“Where I do strongly agree with Liam is about the cult of the ‘digital’ social entrepreneur; I’m no Luddite, and am fully aware of the potential for new technology to change things for the better in new ways: to connect, to mobilise, to communicate and so on. Indeed, I have promoted and advocated for the use of new technology in every organisation I’ve worked in. But in the social and political spheres there is a current fetishisation of new technology that gives it undue prominence over the frontline, face-to-face work.”
So said Nick Temple in his response to Liam Black’s recent suggestion that social enterprise leaders had failed to respond to the challenge of the current economic climate, provoking a further annoyed response (see the comments) from Theresa Burton of the crowd-funding website, Buzzbnk.
Given that I’ve made the choice to type this post on my blog, as opposed to carving it into the trunk of a tree, I’m clearly not a principled opponent of the use of social media and other digital technologies in the pursuit of positive social change but I think that both Nick, and Liam Black when bemoans “a social entrepreneur cult of the new, the metropolitan, the digital… “, are on to something with their concerns.
The Big Society Network recently launched their Nexters programme. Given that the blurb for the scheme is as follows: “The Nexters are social entrepreneurs who have developed services that help people to give and engage in charity and communities in new, innovative ways. They are all at varied stages of development and require different types of support which the program aims to shine a light on and match with various sponsors, partners and interested organisations.” it would be a bit silly to criticise the participants for working in the online world.
A big danger, though, is that public agencies and other funders forget that, as Nick points out, “a volunteering app only works because it links to real volunteering opportunities created by real organisations” . Here in Waltham Forest, where my organisation is based, there is apparently 600 volunteers registered with local volunteering service but only 100 volunteering opportunities for them to apply for.
The problem is not clever people – some of whom have exciting hair – coming up with interesting new websites, apps and other digital products. This is a good thing. The problems (at least, two of them) are: (a) that great new ideas that complement and amplify offline local activity so are less useful when there’s a reduction in offline local activity and (b) that there’s a disconnect between the people identifying problems and the people identifying solutions.
Clearly the intention of socially engaged digital champions is not to offer a choice between creating exciting new things with new technologies and carrying out frontline work, it’s to come up with exciting new things that support (and improve people’s experiences) frontline services. Often though, it seems that there’s a gap between the theory and the practice. Some people are delivering services or using services on the frontline, and some other people are having ideas and making digital stuff. They aren’t meeting each other.
How, for example, would a person with mental health difficulties in Waltham Forest who wanted to access different or better services – or get different or better information – be able to draw the skills of digital innovators to help find a way to do so?
Ultimately, the value of digital interventions in social sectors should be determined by the extent to which they offer solutions to social problems. We don’t need fewer digital innovations, we do need clear ideas about what they’re helping us to do and why.