Reflections on the potential of digital for impact

Digital technologies are increasingly integral to understanding and enabling social innovations. Whether it is as a beneficiary of a social service, a pioneering entrepreneur, or an intermediary, researcher or policy maker, we all increasingly depend on digital technology in our work. As these digital technologies spread to link every person and every thing, we are beginning to see how digital technology is central to our ability to gather data, engage others, and ultimately create the systems of our future. Indeed, it is impossible to think doing so without it.

Exploring this emerging reality, on Tuesday, April 9th, I hosted a mini-lab with the Nominet Trust in Oxford, UK. With participants from MaRS, Nesta, Big Lottery Fund, UNLTD, the Point People, SIX, and the Web Science Trust we explored the landscape, barriers and strategies for realizing the potential of digital for impact. Following is a high level overview of what we discovered, some post-lab reflections, and how we’ll be following-up.

Discoveries on realizing the full potential of digital for impact.

Drawing on past experiences, we explored the barriers we each encountered in realizing the full potential of what digital technology has to offer. Across those experiences we uncovered the following set of barriers:

  • Lack of enabling infrastructure
  • Lack of coordination
  • Friction between cultures
  • Dysfunctional interactions
  • Bridging how and how-to
  • Sustaining adoption in dynamic change
  • Surviving the data glut

Following up on those barriers, we took a look at a host of practical actions that could most help us realize the full potential of digital technology. From those actions emerged the following underlying themes:

  • Sharp tools for data discovery and usage
  • F@*k it, ship it, together
  • People powered intelligence
  • Weaving inclusivity
  • Incentivizing systems change
  • Experiential learning and sharing

Reflections in retrospect
Reflecting back on our conversations throughout the day there are a few additional themes that stood out for me.

The deep entanglement of digital and social
Originally introduced in 1999 by Tim Berners-Lee, the concept of social machines struck an immediate chord in our conversation. Increasingly, our solutions to social challenges draw on tighter and tighter integration humans and digital technology. This linking tends to blur the concepts of consumer and producer, beneficiary and provider, us and them, blending all participants into a ‘social-machine’ and creating both the tension and the opportunity for entirely new interactions and relationships to emerge. In this way, digital technology has become central to designing solutions, understanding systems, and envisioning systemic approaches addressing the needs of society.

The boundary-busting nature of digital technology
The connective nature of digital technology does not adhere to the sectoral and polititcal boundaries that the impact ecosystem tends to organize around. Data and tools created for use in addressing homelessness in Detroit will likely have utility outside of homelessness and outside of Detroit. And if we think in terms of a digitally connected social machine, every person brings and links to a whole new set of data, people, and systems.

This boundary-busting nature is in stark contrast to the way the current impact ecosystem flows resources and support. Bound by geo-political and or sectoral boundaries, the sector is not structured to invite, nuture and scale the full potential of digital technology, leading to redundant, under-resourced digital solutions that fail to meet expectations, let alone tap the full potential that participants realize could be possible.

The systemic opportunity
This deep entanglement of digital and social is an unprecedented opportunity to create entirely new ways of responding to the needs of society. In a handful of years we have created systems like Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia which have unexpectedly transformed how we connect, find, and share information. These are massive social machines that have become underlying infrastructure for how the world works. Our opportunity is to take that approach further, creating infrastructure that creates similarly transformative social machines that serve the basic and underserved needs of humanity.

The impact ecosystem of course has an important role to play in this. While entrepreneurs will likely contintue to drive new ideas, the ecosystem itself can create new relationships and pathways that enable boundary-busting solutions to emerge and take hold. Indeed, projects like BRIDGE, the GivingGraph, and MarketsForGood highlight early efforts to go further still by developing enabling infrastructure. While these tend to be informed with limited sectoral and/or geo-politicial scope, they do hint at what might be possible if the ecosystem is able to coordinate at scale.

Going forward
Going forward there appears an immediate need to link and deepen the conversations already happening around the globe. Over the coming weeks I’ll begin by linking the people having those conversations and see what it might look like to keep bridging those converstaions into the future. If you know of other initiaves looking to do the same, I’d love to hear from you.