Digital for Impact

April 29, 2013, by Hannah Smith

‘The web is not tech, it is humanity linked by tech” - so said Tim Berners-Lee, widely credited as the inventor of the web as we know it.  And with this thought, a day of exploring the emerging reality of the role of digital technology in creating social impact began.

Hosted by Michael Lewkowitz, a clutch of curious minds from the Nominet Trust, NESTA, the Big Lottery Fund, UnLtd, SIX, the Web Science Trust, MaRS and the Point People gathered to unravel some of the challenges of unleashing the untapped potential of ‘digital for impact’.  In other words, how might we better use digital technology to enable, understand, measure and evaluate social impact?  What kind of digital infrastructure do we need in order for greater impact to be achieved, sooner?

Our discussions were wide-ranging.  From the meaning of impact – ultimately a ‘human oriented aim’ - to the emergent nature of the digital realm and the lack of ‘failure’ stories, we got stuck into some meaty conversations.  Being reminded of the Cynefin Framework as a useful lens when considering complexity was helpful, as was learning of software carpentry bootcamps that are held for scientific researchers.  Also memorable was the appearance of the word antidisintermediationarianism in the discussion, thanks to Dave de Roure of the Web Science Trust, whose blogpost may be handy for those of us bamboozled by such lengthy terms.

As we brainstormed and grouped by theme both the barriers to, and strategies for realising the full potential of digital for impact we were struck by the scale of the challenge.  How do you prepare for a world that is increasingly chaotic?  The data mountain is growing, but we are currently without the right equipment to properly scale it.  The pace of change is so rapid that, for many, it can feel like an impossible game of ‘catch’ between a snail and a cheetah.  We are poorly coordinated, and there is friction between cultures too.

And yet we weren’t disheartened.  As a group, we saw much potential in the ‘delicious ambiguity’ of now.  We talked of the need for much more experiential learning, sharper tools for data discovery and usage and how we could get better at combining human brainpower with technological possibility.  In the ultimate emergent environment where, according to Kieron Kirkland of the Nominet Trust, ‘everyone is just chucking out stuff and seeing what sticks’, the time has come to get properly stuck in to the challenge.

Amongst the all the big thinking and post-it notes, there was definite energy in the room for action.  Or, to coin a phrase that emerged in the session itself, ‘f*** it, let’s ship it’.   It’s time to join up the conversations going on around the world about these issues; it’s time to get going on systems change.

With thanks to Michael Lewkowitz for facilitating the conversation.  His reflections on the day are here.