How can we get technology to deliver social impact?

26 Mar 2013 Voices

Technology and social change hit the headlines this week with a new Google competition to find innovative non-profits changing people's lives through technology. Katie Mountain talks about the potential for technological revolution to effect social change.

Katie Mountain, investment analyst at Nesta Impact Investments

Technology and social change hit the headlines this week with a new Google competition to find innovative non-profits changing people's lives through technology. Katie Mountain talks about the potential for technology to effect social change.

Our lives have been dramatically changed by the technology that surrounds us, from the way we shop, communicate and even find love. This technology revolution is continuous, it seems like on a daily basis a new piece of technology emerges from 3D printers to google glasses. Yet technology that has a clear and intentional social impact, known as ‘Tech for Good’, is still an underutilised resource and one where there is huge untapped potential in the UK social sector.

There are examples of technology delivering social impact, for example technology unlocked significant capital through online fundraising tools, and sites such as Avaaz have increased levels of active participation in social action.  However there is so much more that can be achieved with technology. 

The UK is facing some major social challenges, such as long-term unemployment and an increasingly ageing population.  We are facing these challenges against a backdrop of strained public finances and stunted economic growth.  We need innovation to rethink and reform how we address such issues and essentially to help us deliver more for less. 

A second technological revolution

The potential of what can be achieved with technology, in sectors such as health, education and sustainability, is massive, because it allows for personalised solutions to be delivered at significantly lower costs.  And growth in consumer internet and mobile technologies has made it possible to deliver such solutions at scale.

New waves of ‘Tech for Good’ ventures are emerging in the UK.  There are some great organisations out there already:   Patients Know Best gives patients much more control of their health information by redesigning systems around them; Patchwork helps frontline staff work together in child protection to spend more time with clients and less on paper work. 

In the US, investment in Health Tech and Ed Tech has more than doubled in the last ten years.  At Nesta Impact Investments, we have seen a rise in the number of UK tech-savvy entrepreneurs seeking investment, who have developed new services with greater efficiencies.  It can be seen that we are now on the cusp of a second revolution, technology that not just gives us a nice lifestyle but one that delivers on big social issues. If the UK is to take advantage of this growing market it is vital that an effective ecosystem is created to help start-ups – one that supports the whole process from identifying a need, to developing an idea, proving it works and then taking it to scale.

Not just the right ecosystem

As well as building the right ecosystem, we also need to understand the impact of these technology solutions so that the best ideas can thrive. At Nesta Impact Investments we support early stage UK social ventures which can generate evidence of their positive effects and are seeking to scale their operations.  Through a developed impact evaluation framework we generate evidence of what actually works, ensuring we only scale innovations that deliver positive impact.

A new challenge

New innovations that have a social impact have the potential to radically change how we tackle today’s big social challenges. Technology has the ability to develop solutions that are tailored to individuals, not delivering a one-size-fits-all approach that has proven to fail. There is no simple solution, and there are many roadblocks to overcome, but with an ecosystem that supports the best ideas, a second technology revolution ‘for good’ may not be far away.   

Katie Mountain is an impact investment analyst for Nesta Impact Investments 

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