Tech for common good – why a collective approach would work for the social sector

Digital transformation is one of the megatrends that has revolutionized every industry and resulted in continuous wealth creation over the last 20 years. However, its full potential has not yet been realized in some industries. In the social sector, for instance, venture philanthropists and social investors are late to the game. They are still learning the lessons of their peers in most other sectors. Social organizations that aren’t starting to engage with the promise, and threat, of an increasingly digital future run the risk of sleepwalking towards a precipice. But what can they do?

The digital tsunami has swept through a lot of industries, yet the social sector still remains relatively unperturbed. Social organizations are operating in an environment of severely limited resources. As funding tightens and demand for service grows, more and more social organizations are struggling to secure the funds necessary to deliver their core services. It is these pressures that often cause organizations to shy away from the use of digital technology in the first place. Scarce resources create a stark opportunity cost to investing in technology—as investment draws funds away from front-line services.

Social organizations therefore need to rethink the way they invest. If social organizations could invest in collective, efficiency-enhancing digital infrastructure, instead of simultaneously—but separately—focusing on their own organizations, they could relieve future resource pressures whilst minimizing the total investment required. Where some of these projects may have a high total cost, the cost split across organizations is likely to be less than the sum total of the duplicate digital projects currently undertaken.

So, how exactly can collective digital transformation help the social sector? Take Mydex as an example. It is a community interest company that provides individuals with an online “personal data store” to put them in control of their personal data. As public services become “digital by default”, the people needing most help may find themselves increasingly excluded. Without bank accounts, credit agency files or other digital proofs, they have no way of proving their identity or entitlement online. At the same time, the misuse of personal information has created a mistrust of sharing information with organizations, including even those who may offer help.

This is where the Mydex Platform comes into the picture. With their help, individuals can take control of both incoming and outgoing information. They can keep a structured and secure record of their own data when they connect to organizations. In many situations, they can start to store less personal data, drawing it instead from connected individuals, thereby reducing the risk of fraud and data breaches.

Convenience is the main benefit of using the Mydex Platform, and it results in changes in the dynamics of information sharing. Rather than individuals granting ownership of certain information to an organization—and doing so on a regular basis with different organizations—a data store allows people to grant access to information that remains in their control, and they need to make their preferences known just once.

The above example is just the tip of the iceberg; the benefits of collective digital transformation are far beyond our imagination since this approach also enables:

  • Integrating services: Digital platforms let communities of social service providers share and access large amounts of information while investing minimal time in sourcing, collecting or disseminating it.
  • Sharing resources: Digital platforms can crowdsource information about the resources available, and automate the process of brokerage—meaning that resources can be shared on a much larger scale.
  • Aggregating information: Digital platforms can aggregate data on a much larger scale, and digital analytical tools can draw insights from very large datasets in a fraction of the time. Digital systems also minimize the work involved in contributing information to central pots, allowing people to share information at the click of a button. Users can also make their needs and opinions known, directly to providers and increasingly in real time.
  • Creating common resources: Digital resources can be accessed simultaneously and are infinitely reusable. Coming together to create resources means that organizations can avoid having to spend money on developing the same things in parallel, while generating and accessing information at a larger scale and creating a community of interest in the process.
  • Achieving scale: Digital communications allow ideas to be shared quickly and at a global scale. Digital products themselves, particularly “open source” products, can also be quickly adopted and adapted with very few limitations, meaning that they can scale globally much more easily than offline solutions.

While undergoing digital transformation, three guiding principles should underpin the initial sense check and ultimately, any digital project. Failing to follow these principles is the biggest potential pitfall of any digital transformation project.

  • Start with beneficiaries’ needs: The best services are those that are born out of a clear understanding of the issues facing beneficiaries. Though the technological solution may be relatively straightforward, the process of collectively building an understanding of the problem requires the most attention.
  • It’s never about tech for tech’s sake: The process must always first identify a problem and its possible solutions, then think about how technology could facilitate the solution. It is ultimately a process of service transformation, facilitated by technology.
  • It’s not always about building something new: As a rule, the first step in designing any new solution should be to check that it does not already exist. This approach should extend beyond social organizations. By partnering with those who specialize in technology it is possible to see what is technically possible, and what has already been designed or developed.

Digital transformation is showing few signs of slowing and requires the immediate attention of individuals, organizations and sectors. Digital transformation provides an opportunity for progress, but it also presents a risk to organizations of falling by the wayside if they do not keep up. If the social sector as a whole is to excel and advance, we need to turn our attention to a collective mindset for transformation. Social problems are so complex, and so vast, that they cannot be addressed by any organization alone. Matching our response to the scale of the challenge requires networks of organizations to pull in the same direction—and the power of digital technology needs to be turned to strengthening and coordinating those networks.

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