The web has already had a huge impact on the way we live our lives: it has changed how we communicate, how we entertain ourselves, our friendships and the way we work.
Now it is going to change how we access our health care, how we educate our children and how we provide for the most vulnerable in our communities. The real web revolution is only just beginning and it is going to affect every aspect of how society organises and provides for itself.
The social web
There’s been lots of hype around ‘web 2.0’ tools: social networking, RSS, wikis and so forth. Yet what’s really important about these pieces of software is not some clever coding, but rather their significance lies in what they actually do.
Web 2.0 tools turn the online world into a social space – they are the ‘social web’. They tap into and support a user’s desire to connect, contribute and collaborate with others.
This has some important effects. Not only does the social web enable individuals to create and do things for themselves, but as increasing numbers of people use the web in this way, the network that they are building becomes more than the sum of its individual parts. This allows an individual to affect change by themselves on a scale that previously would have been difficult to achieve.
The Social Innovation Camp is interested in how this phenomenon in the online world can be used to create better solutions to social problems in the real world.
This is based on the premise that individuals want to produce – and are capable of producing – better outcomes for themselves, provided they are given the tools and support to do so.
But it’s not only the technology that’s creating the opportunity to shake things up a bit.
The old way of doing things doesn’t work any more
In the past, the stuff that created social change or provided social goods was designed and delivered from the top down. The pattern was the same from the state to non-profits and business. They treated the people they were affecting at best as customers – whose opinions and needs were at least counted as significant factors in design – at worst, as passive recipients who got what someone else decided was necessary and good for them. But now, increasingly, this just doesn’t make sense any more: top-down hierarchies are inefficient and ineffective, failing to meet the increasingly complex demands of modern society.
As new technology becomes increasingly important to other aspects of our lives, if the traditional methods of social support and change remain, they will increasingly become meaningless to the societies, communities and individuals they were built to serve. The web must be a feature of new ideas for social change, built for an era where the old structures and ways of organising simply don’t fit any more.
But change doesn’t always happen on its own.
Technology is boring
Clay Shirky writes that technology becomes socially interesting only once it has become technologically boring. The web has reached this point.
Although the digital divide still exists, the number of people online now represents a significant and growing portion of the population: in 2007, two-thirds of people in Britain had access to the web at home. The technology has now become common place enough in the lives of ordinary people to become socially relevant.
In the early days of the web, some predicted that the advance of the digital age would inevitably produce a freer, fairer society as if a moral good was inbuilt into the code and cables of the technology itself.
Whilst the spread of the web into all areas of society has become a reality, any accompanying techno-utopia has not: the technology is only as socially desirable as the people who build it choose.
If we want the social web to become a force for social progress, we have to build the platforms which make it so. The spread of information technologies into every aspect of our lives is going to happen, but it is up to us how we shape it.
What needs to happen next?
So what’s holding us back?
We think there’s a mismatch between what the technology supplies and what society needs.
Neither those with the greatest social needs, nor those who are at the forefront of tackling social challenges – charities, governments, entrepreneurs – necessarily see that the web might form part of the solution to social problems. Whilst Amazon and eBay have become a common way to shop, the expectation that a similar tool might be an aspect of healthcare choices or a child’s education is not yet a reality. For practical innovations using the social web to have impact they must get themselves some users; but for this to happen, both users and social innovators have to understand and value the potential uses of these tools – they have to ‘get’ the tech.
But this is only half the story. What about the people who can supply the tools: the software developers and designers – the geeks who like their code? There’s a wealth of technical talent out there, but developers and designers are not social change experts. Energy that is currently being driven into creating the ‘next LastFM’ or the ‘next Facebook’ – more tools for already very technologically-savvy users – needs to be given an alternative, social outlet.
So the geeks with the know-how need to be matched with the people with the need to build more appropriate effective software, together.
And that’s where Social Innovation Camp comes in.
By bringing together these two groups – technology and need – we’re creating a community of practice where people can experiment, discover, prototype and become advocates for using social technology as a driver of positive social change.
Now all we need is you. Get involved.
So that’s the theory. But it’s the practical stuff that gets us really excited. There are already lots of examples of web-based tools already making a difference. Take a look at some examples as well as some of the social ventures we’ve helped start.