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5 ways in which digital tech can help us to address social issues

5 ways in which digital tech can help us to address social issues

July 17 2014

By Dan Sutch

When we announced the inaugural Nominet Trust 100 in November 2013 our aim was to showcase 100 of the world’s most inspiring examples of digital social innovation.

By celebrating the people and organisations that are creating radically new approaches, we can raise awareness of what is, and can be achieved through well-designed digital technologies.

If we can take note of what has been achieved, we can use this knowledge to inform how we might better tackle some of the greatest social challenges facing individuals and communities in the UK. In doing so we hope to raise the aspiration of what we (collectively) should be able to achieve and increase the ambition of the approaches developed in the UK. 

At Nominet Trust, the NT100 offered up a set of examples from which to learn how social tech can be best created and applied. So, as we kick off our search for the social tech innovations that will make up the 2014 Nominet Trust 100, I’ve been reflecting on what we have learnt from last year’s list.

How can we use this insight to inform how we might design, or improve, social tech approaches in the UK? Here are five insights that I have been mulling over and the questions they raise:

1. Very new models of inviting participation 

Digital technology enables us to organise and mobilise resources (people, time, money) in ways that can ensure the effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cell Slider is a great example of a very new invitation to help solve a big challenge, in this case, trying to analyse vast amounts of data to help cure cancer. This approach is about using technology to link together many small actions to build to massive social change. Inviting people to participate in achieving a social ambition at times convenient to them, using tools familiar to them, opens up access to a greater number of supporters – who quickly become action orientated.

Image courtesy of Cell Slider

This network effect is shown through a number of examples in the 2013 NT100 that simply weren’t possible without digital technology. How can we make every type of participation count towards collectively addressing the social issues that are beyond the reach of single organisations or individuals?

2. Making the most of existing practices to quickly go to scale

By designing around consistent, regular practices and linking to people’s existing activities, new ideas can more quickly be adopted and scaled. By not asking people to do anything really new, but through really creative and well designed interventions, we can shift these regular practices to create radical change.

/Crowdring is a great example of tapping in to an everyday activity, but designing it in a way that aggregates voice/demand for change (in this case through making the most of a ‘missed call’ – a regular way of communicating in India. Encouraging behaviour change is difficult and asking people to use new tools equally so, but if we can design social interventions that take advantage of existing practices, or use the tools with which people are familiar, we can reduce the barriers to adoption, and therefore to realising the social value we seek to create.
What everyday activities can be encouraged that with clever design address a significant social challenge? How can regular practices become radical change?

3. Systems Changes and tipping points

Designing for systems change is hard - perhaps on mass impossible, though it is a very useful reflective tool to understand how change has happened. Without a grand plan, however, we can design for systems change by creating individual projects/innovations that can easily link together to create a more coherent approach. At the loosest this is open source and shared data approaches; at its tightest, shared platforms and collaborations tackling shared problems. We can plan with the intention of systems change, while recognising that individual components need to remain independent in their own right.

However, what happens when you get to a point where there are enough independent parts to constitute an alternative system? The 2013 NT100 might point to education as a good place to enquire. The raft of educational innovations in the list: alternative accreditation systems; open and distant access to high quality materials, new forms of peer to peer and learner to expert relationships are all present. But what is it that tips this from (a) a collection of parts into a valid alternative and (b) a valid alternative into a replacement service? Legacy, inertia, vested interests all hinder this from being a simple process, but creating widespread change requires us to understand this in more detail. How can we design independent parts that bring about systems change?

4. The democratisation of innovation

There’s certainly still a requirement for innovators and social tech entrepreneurs who want to scale to global success, but there is also a need for a greater number of innovators at local levels. The social tech ecosystem requires these innovators to create localised innovation that from the centre might not appear to be ‘very new’, but within specific communities is tailored, relevant and innovative. Support from organisations like WITNESS help such local innovation.

Image courtesy of WITNESS

Equally there are more tools and processes to support many different approaches to innovation: agile, quick to fail and change; pivoting and learning are all exemplified within NT100. This draws back to the industrial revolution where there wasn't a grand plan for creating innovations but the tools, inventions and opportunities to do so. The digital age opens the ‘tools for innovation’ to people of almost any age or background. So how can we enable more small scale innovations, give more opportunity for targeted local innovation whilst also growing the supply of larger scale innovators?

5. Quick, quick, slow 

It's quick to create and test an MVP: digital tech and open source software provides this opportunity to quickly develop and test an idea. Rapid fabrication moves this from the digital realm into the physical realm where products can be in the hands of potential customers and users in moments.  Similarly it’s quick to create an affordable, yet professionally designed shop front that presents a global company with access to a global market place, despite it being delivered from a bedroom. But within this fast pace, encouraged by the rapidity of more general tech development, we need to be mindful of how long most social tech ventures take to grow and scale. Whilst the projects we identified as ‘Trailblazers’ may only be 10 years old, this shows how quickly digital can become established at scale, and how vast that scale can be. But most of the innovations within NT100 (and wider afield) belie years of hard work and development – typically 5-7 years before their overnight success takes hold.

How can we nurture social tech ventures to ensure they mature enough to reach the scale required to properly address these social challenges?

Nominet Trust is committed to realising the potential of technology for social good. We know that it offers us new ways of addressing some of the UK’s biggest social challenges. If we can learn from the successes from around the world and we can harness the ingenuity and passion of social tech entrepreneurs, we have a very real opportunity. An opportunity to identify, develop and scale tech solutions that can help overcome some of the more significant social problems faced by individuals and communities across the UK.   

So if you have been inspired by a person, project or organisation that is using digital technology to overcome a social problem, regardless of where they are in the world, then why not nominate it for the 2014 Nominet Trust 100?

Every nomination we receive will also become part of our Social Tech Guide, – a comprehensive database that currently lists more than 500 examples of digital technology for social good, including those nominated for the 2013 NT100.

I hope that alone is a useful resource, and will become more so if you share the social tech innovations that inspire you. So help us find the next NT100. Perhaps one day we can work with you to create more of them here in the UK.

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