth living”, as Socrates once did, requires food, shelter and other basic needs to be met. Doscher is acutely aware of her parents’ desire for accountability and is conscious she must use her privilege for collective betterment, while, as she says, “sitting with deep respect, admiration and humility at the feet of those who have overcome so much more, just to get to a place where they feel supported, encouraged and heard.”
Doscher’s role at Xerra has brought new meaning to ‘seeing something from someone else’s perspective’. She heads up communications at Xerra —an Earth observation startup established in 2017 through funding from MBIE’s Regional Research Institutes Initiative. She and the growing team at Xerra believe in a sustainable future through the power of science, which has them focused on conducting research and developing products that help us look at and after our planet. Using Earth observation data and remote sensing technologies, Xerra’s mission is to develop new and applied science-based products for New Zealand industry, local and national government, as well as the international market. More on that later.
Part 2: Finding her Creative Process
When Doscher was 22, and donning a newly acquired Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and fine arts, she left the U.S. to find her place beyond the cushioning of home. Working her way from hospitality, to photography, then meandering through film-making, administration and gradually towards communication, Doscher initially took roles because it was a paycheck and she had next to nothing in her bank account, but stayed on because she formed a sense of connection and community. Zooming out, she realised it was more than just community and connection. “When I was working in these teams I found energy in solving problems with others, the mundane was even fulfilling some days and I woke up in the morning looking forward to work, even if it meant washing dishes all day,” she says. She gained the gradual and layered realisation that, while working through problems in groups can be fundamentally more challenging than working alone, it’s also a great way of forcing what she’s now able to identify as the ‘creative process’.
After almost 10 years in New Zealand, Doscher wanted to find ways of bringing the creative process to life in the business world. She observed that often a culture of transaction, ‘that’s just how we do things’, and ‘we’ll leave that for someone else to do’ manages to snuff out the spark. Fast forward to circa October 2017. Doscher’s role at REANNZ — our national research and education network that connects with 120+ networks globally to enable researchers to collaborate — put her in line for the opportunity to become Xerra’s employee number four. Thanks to a combination of Doscher’s natural skills and the nature of the organisation’s size and ambition to scale like a startup, she took responsibility for proactively designing and setting the tone for the organisation’s culture, utilising the things she had learned about that creative process in teams and being explicit about values. Doscher again took the opportunity to use characteristics she’d collected through her years, to take responsibility for the impact she has on the world around her. Her journey is befitting of Xerra’s mission to use the latest in space-based technology, machine learning, and data analysis to look at problems in a uniquely effective way. Their team of scientists, engineers, designers and business-minded folks are distributed around New Zealand, and have remotely processed billions of data points, in order to build their latest product, Starboard™ Maritime Intelligence, to tackle critical environmental and societal challenges—from the detection of illegal fishing to assessing vessels for COVID-19 and biosecurity threats. Doscher considers whether a less diverse team would have had the same ability to create such a product.
Part 3: Little ones
Two years before joining the Xerra team, Doscher and her husband welcomed their first child and it completely changed the way she related to other people once again. The first months of being a new mum were a real struggle for her. Doscher knew she had a tendency to want to ‘smooth things over’, ‘go it alone’ and ‘persevere’. This didn’t really work in those early days, and she admitted the difficulty coming to the conclusion that she needed to ask for help, and speak more honestly about what was happening and how she was coping. “Being a mum has given me one of the greatest perspective shifts in my life,” she says. A few days after her son was born, she describes being blindsided by an overwhelming sense of awe, both of other human beings and the struggles they face everyday, as well as the environment we live in and how connected it is to how we choose to live our lives. Doscher has tried to hold on to that feeling as best she can. “It reminds me to take responsibility for things I can influence, have empathy before judgement, and patience before intolerance as often as possible.”
Speaking honestly and asking for help are two things she decided to consciously bring with her back into the workplace. Doscher admits that being truthful, whilst still respectful and kind, is hard. There’s no two ways about it. “Cognitively, I know that it is key to building strong teams, but actually volunteering to start those hard conversations and trying to find words to express how someone’s behaviour impacted me, or being able to just sit and listen to someone tell me how my behaviour impacted them without judging or leaping in to defend myself—that’s hard, and I’m no expert at it. But, intuitively, I know it is the right place to start.” She knows perspective is no walk in the park either, but recognises it as a gift when it arrives. She reflects on how there’s nothing quite like watching a little person start to interact and take in the world around them, to realise how everyone approaches problems in different ways, finding joy and fulfillment in different things.
“I have zero interest in monster trucks. But that doesn’t excuse me from needing to get down on the floor and see the world through the vantage point of a monster truck-obsessed human. Now I specifically look at the make and model of diggers on construction sites, I keep my ears pricked for songs that are danceable, and when I start to get overwhelmed I go out and stare at the trees, because if it calms him down, maybe it will work for me too.” Bringing these perspectives and range of experiences and ways to solve problems together is powerful, if we are willing to listen and learn from it. As Aristotle famously said, “the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.”
Part 4: Connecting the dots
At Xerra, Doscher wants to crack the workplace inequality puzzle, to design something that is mindful of the complex environment we’re always up against, in an attempt to build a more equitable world by proxy. Can we build an entire organisation—not just one team, or one group of individuals—where there is a shared purpose, a willingness to engage with our weaknesses and blindspots, to have difficult conversations, to expose tension in the work and ourselves, and to ultimately trust one another to engage in the creative process in all facets of our work, while still working at pace? And what kind of impact could we have solving problems in this way? She had no idea what it would look like or how to get there, but that’s kind of the point. And luckily others in the team have trusted her enough thus far to join in.
Doscher got her sense of stewardship for our natural environment from her dad, a land conservationist. And from her stay-at-home mum, a strong desire to better understand her own humanity in the context of the global society. The work at Xerra is the nexus of these drivers—bringing together disparate data sources to try and tackle complex challenges facing New Zealand and our region of the world.
Through our interviews and conversations leading up to this article, Doscher has clearly articulated the underlying thread that ties all White Mirror episodes together. That technology is inherently neutral. It’s how we build it and what human beings do with it that matters. Our values need to be put to the test, stretched, refined and debated, to ensure that the actions we take, the customers we seek, and the solutions we provide are robust, scientifically backed, and focused on a positive impact for New Zealand (and the globe), our environment and future generations. Take it from the girl who’s shifted many things since her market garden in New Hampshire. Here’s to doing some good with the tools we have at our fingertips and the people that we share values with.
Acknowledgements: The work Xerra is doing wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment through the Regional Research Institute Initiative and funding through the COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund. Xerra would also like to acknowledge the team at the Ministry for Primary Industries for their continued collaboration on the development of Starboard, and the French Embassy in New Zealand for their financial support through the Pacific Fund.
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