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Reflections from the NT100 Steering Group - Geoff Mulgan

Reflections from the NT100 Steering Group - Geoff Mulgan

November 12 2013

By Nominet Trust

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by Geoff Mulgan, chief executive, Nesta

The internet came out of a military research programme, and the World Wide Web out of CERN – symptoms of a huge skew in the world’s research and development towards the needs of warfare and big science, and away from human needs.

But the new generation of digital innovators celebrated in the Nominet Trust 100 are part of a movement pointing in a very different direction.  They are sharply focused on pressing everyday needs; make the most of ubiquitous mobile phones and internet connections; and, unlike military technologies, were generally cheap to develop and cheap to scale.

They are incredibly diverse, but include some striking trends. One is the use of technology to make things visible that are otherwise invisible – like Baby Come Home in China using facial recognition software to reunite parents with lost or taken children, or I paid a bribe in India, or (not on this list) Blindsquare from Finland which is an app to help blind people navigate around cities. 

Another is the use of the web to mobilise and share resources  – at Nesta we back a lot of sharing economy projects, and the Collaborative Consumption site, which brings together knowledge about ventures like Couchsurfing, Air BnB –  all of which point towards a radically different, and much less wasteful economy.    

A third cluster of the 100 which I particularly like are the sites providing the tools for other innovators – like MySociety or Github and Bitorrent – and bringing down the cost of new ideas. 

Nesta backs well over 100 digital innovations at any one time – and we often work closely with Nominet Trust.   I’m well aware of the speed of development and the excitement there is in this field, and how much it is attracting in the best minds.  No-one knows which current digital innovations will still be running in five years time. But we can be fairly confident that even the failures will be useful.

Bill Gates may have been right when he recently said that technology alone won’t save the world.   It’s naïve to expect that a brilliant new gizmo will suddenly solve world hunger or poverty.  But I’d turn his comment on its head. Although technology on its own won’t save the world, most of the best ideas that will help the world will include an important role for digital technology, and usually the technology will work best when it’s linked to other things.  I’m sceptical about most of the MOOCs, but Digital Green in India is a good mix of online, video and face to face learning for farmers.  I’m sceptical of some of the online health tools, but when linked to the day to day work of doctors and nurses they can be immensely powerful.

Digital technologies are still young in the big scheme of things and evolving very fast.  This is a snapshot of some of the pioneers, hungrily experimenting and blazing trails for others to follow.

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