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.

Beyond information: 4 hunches on building the infrastructure for impact

Eric Henderson of Markets for Good recently asked me what was needed to build an information infrastructure for the social sector. Their vision is ambitious and important, and with the right approach it could transform how change happens.  Here are my hunches about what’s required, and what we’re already doing to make it happen.

1. Focus on impact

It’s easy to get excited about data and information. They’re hot topics, and rightly so. As we wade into the digital revolution, we’re flooded with things demanding our attention. And the things we want others to see keep getting lost in the tsunami of everything else. But let’s step back for a second.  Think of this like swimming across a river. The goal is to get across the river, not to go for a swim. What I need is a way to get across. And in the case of this infrastructure, what we need goes beyond data standards, quality, and accessibility to include supports that help us achieve impact more efficiently, and with greater efficacy.

2. Harness networks and relationships

If the purpose is to help impact happen, then the infrastructure must also include the people, relationships, and networks involved. Whether it is the person leading change, the team working with them, the ecosystem supporting their effort, our ability to achieve impact is very much dependent on the networks and relationships we bring to bear. Indeed, understanding networks and relationships is coming to be a central challenge in achieving meaningful change. When it comes to information, the same relationships and informal networks play an increasing role in how we share and what we discover. This infrastructure needs to tap into our relationships and networks, wherever they are.

3. Find signal in the noise

Despite our best efforts to standardize and improve the quality of data, the vast majority will always be unstructured, inaccurate, and mostly irrelevant until we find ways to use it. Who would have thought Twitter would become useful in earthquake detection or Google (maybe) in monitoring flu trends. Tapping into this sea of noise could be a core feature of what this infrastructure provides, enabling new, creative approaches to understand how impact happens. With the majority of humanity already able to send messages about the things that are impacting them, even old ideas like using sentiment analysis to understand change could bring entirely new insights. This infrastructure needs to rewire the web for impact.

4. A platform for a new generation of impact enabling tools

Of course, as we discover more of what we truly need from this infrastructure, we will find opportunities to build new tools. And no, this does not mean a shiny new place for groups to have conversations that they are already having on Facebook and LinkedIn. And it certainly doesn’t mean a fridge with a screen, baby monitor, and evernote. What it does mean are specific impact related tools, resources, and supports like Fix My Street and CrowdMap; Innoweave and Open Workshop; and NationBuilder and OpenIDEO. For this  infrastructure to thrive, it needs to support a creative explosion of tools like this.

The digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is more than an information infrastructure. It is a digital infrastructure for the impact ecosystem. If we find our way to making it happen, it would mean the web could work with impact like it can work with location. Just like I can now expect my smartphone to help me find the best route through the most congested traffic: the web could show me search results based on what I’m working on; my social networks could connect with me with the people who could help me have the most impact; and the impact of my actions could be automagically tracked and available to whoever I choose to share it with. Imagine even, not having to respond to yet another sector survey, census, or mapping initiative with the same information you have already provided a dozen times before.

Of course, this may take a decade or more to become reality. It is itself a deeply systemic innovation and requires more than a handful of initiatives. It needs to follow the best practices emerging around collective impact and could do well to harness new methods for catalyzing social innovation. Markets for Good is a great start. It needs to be well supported and to either rise to the level of the impact infrastructure or join with others in making it happen.

Our contributions of interface, infrastructure, and collaboration

In our own pocket of the world at Igniter, we are working towards this in partnership with Ashoka, MaRS, and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. What began as a simple experiment has evolved into set of interface, infrastructure and conversations we are calling

Responding to ongoing need of mapping who’s doing what in communities all over the world, we began by prototyping the interface. It is a simple tool for individuals, researchers, and network managers to map, discover, and connect participants in the system. Launching in April with the world’s largest map of social entrepreneurs, it will also be a simple utility for communities to gain insight into their membership and collective networks. And for individuals we aim to create the best weekly email of recommended activity and connections based on their unique relationship to the ecosystem.

As part of that process we uncovered the need for two new technologies that are central to enabling this digital infrastructure. The first, called the Impact Graph, integrates formal and informal relationship networks with impact data to provide new methods of discovery, analysis, and exploration of the impact ecosystem. The second, scheduled for development this summer, is a Behaviour Engine designed to broadly encourage the behaviours of data gathering and network weaving across the entire ecosystem. Together, these technologies form the core infrastructure that we aim to make available for broader use later this year.

While we are still prototyping, we have already received requests to develop custom interfaces and applications to support networks of entrepreneurs, link relationship graphs to existing stores of impact data, and generally harness the collective social networks of existing formal communities.  We are also encountering requests to use our underlying infrastructure to power new and existing applications, saving developers from having to create their own user profile systems and simultaneously leveraging the network awareness that this infrastructure brings.

Finally, in order to help keep our activities aligned with the emerging ecosystem, we have convened a small working group. Members of this group already span 4 countries and will hopefully grow to include representation from the main stakeholder groups in the ecosystem. Alongside this, we are hosting a series of ‘mini-labs’ to help improve our collective understanding and uncover actionable needs and high-potential interventions. The first of those will happen April 9th in London, UK with the second scheduled for October 1st in Calgary, Canada.

A better future, sooner.

What has been sparked by Markets for Good is an incredible opportunity, and while building an infrastructure on this scale is ambitious, it’s not any more ambitious than other major infrastructure projects we’ve taken on over history. At the same time, if we consider the challenges we are facing as a civilization, we could find reason to be more motivated than ever before. If we choose to make this happen, the results could go down as the greatest collective effort at increasing our capacity to create a better future, sooner. And to me, that’s worth diving in.


Special thanks to Tim Draimin, Michael Soto, and Scott Wofford for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

Developers seeking adventure.

We’re looking for the next adventure at Igniter.

We are a small team of developers, facilitators and entrepreneurs. We build web applications that invite connection, nurture relationship, and build understanding. Our approach is friendly and designed to facilitate flow. We start simply, work quickly and care about what we’re crafting.

In our short time together, we’ve been fortunate to quietly craft some great solutions with some ambitious partners:

We love working with creative agencies and organizations that are shaping the future. If that sounds like you, we’d love to hear from you.

Drop us a note in the comments or ping me @igniter or

Clog with me! The future of websites.

Last fall when I revived Igniter I did the standard setup of website, tumblog and twitter account all of which have remained mostly untouched.  They didn’t feel right at the time, but it wasn’t until I read this post about the future of that it clicked. We didn’t need a website or a blog, we needed a “clog”!

clog |kläg, klôg| noun

1 a shoe with a thick wooden sole. <- all sorts of awesome!

2 an encumbrance or impediment. <- totally not this.

3 a collective log to gather online content from multiple people for discussion in common community <- kinda like flipboard meets hacker news

Increasingly, organizations are about a collection of people who gather to passionately pursue a common purpose… people who are increasingly publishing content across many places on the web. An authentic online presence should gather those voices and nurture the community and conversation they attract. This is what I wanted for

A clog could begin simply as an aggregation of posts and tweets from the core contributors of the organization. Tighter curation could be based on #tagging and intelligent promotion of certain content. That content could be presented through a theme-based interface taking inspiration from any number of the news curation services and apps. Adding more functionality like ‘job listings’, ‘investor relations’, ‘customer service’, could be handled as plugins of the online services you are probably already using to support that function.  This is less about creating something new than it is about repackaging what we’re already doing and using. So far, so good.

But what about the community and the conversation? While applying Disqus to the content that’s curated might be a simple start point, is there a problem with fragmenting the conversations? Is there an opportunity in meshing them between the source and clog? Are the communities at each destination separate or similar? Is there opportunity in the overlap? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling there won’t be a simple answer.  This will be the tricky part.

This doesn’t exist yet, but I want it to. If it did I’d be getting clogs on for a handful of organizations, projects, and groups.

What about you? Would you get a clog on? What would it look like? How would you use it? What would you add?

Like those good old wooden ones, I’m betting the beauty will be in the simplicity of the foundation and the awesomeness of the customization.

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The evolution of civilization and social innovation

Humanity is in a chaotic phase, evolving from a civilization born of the industrial revolution to a civilization emerging from the digital revolution. As the pace of this evolution increases, so does our effort to direct it. That effort is called social innovation and it too is evolving.

From revolutions in music and media to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Occupy movement and even Wikileaks, we can see a common pattern. Each is enabled by digital technology and the result of a complex social process comprised of many individual actions. Often they are user-driven, unfold rapidly, and challenge or circumvent a system that no-longer works they way its participants want.  Ultimately, this is about people and the way they want the future to work, for them. It is the evolution of our civilization.

Social innovation describes what is happening in more detail.  According to Social Innovation Generation:

“Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system (e.g. individuals, organizations, neighbourhoods, communities, whole societies).”

Going a bit further, the Social Innovation Exchange and Young Foundation describe:

“Social innovations are innovations that are both social in their ends and in their means. Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words they are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.

Keying in on the challenges of dealing with complex systems Tim Draimin observes that “As today’s problems evolve from ‘complicated’ to ‘complex’, the expert-led approach falls short.”. In response to this challenge, leaders in social innovation are turning to Innovation Labs for their core capacity to: “Perceive and articulate a common understanding of a challenge; Creatively identify possible solutions; Experiment, prototype, test, outreach; and Implement”. While the concept of these labs borrows loosely from the scientific version of laboratory, it firmly recognizes the increasing importance of social technology in innovation.

The design of these labs are also being influenced by the iterative, human and user-centred design practices gaining prominence in the digital revolution. A definite response to the increasing personalization of digital technology and the accelerating pace of development, these practices fit particularly well with social innovation and its focus on the needs of people in general and vulnerable populations in particular.

Take Tyze for example. From years of experience, PLAN knew that the  key to quality of life for people with disabilities was the quality of their personal network. Combining that insight with the concept of social networks, PLAN created Tyze to help strengthen the networks around its individual members.  Centred around people with disabilities the site grew rapidly and is now starting to influence the way health-care services are provided to its members. While Tyze was an early pioneer in employing digital technology for social innovation in this way, the understanding of its role is becoming more widespread. As Annika Small, director of the Nominet Trust describes, “Technology gives us the opportunity to think differently, develop new social connections and reorganize resources across communities.”

Beyond these types of direct applications, digital technology also has a deeper connection. Like social innovation, digital technology is about connections. The web, or as Tim-Berners-Lee recently described, “Humanity linked by tech”, is a rapidly expanding, interconnected network of people, places, things and data that effectively contains an actionable model of every social system one could aim to affect or create. It is the ultimate social innovation lab and carries unprecedented potential to observe, experiment, develop, and diffuse social innovation. Indeed, as the digital revolution unfolds it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine any social innovation independent of the context and application of digital technology.

As we navigate this transition, social innovation is emerging as a key enabler of our resilience and our future. At the same time, social and digital technology are emerging as a core foundation for social innovation. And while innovation labs appear to be a cornerstone of that foundation, it’s clear that we’ve only just begun building. As our civilization transitions we can expect our challenges to deepen and the pace of change to accelerate. As daunting as it can seem, this emerging model of social innovation offers hope for what’s possible and reminds us that now, more than ever, we are building it together.

Related posts:

The nature of digital technology

Digital technology is not about circuits and wires, it is about data and connectivity. In the Nature of Technology, W. Brain Arthur explains:

“Digitization allows functionalities to be combined even if they come from different domains, because once they enter the digital domain they become objects of the same type – data strings.”

Data also has another property. It is intangible. Where physical materials are limited by scarcity, data thrives in abundance, able to replicate freely without diminishing the original.

In fact, systems of digital technology look a lot more like living systems than the material bits they are made of. Comprised of people, things, interfaces and data, they are connected, interdependent, and evolving at an accelerating rate. For example, when AOL was first introduced it took 9 years to reach a million users. For Facebook it was 9 months. And now, a simple social drawing game called DrawSomething crossed that milestone in a mere 9 days.

At the same time, digital technology is racing towards ubiquity. From nanotech to GPS. From Angry Birds to deciphering the human genome. Digital technology is a part of it all. Individually, 1 billion of us are connected with broadband while a whopping 5.6 billion are connected by SMS. And to accommodate the growth of the Internet of Things we’re working on IPV6 which would effectively allow every grain of sand on the planet to have a unique address on the Internet, 340 billion times over. Everything will be connected.

But that’s not all. Digital technology is also becoming more personal. As it evolves to serve more and more of our everyday needs it winds its way ever deeper into our lives. And because our participation is interactive, we ourselves, become a part of the system. We are no longer just passive consumers, as Time Magazine observed in 2006 when they named ‘You’ it’s Person of the Year. Since then the degree of ‘personalization’ of our digital technology has only accelerated.

Tim Berners-Lee recently said it best: “The web is not tech. It’s humanity linked by tech.” Built on top of data and connectivity, digital technology is becoming the foundation of our civilization, a foundation whose nature brings an accelerating capacity to evolve and adapt the systems of our future.

Further Reading:

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The revolution is digital

The industrial revolution began with technology that allowed us to manipulate our world in an entirely new way. As it developed it began to shape how we organize ourselves and even what we thought.  Over time it shaped civilization as we know it. And now, as we reach the limits of that civilization it appears history is about to repeat.

In his 2001 book Macroshift, Ervin Laszlo observed that new civilizations begin with “technological innovations that destabilize the established structures and institutions of society.” In the last decade, we’ve seen digital technology enable revolutions and uprisings around the world and trigger exisistential crises in the industries of music and media. Indeed, there is virtually nothing that digital technology has yet to impact. As W. Brian Arthur describes in The Nature of Technology:

“This is because a new domain of significance (think of the digital one) is encountered by all industries in an economy. As this happens, the domain combines some of its offerings with arrangements native to many industries. The result is new process and arrangements, new ways of doing things, not just in one area of application but all across the economy.”

Like in the industrial revolution we’re also already starting to see the effect of digital technology on our models of organization. In The Future of Management, Gary Hamel put it bluntly. “Argue with me if you like, but I’m willing to be Management 2.0 is going to look a lot like Web 2.0“. Hagel, Seely Brown, and Davison take it further in ‘The Power of Pull’:

“Using pull, we can create the conditions by which individuals, teams, and even institutions can achieve their potential in less time and with more impact than has ever been possible. The power of pull provides a key to how all of us- individually and collectively – can turn challenge and stress into opportunity and reward as digital technology remakes our lives.”

Finally, back in Macroshift, Lazslo considered mindset the deciding factor for the trajectory of the new civilization. In our case, he projected that successful transition would be marked by a shift in mindset:

“from competition to reconciliation and partnership; from greed and scarcity to sufficiency and caring; from outer ‘authority’ to inner ‘knowing’; from separation to wholeness; from mechanistic systems to living systems; from organizational fragmentation to coheren integration.”

While it’s too early to tell, digital technologies do seem compatible with that shift developing and I think it could be argued that there is movement along some of those dimensions.

So, if it is true that history repeats, it would appear that we are indeed in the midst of a transition from one civilization to another. While our success is anything but certain, it is helpful to understand the context of the changes we are experiencing and see the full potential of our future. The revolution is digital.

Sorry about the hangover

Hey there,

Sorry about the hangover.

It was a great party.  Never thought it would end.

Left a couple bucks on the table. Hope that covers the booze.

Oh, and I think the freezer thawed and someone puked in the well.  Might want to double-check before you cook up those last burgers or take a drink.

Also noticed there seems to be something wrong with the air conditioner. Think some of us were using it as an ashtray last night and it started making some weird sounds. Anyway, might want to take a look at that too. Heard it’s going to get hot today.

We had a great time. Sorry it didn’t turn out that way for you. Looks like flaw in the model.

Better luck next time!



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Irrationality required. No substitutions.

Clash of the Titans 01

Art and engineering. Intuition and intelligence. Heart and mind. It’s at the intersections that our future manifests.

Lately in entrepreneurship, design, and social innovation there’s a definite leaning toward the rational side of this balance. A big part of that is the availability of measurable data. Because if we can measure, we can test. We can optimize. We can iterate. We can improve.

This is good.

The ‘irrational’ side of things on the other hand taps into another set of data. The data from the fullness of human experience… the data from each individual’s life full of experiences. It’s the data that informs our intuition for where to head and our instinct for what to do.

This too, is good.

Good however, is not great. On their own, the rational is doomed to incrementalism just as the irrational is doomed to irrelevance. Perhaps that’s why, in the face of the rational movement I’m beginning to hear more about ‘getting rid of the experts‘.

Without the irrational, we’ll never find ourselves doing anything great and without the rational, we’ll never make much of our greatest opportunities. They go hand-in-hand. No substitutions allowed.

Humanity is conversation.

Calcutta Coffee House -  5

Markets are conversations”.

While on a long run yesterday along the Thames (yes we have one here too) I got thinking about the Cluetrain and that core thesis.

Yes, and… “Humanity is conversation”.

Conversation is a human thing. We can’t help but have it, with others, and with ourselves. Whether we have it or not it keeps happening all around us.

If flows like water, sometimes fast sometimes slow. Sometimes it eddies and looks like there’s no place to go. It can’t be stopped, for long, and it can’t be forced, for long. It just flows, whether we’re part of it or not.

Conversation is what ‘separates’ us from other living organisms. At least, our own technology of conversation does. It started with language, and after the awkward evolution of mass media, has blossomed with the adoption of the web.

But really, if we look a little deeper we can see conversation is what life is all about. Our bodies are bundles of conversation among physical processes. Our environment is an extraordinarily rich and dynamic web of conversations. Everything is conversation.

And so, in a way, I am really a set of conversations, a participant in many more, and an observer of ‘others’. But really, it’s all just conversation flowing.

Sometimes it’s nice to sit on the shore and watch it go. Sometimes it’s nice to get naked and dive in. Whatever I do, and however it happens, it’s nice to know it’s all a part of this great conversation we we call humanity.

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