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Inspiring Social Change

November 12 2013

By Nominet Trust

A blog from Annika Small, CEO, Nominet Trust

Did you know that millions of Bangladeshis are learning English through 3-minute lessons and SMS quizzes delivered to their mobile phone? Or that professional scientists have used an online platform to engage thousands of volunteers in classifying almost 2 million cancer cell images in less than a year? Or that the Chinese equivalent of eBay is being used to arrange care for millions of elderly people who are isolated from their families? 

The Nominet Trust 100 (or NT100) is designed to celebrate the people who are using digital technology to change the world for the better. In seeking people who are coming up with creative answers to the big issues of our times, we were bowled over by the scale of the response with hundreds of nominations from all over the world. Not surprisingly, we found some key themes emerging. Many of the nominees are finding compelling ways to open up access to healthcare and education; some are offering creative responses to human rights abuses; while others make imaginative use of digital technology to tackle the pressures on natural resources resulting from climate change. 

Although the list spans countries and continents, health to human rights, mobiles and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the finalists have much in common: creativity, risk-taking, persistence and a commitment to making positive change happen. Not just talking about it but taking practical action. Not settling for the status quo but seeking radically new and effective approaches using digital technology. We all have a vast amount to learn from these digital social entrepreneurs and, by offering much deserved recognition to some remarkable people and organisations, we hope to inspire others to innovate and build on the ideas presented. 

The NT100 - curated by Charlie Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity - has been chosen by a steering group who didn’t always agree. Inspiring was our key criterion which created much debate; it appears that inspiration is in the eye of the beholder. Some panelists were excited by early-stage inventions showing huge potential while others were only enthusiastic about established initiatives that are already improving the lives of millions. The final list has a combination of the early experiment and the widely applied. 

In terms of the social context, some of the steering group were fired up about those people who are addressing a pressing social need while others were interested in innovations which anticipate future challenges.

The panelists agreed that it was important to include innovations that are social in their means – using crowdsourcing or social media to solve an issue – as well as innovations that are social in their ends such as increasing interaction between neighbours. In fact, one of the principles underlying some of the most effective innovations is the use of digital technology to enable people to self-organise and find solutions together. 

Surprisingly perhaps, there was immediate consensus that the NT100 wasn’t about innovative technologies but the innovative application of technology to address big social challenges. Similarly, it was agreed that technology must not be a bolt-on but embedded in the solution and that the technologies should be widely available in their geographic context. 

Another surprise in compiling the list - or perhaps stark reminder - is how quickly this field is evolving. We agreed early on to separate out those applications, such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Twitter, GIS and Wordpress, which underpin much of the work that is currently going on in this field. Our working title for this group was ‘grandparents’; somewhat ironic when few of these are more than ten years old, reinforcing how quickly, in our new digital world, technologies can become standard, embedded and widespread.  This also applies to digital social innovations; we found that the initial long list included a number of initiatives which adopt broadly the same approach which made for some challenging choices in trying to celebrate innovation while avoiding duplication. 

The NT100 does not seek to be a definitive list. Instead, we hope that it will prompt conversation and debate. If we aren’t told of hundreds of projects, services and people who should have been on the list, we’ll be disappointed. What have we missed? Are there entries that you would challenge? Let us know about other imaginative ventures that are using technology to make a difference so that we can build on the NT100. We want to create a dynamic resource that serves to inspire and accelerate the use of digital technology as a tool for significant social change.

So which social tech innovations have inspired you?

Tweet @nominetrust or email your suggestions to: nt100@nominettrust.org.uk

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