If Sarah Drummond, founder of Snook and all-round digital changemaker, could be summed up in a quote, she has her own to hand: “R. Buckminster Fuller said ‘we are called to be architects of the future, not its victims’ and that has always struck a chord with me,” she says. “When I was growing up, I just wanted to find ways to improve things, to design better ways of doing things.”
Not many of us realise childhood ambitions, but Sarah has with style. Snook, now in its tenth year, is an organisation that ‘is re-imagining and redesigning the human experience’, creating services and solutions that empower people to help themselves. Many of their projects have been with charities and government services, working on everything from designing a ‘citizen-centred council’ for Cork County Council to supporting Nominet’s Digital Access for All (DAFA) initiative, piloting strategies to help digitally disenfranchised young people get online. Most recently, Nominet worked with Snook on the collaboration between industry and the Government to enable zero-rate access to the NHS online services throughout the UK during the coronavirus outbreak, so people aren’t excluded from health services at a time when it’s most critical.
Like many of the challenges arising in our digital world, Sarah is passionate about being part of the solution. “It has become a human right to have access to the internet,” she says, “and digital exclusion is a serious issue because we risk separating people into some sort of ‘other’ category purely because they can’t afford a device or an internet connection.” She stresses that problems such as this must be tackled by using innovation to make a difference rather than simply throwing technology at it.
“People often think ‘digital’ equals innovation, but it doesn’t,” she explains. “Innovation is about designing networks of people to meet a challenge. Today it often incorporates digital elements because of the way the world is, but it’s the design and collaboration that matters, not to mention keeping the user front and centre.”
This world of digital innovation and user-led solutions is one Sarah is supremely suited for. She has always possessed a natural aptitude for computing – “I taught myself to code when I was off school with appendicitis,” she tells me – but also the creativity and determination to find and build solutions. “People say I’m an entrepreneur, but I feel I am a product designer at heart,” she says. “I make stuff, I always have done, only now I am making systems. I was always designing things in notebooks at school and I studied Art Design at Glasgow School of Art.”
It was during those years at art school that her innate drive to improve the world around her finally combined with her design work. “About half-way through, the course was taken over by a new head – a social scientist – who added real impact to what we were doing,” she explains. “I suddenly understood more about the people actually using these products or services, or whatever we designed. You realised that what mattered was creating things that helped people to thrive.”
Her desire to make – and make things better – are well satisfied at Snook, while the breadth and variety of her work meets another, insatiable need. “I constantly want to learn more – I don’t feel I can ever learn enough,” she says. This is one of the reasons she has taken on a new role of Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at Northgate Public Services, and why she sits on the boards of various charities. “Being a board member has helped me understand so much about running a business at scale,” she explains. “And to be honest, I just can’t say no when people ask me. I’m like a magpie, I like pretty much everything and I want to get involved.”
It has, at times, been to her detriment. Sarah has experienced burnout on more than one occasion during the decade of heading up Snook. “Running an SME is not easy, and it involves a lot of sacrifice,” she says, “but my main problem is that I’m not good at stopping. I even used to spend my weekends working on extra-curricular projects, just things I was interested in. Now I’m conscious of trying to find a balance in life and accept that I can’t do the things I want to do well unless I have a full tank.”
This has prompted change in recent months. Sarah moved Snook into the Northgate family (although remains still heavily involved) and is taking on the new CDO role to explore a new area of her industry – what it means to supply scaled technology services for critical services. She also talks about taking a few years out to “have a break”, although this transpires to be work of a different kind: studying film and making documentaries.
“I have two ideas for documentaries that I feel really passionate about. One will be about climate change, because it’s important today,” she says, “and the other will be about LGBTQ rights. I’m queer and it makes me angry that it took me so long to come out – but there was just no one else to look to and such a lot of misunderstanding. Things are changing now, but I still think this is something that we need to talk more about.”
Impact is everything for Sarah, no matter the medium. Her determination to change minds and improve situations for others will continue to propel her onwards. “I actually find it frustrating to switch off because there are so many things I want to do,” she says. “I have always been the person with a big vision of how things can be better and am driven to make it happen.” Society couldn’t hope for a better architect of our future.