Tech for Good – scaling social innovations

In the second in our ‘Tech for Good’ blog series Annika Small, CEO of Nominet Trust, shares her experience of investing in early stage Tech for Good innovations and what it will take to build a robust Tech for Good ecosystem.

Tech for Good – scaling social innovations, Annika Small, CEO Nominet Trust

Digital technology has already transformed how we communicate, how we work, how we learn, how we shop. At a time of accelerating climate change, a growing ageing population, persistent unemployment and increasing social inequalities, we urgently need to realise the potential of technology for social innovation. This is not simply about adding digital to existing services but making imaginative use of digital technology to fundamentally re-think – and radically reform – how we address significant social challenges.

Why technology for social innovation? Because technology supports the development of solutions that are tailored and accessible to individuals while also enabling their wide distribution at significantly lower cost than traditional services. Yet social innovation on a significant scale is challenging as it usually requires changes within an existing sector comprised of many different institutions and agencies. Although technology significantly lowers the cost of growth, the challenge can be in ensuring the demand for the new service and the capacity for large-scale adoption.

As a Tech for Good social investor, Nominet Trust brings together, invests in and supports those using digital technology to redesign big social challenges. The majority of our funding is focused on testing and supporting radically new approaches to specific social problems. But we recognise that simply investing in good ideas is not enough if we are to deliver widely adopted social innovations. For this reason, Nominet Trust takes an active role in supporting our funded organisations to generate the greatest social and economic value. We start by assessing how the new practice interacts with existing cultures, practices and approaches.

Most successful social innovators will have co-designed their new service so that it meets the needs of identified communities. While this helps in evidencing – and raising – levels of demand, further connections and introductions are typically needed to help the social innovation scale. In some cases, Nominet Trust builds partnerships with incumbent organisations within a sector which are well-placed to extend the reach of the new work. In other cases, we broker links to ‘next destination funders’ who can support an organisation to scale up. Throughout, Nominet Trust seeks to de-risk the future investment either by incumbent organisations or future funders by demonstrating the validity of the new product, service or process.

For Nominet Trust, this role as catalyst, broker and intermediary is proving vital in widening access to the social interventions that we have funded. It is not, however, without its challenges which, I believe, would be addressed by three practical steps taken by investors in the nascent Tech for Good ecosystem:

Firstly, investors need to agree their respective roles in the Tech for Good space and identify areas for collaboration. It would be useful to collectively map out the investment landscape; identify the funds available in the development lifecycle from the incubation of start-ups to the acceleration of established, high-growth ventures; and highlight any gaps (including non-financial support) which existing funders can fill.

Secondly, investors should agree the types of evidence that they need to see in order to support a venture. This would help to create a more joined-up investment community in which early stage funders can help to prepare ventures for ‘next destination investment’.

Drawing on the collective impact work in the US, investors should seek to agree common metrics and share relevant data which will help in achieving greater impact as well as greater efficiencies both for investors and the social entrepreneurs they support.

Thirdly, in seeking to stimulate scalable social innovations, investors should consider clustering around specific social problems such as meeting the challenges of an ageing population, tackling unemployment or reducing climate change. Having a shared agenda around a particular social challenge increases the likelihood that relevant opportunities will be spotted and supported as they emerge. It would also enable more productive links between different social innovations and enable their positive interaction and integration with existing practices, approaches and systems. This collective approach could help encourage individual innovations to be placed within the context of a broader movement of social change and support a more systematic implementation of whole alternatives by the relevant alliances of practitioners, industry, policymakers, NGOs and investors.

If we are to make effective use of technology to drive scalable social innovation, we need to develop a robust Tech for Good ecosystem that enables the testing of new approaches on a small scale and then supports proven approaches to be widely implemented. This ecosystem needs to include social entrepreneurs with great ideas supported by a cohesive community of social investors that funds the development lifecycle of social innovations and, importantly, practitioners, policymakers, academics and others in the field who can help to connect innovative products, services and processes in order to achieve social innovation on a wide scale.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, technology will be a vital tool in creating an effective Tech for Good ecosystem and enabling collective learning, action and impact.

Annika Small - Nominet Trust