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Vincent Zhang
Portrait of Vincent Zhang
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Vincent Zhang is a proud Chinese-Australian who grew up in Brisbane, Queensland before moving to Sydney for university. Vincent is currently the Senior Adviser at the Tech Council of Australia and CEO of Tech for Social Good. He is passionate about growing a dynamic and inclusive tech sector in Australia, and promoting innovation and access to opportunity across the economy and society. He is an optimist at heart, and believes that technology and policy that is well-designed, fit-for-purpose and has the best interests of people and communities, will play a critical role in making the world a better, fairer and more productive place.

Outside all things tech and policy related, Vincent enjoys going on hikes, exploring new food cultures and reading old newspapers.
Vincent and I first met at university, since we both studied Mechatronics Engineering in the same cohort. We’ve been friends for a long time, but our friendship deepened when we bonded over our shared desire to create impact as young people and after we started working together on Tech for Social Good from early 2021. For the past two years, we’ve been figuring out how exactly we can harness tech to create positive social impact - from a research, policy and innovation lens.

Vincent is truly passionate about leveraging technology to create a more inclusive and accessible society. It’s been inspiring watching him figure out where he wants to play a role in the ecosystem - as a developer, researcher and now policy adviser.

One thing that I deeply admire and am always thankful for in Vincent as a friend, is that he has always pushed me to dream bigger for myself and see the impact that I could possibly make. And that is something that I want Quiet Achievers to emulate for the Asian Australians checking out this project. I hope that reading these Asian Australian stories, inspire people to start loosening any self-limiting beliefs they’ve previously imposed on themselves, and allow them to also dream bigger for themselves. Similar to what Vincent has done for me.

I hope Vincent’s story inspires you as much as it did for me.
What led to your interest in the tech policy space?
Before working at Tech Council, I’ve always been interested in technology and policy, albeit as two separate things. On the tech side, I think it was understanding the important role technology plays in making people’s lives easier, better and safer that made me want to pursue a career in tech. On the policy side, I think it was the potential for well-designed policy to bring about positive social change that attracted me to the field. And so, tech policy seemed like the perfect combination of those two interests.
How do you believe tech can be leveraged to solve some of our key social crises such as growing inequality, the global climate crisis or unequal healthcare and education systems?
I’m going to focus on access to education systems because I think improving access to high-quality education helps solve part of the inequality problem and helps us create a workforce which can tackle some of those pressing issues that you’ve listed.

One technology that has huge potential is generative AI tools. I see generative AI tools like ChatGPT as the total sum of all the collective wisdom and biases of society. They’re incredible tools for self-learning and teacher instruction. They can be used to create learning plans and timetables, produce examples of content, recommend learning materials and strategies, and help nudge students in the right direction. If these technologies are implemented responsibly with the right safeguards and governance measures, then we will see a significant increase in learning potential and productivity across the education system, and improved access to educational opportunities.

That doesn’t mean all educational inequality will be eliminated. Overpriced private schools will continue to charge exorbitant fees to justify spending on school resources and infrastructure. But if we take tools like ChatGPT to their full potential, schools across the world will have access to the best knowledge and expertise, which will be shared across the world. And students of all ages will be able to access these tools in their own time. Sure, in 2023, Sydney Grammar might be able to hire the best mathematics teacher in Australia. But who knows, in 2033, generative AI tools trained on Maths Olympiad problems and the world’s best mathematics textbooks might be able to offer a much more accessible and high-quality educational experience than what’s currently available. And that’s remarkable.
How do you think young people play a role in shaping technology development in all aspects?
I think the great thing about young people is that we’re at the age where we naturally start to question things around us. We start to wonder why society is set up the way it is, why some groups get certain benefits and others not so much, why things are the way there are. We’re also very tolerant and forward-thinking, and that makes us come together easier and bring out the best ideas. And so you have this healthy dose of scepticism and desire to challenge the status quo which acts as an impetus for change, and you’ve got diversity and tolerance breeding the best ideas.

What we’re seeing is young people embracing technology as the intersection of those two things. Technology is a playground for ideas where we can push boundaries and test out different visions for society. Recently, there’s been talk about a society where machine intelligence augments human power. There’s also been talk about a virtual society (the metaverse) where people interact and live out their lives virtually, and a decentralised society using digital assets technologies where interactions are peer-to-peer and don’t have to go through some centralised institution.

Young people are going to continue shaping these technological developments in a way that benefits communities, society and the planet. They’re going to be starting and running companies that make our lives easier, safer and better. They’re going to be involved in regulating technologies and ensuring technology is used responsibly and for the betterment of society. And they’re going to be leaders ensuring that technology is accessible to all backgrounds and is used as a tool for human empowerment.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about policy in general?
I think the biggest misconception people have about policy is that it’s an ineffective lever for change. Some people think of policy as slow, cumbersome and frustrating, and rightly so, given the negative perception people have of politicians and the political process.

But I think we need to understand that policy is really a debate about ideas about how society should be run. The winners of the debate are given a mandate for change. That’s a huge responsibility. With that mandate, you can coordinate civil society and the public and private sectors to collaborate on pressing challenges such as climate change and growing inequality. You can bring resources to tackle under-addressed issues and make changes that improve the lives of all Australians. And that’s why it’s important for us to be active in policy, so we can create a society that we believe to be the best and fairest and most just.

Because if we give up on having this debate, we’re really letting the loudest voices in the room dominate. And those voices might not have our best interests at heart. They might not care about the causes we care about, and they might have a polar opposite version of society that we’d find troubling and distressing.

So that’s why I think young Australians should put their best ideas forward and get involved. There’s a lot of power in people and communities coming together around shared beliefs and ideas, and there are a lot of different ways to get involved other than running for Parliament.

You could get a group of friends to write to politicians arguing for changes. You could create social media campaigns on causes you care about to raise public awareness. You could conduct your own research and advocate for your ideas among decision-makers. So get out there, and get involved!
Could you tell me more about Tech for Social Good, and what plans the organisation has for 2023 and beyond?
Tech for Social Good is a nonprofit that builds products that make a difference in people’s lives. Our product philosophy is centred on empowering individuals and helping them better access services such as healthcare and education.

We’ve got a bunch of stuff planned for 2023! We’re creating a data-driven ClimateTech tool to help individuals understand the drivers and impacts of climate change, and how climate change impacts their lives directly. We’re looking to release that product in May, along with a bunch of research articles on the Responsible Tech ecosystem in Australia and profiles of different new and emerging technologies.

Beyond that, we’re looking to create a community-driven tech firm where an interdisciplinary team of volunteer developers, product managers, data scientists work together with lawyers, consultants, researchers and policymakers to build technologies that can improve people’s lives. To that end, we plan to run a community co-design project which will see Tech for Social Good partner with various community organisations to create accessible and impactful tech products.
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I think of my Asian Australian identity as a lens for seeing and thinking about the world. It helps me make sense of my own ideas and experiences, and helps me connect to others who might be going through similar things. There’s always a sense of great relief and psychological safety when you’re with someone who can empathise with what you’re going through.

Growing up, I’ve always prided myself in having a blended identity. My friends would say that I’d simultaneously be very Asian but also very white washed, which was confusing for them but rather entertaining for me. At home, I’d watch Chinese dramas, eat the best Chinese food and learn about Chinese history. At my mostly white school, I’d introduce my friends to Chinese culture and food (they loved my Dad’s spring rolls and dumplings).

I think COVID-19 as well as rising tensions with China made me question my Asian Australian identity and whether I could maintain a blended identity. To that end, I tried to maintain pretty distinct identities at university and work and at home. In some instances, it felt like I had to act and sound a certain way, or have certain traits to be able to succeed in one context, and then in other contexts, I’d switch back to something more natural.

I’ve tried hard to let go of that need to fit into a certain mould, and it’s allowed me to have a much healthier relationship with my blended identity, and have fun at the same time! Moulds are boring and stupid because they don’t reflect reality and force people to let go of the things that make them unique. They’re also probably reflective of the expectations of some prejudiced people from long ago and hold us back from celebrating who we are and moving forward as a society.
What connects you the most to your Chinese heritage?
My family and the Chinese language. My family’s very close knit, so we frequently share stories of our lives (often with didactic lessons on what it means to be a good person and have a good life). It’s cool hearing those stories because I can get a glimpse of what life was like back then for my parents and grandparents, and how Chinese culture, traditions and society influenced their lives and their decisions.

I’ve also been fortunate to have a good Chinese language education when growing up. I attended a Chinese school in Brisbane, where I learnt about Chinese culture and the Chinese language, which allowed me to communicate and connect better with my family. 
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
The Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Until then, I hadn’t really seen Chinese culture on public display. The closest I got was probably the Lunar New Year celebrations at Brisbane’s Chinatown that my family would go to when I was young. The 2008 Beijing Olympics really changed that for me, and for the first time, I had seen Chinese culture being talked about and celebrated widely.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
Sesame noodles (using buckwheat noodles)! My grandparents used to make them for me when I was young. They’re so easy to make too.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Sally Sitou MP is an outstanding representative of progressive politics and Asian Australians in Australia. I love her approach to politics. She writes, posts and tweets about what it’s like to have a young family and what it’s like to live in one of Australia’s most diverse electorates. She celebrates those in her local community and uplifts the stories of people who have shaped her. And she also calls out racism and prejudice when she sees it, and is unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Sitou’s approach is refreshing, genuine and down-to-earth. It’s relatable to everyday Aussies who have their own local communities and culture, and are facing the same shared challenges of increasing cost-of-living and an uncertain future for future generations.