“We know that digital technology can disrupt and transform entire commercial sectors. We believe they can transform social sectors too. With the right conditions, tech-focused social ventures can achieve huge scale at low cost and reach niche areas which are simply too costly to access with traditional approaches. However, we don’t believe the full potential of tech social ventures has been in any way been realised – yet.”
That’s the message from Unltd chief executive, Cliff Prior, as he explains his organisation’s new link-up with Wayra, the incubator arm of telecoms giant, Telefonica. This social-private partnership recently received a chunk of the government’s £10million Social Incubator Fund to create ‘an exciting global social tech incubator programme – the first in the UK.‘
Also coming together to support the development of socially useful digital technology are Big Issue Invest and the Nominet Trust, whose Tech for Good Challenge will put £500,000 into: ‘disruptive early-stage ventures whose imaginative use of digital technology will have a profound impact on the future life chances of young people.‘ This initiative is supported by Big Lottery and benefits from the (impressively diverse) corporate partnership of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, LDC, MITIE, Salesforce Foundation and Unity Trust Bank.
While it’s never been my primary focus, it’s highly unlikely that this blog would exist without the inspiration provided by the heady cocktail of mostly gormless patronage from (mostly government) funders, and borderline self-satirical hyperbole from self-styled social innovation specialists that has characterised social tech in the UK to date.
The underlying problem has been that most people who ultimately hold the purse strings in the social sectors took ages to complete the process of adjustment to the fact that the internet exists. Once there, the need to respond in some way greatly exceeded the need or desire to respond in any particular way and, as a result, the bar for technology-based social innovation was set frighteningly low.
So low, in fact, that at least couple of times most years, several people have managed to vault over it into a pit full of public/charitable cash seemingly propelled only by some impressive designer stubble and some vague ideas about linking people up to some volunteering opportunities online.
For social sector umbrella bodies during the 2005-2010 period, building ‘a portal’ where everyone could find ‘all the information they need’ became as natural as making a cup of tea – with the only differences being that most portals cost tens of £thousands (if not £millions) more than a cup of tea and had nothing like as much practical impact on anyone’s life. This is not because online portals that bring together information are a bad idea but because, during those heady days of digital splurge, the ‘need’ being answered was too often the need to get some money to build a portal, not anyone’s need for the information contained within it.
As a citizen of the UK (along with citizens of many other countries), I don’t think the post-2008 economic collapse and subsequent swinging cuts in public spending are a good thing but, from the point of view of the UK’s emerging social tech scene, they may have been just what it needed.
In this colder, increasingly frazzled new world of diminshing resources and growing need, there may still be some enthusiastic young people out there passionately explaining how their zany website – that tells tells you to go to work dressed as a toucan and get your colleagues donate a fiver each to a rainforest charity* – delivers clear savings to the NHS based on the sense of wellbeing generated as a result. Unfortunately, everyone is now too skint to be interested.
There is now, as Cliff Prior suggests, a clear need for social tech products that can reach high scale at low cost or, at least, reach commercially viable scale at low cost. The big challenge is to support the development of projects and businesses that look for tech-based responses to social need rather than just creating platforms and widgets and then trying to find a social use for them.
Both the new programmes announced recently seem like a step in the right direction. Digital technology is neither irrelevant to delivering positive social change nor an easy route to solving big social problems on the cheap. It’s got great potential to have massive positive effects, in the hands of people who have a clear idea of the social need they’re trying to tackle. Hopefully more of these people are emerging and these new programmes will help them to succeed.
*This is one my own idea based on learnings taken from successful projects operating on similar models. If you dress as a two-toed sloth, the reccomended donation is £10