Your apps are lovely but…

“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.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Your apps are lovely but…

  1. David, I find myself in two camps on this one, given that our core revenue comes from business as a software developer. We’ve advocated for web empowerment as a vehicle to propagate social enterprise globally and all of our strategy papers include arguments for this as a means to economic empowerment. We use it in our activism to raise awareness of human rights issues.

    Where I’d agree strongly with what Liam says in in the context of the creation of social networks around a theme of social innovation. We’ve seen many of these already and they’ve often been grant supported.

    I opted out of the SEC in 2006 having found myself alone on their forum and set up social enterprise as a group on Facebook, focusing more recently on Linkedin and social business. I can’t claim not to use them.

    The point is doing more that creating a network and that’s why our profits go to supporting missions overseas, where we research and leverage change though social enterprise then share what we’ve managed to change on the web, which is where we began in 1997 with the outline of a cause driven social business model.

    An illustration of a focus on the media rather than action will be found in what goes down at the Guardian Activate Summit where a platform for social engagement will typically be considered as digital activism. Although these may provide tools for social enterprise, they aren’t addressing the major issues from which many social problems arise, the influence of organised crime and government corruption.

    We’re advocates and practitioners of social business, by which I mean a non dividend distributing company which focusses on a primary social issue. The use of the term ‘social business’ has recently been somewhat diluted in it’s use to mean social media business, as a vehicle for connecting traditional business in collaboration.
    . .

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  2. I confess I have more immediate concerns with freedom of speech. The chief exec of my local mental health trust ordered me to stop naming names on the internet. I had named one nurse. I took the article down for fear of provoking a legal case but the allegation will be sent to the Care Quality Commission and the NHS Ombudsman. The chief executive also told me to stop making “allegations”. I actually have a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists so I know that she has not got the legal power to silence me but the very fact that she even tried is disturbing. What if this had happened to someone who knew nothing of law? It seems to me that this particular chief executive has a lot to learn about diversity of opinion and freedom of speech. Public sector chief executives should know better than to go nuclear when faced with public criticism by a blogger. It is so easy these days to start up a blog but as soon as you do so you really should be aware of the legal risks. But the law is complex and most of us cannot afford lawyers. Perhaps we should develop expertise within our community in order to stay free and stay safe.

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