Choosing breakthrough thinking over digital tinkering

Last week was the launch of Nesta’s ‘What Next for Digital Social Innovation?’ report at a conference of the same name. We were invited to a gathering of policymakers and progressive cities, funders and futurists, exploring what needs to be done to boost the growth in tech used to tackle social challenges. Its advice contains important lessons for us all.

It started with an admission: the dark side of tech - digital surveillance, addiction, exploitation and terrorism – is remarkably adept at delivering impact at scale. Less so the Tech for Good movement.

Across Europe, thousands of people, projects and organisations are using digital technologies to tackle social challenges in fields like healthcare, education, employment, democratic participation, migration and the environment. Whilst a few innovations have entered the mainstream – such as JustGiving in the fundraising space – the ‘What next for digital social innovation?’ report points at what more can be done to support noble technology efforts and to level the playing field.

The potential of people and technology to make a difference is currently being unfairly held back on many fronts, including a lack of patience from investors and funding bodies when it comes to a return on investment compared to for-profit tech organisations. Exits in social issues are rarely financial! Other hurdles aired included relatively poor connectivity between pioneers and the need for those in power to let go and hand more control over to the people.

The sector itself can do more too. This includes getting more diverse users to use democracy tools (such as WhatDoTheyKnow) not just convincing the already-engaged to shift to digital platforms, looking beyond the obsession with teaching everybody to code to ensuring the very basic digital skills are taught first, and better celebration of the success stories in a media world preoccupied with funding rounds.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity highlighted by the report was healthier competition and better collaboration between digital social innovators. It was a point driven home by CAST (Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology) by championing a ‘Culture of reuse’ as one of their six tenants for Tech for Good. Here is the full list.

Towards a culture of reuse.

Around 5,000 new charities are registered every year, in addition to the 200,000 already in existence. Whilst they can serve a diverse range of needs the general thinking is that this equates to a lot of duplication and overlap.

Add in government funding squeezes and the sector is seeing an increase in mergers to survive. However, that alone is not enough. The sector needs greater collaboration and reuse.

It’s a philosophy we should all adopt. Not just cash-conscious charities.

Think about it: how much is added to digital landfill each year building yet more websites, apps or Software as a Service that solve similar problems? Too much. So who is to blame for this replication of effort?

Bloated digital agencies over-engineering solutions to cover their enormous overheads? VCs who insist on propriety tech to justify their valuations? Or the constant chase to ‘reinvent’ another area of business?

At the heart of a culture of reuse is knowing what already exists and how that can be applied cost-effectively to solve your user need. That same responsibility lies with developers too.

It’s okay for a designer to insist that a programmer write something complicated and difficult from scratch, but they better be ready to make a strong case for the developer’s efforts.

Alan Cooper, Should Designers Code?

Put simply, we can achieve more and for less with uncommon combinations of what already exists. Digital reuse is particularly powerful at the ideas stage allowing prototypes and assumptions to be tested faster and easier. However, its benefits don’t stop there.

Prioritising digital reuse results in increased operational efficiency and reduced time-to-market for new products, resulting in an overall increase in growth and profit.

MIT Sloan Executive Education

A new culture of sharing is emerging from the reuse movement as charities realise they can achieve more contributing to a bigger giving community than they ever could do alone.

Good Lab is a core team of innovators who collaborate with 11 of the UK’s top charities and industry experts to design and prototype radically different ways for charities to raise more funds. It’s so simple and effective it’s remarkable that it hasn’t happened sooner.

It’s an approach we try and carry into everything we do. We believe that by being open and generous with our knowledge and practising digital reuse we’re able to allocate more resources to breakthrough thinking not digital tinkering. We can all benefit from a culture of reuse, repurposing and reimagining.

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