Bionics, blockchain and more: how to scale tech for good
Imaginative new technologies will change millions of lives for the better all over the world. But how do you scale up a successful socially-motivated tech venture? Following the Nominet Trust's research into hundreds of projects, Vicki Hearn gives some insights.
It’s estimated that the ‘digital social innovation’ sector has doubled in size since 2015. However, there’s still enormous potential for further growth, which is pivotal to our ambition of a future where social transformation is the driving force behind tech development.
In 2013, Nominet Trust launched the Social Tech Guide, a global directory of ‘tech for good’ initiatives. It’s also home of NT100, our annual celebration of socially transformative tech from around the world.
While curating NT100, we’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to establish and scale socially motivated tech ventures. We’re sharing those insights to help foster the next phase of growth in the social tech sector. Our research has also helped us identify five trends in emerging social tech that we believe have the potential to transform lives at scale.
Achieving social impact at scale
We researched 400 projects previously recognised by NT100. Here we share five distilled insights into what it takes to enable social tech ventures to flourish:
- Collaborate to succeed Collaboration between individuals and communities in need and the tech developers is a truly powerful force. Quipu, a grassroots activist group working with indigenous women in Peru, has worked closely with the women it is supporting, enabling them to share ideas and deliver the justice they seek.
- Commercial models can drive social change BuffaloGrid is an example of a socially-motivated venture structured around a commercial revenue model. The company has developed a product that helps rural and off-grid populations keep their phones charged. The venture sees financial sustainability as vital to achieving long-term social goals, enabling them to provide technology allowing organisations to offer free or affordable power to their customers.
- Infrastructure is as important as innovation Many social entrepreneurs highlight the importance of infrastructure and logistics to support developments in tech. Aid:Tech uses blockchain technology to provide a secure platform for aid transactions. They are working closely with governments and NGOs to develop relevant infrastructures to improve the overall environment in which they operate.
- Ecosystems are vital Socially-motivated tech projects developed in countries with an advanced ecosystem benefit from the expertise, capital and infrastructure available. WeFarm is a UK-based company that provides vital information via SMS to farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Peru. It has received investment and support from the UK and US but not from the locations in which it operates. Addressing this global imbalance would enrich the diversity of socially transformative tech further.
- Social entrepreneurs don’t have to be technologists Companies including Peek Vision (whose smartphone-attached retinal scanner is pictured below) and What3Words have not been founded by tech experts. Instead these are ventures started by individuals with a strong social mission who sought out tech experts to help realise their ambitions.
The future of socially transformative tech
Our research has identified five emerging trends in social tech that have the potential to transform lives at scale:
While blockchain is best known for Bitcoin, more people are exploring the tech’s potential for social good. Blockchain networks have the potential to bring financial and civic inclusion to billions of people currently excluded from traditional systems.
London non-profit Alice believes that blockchain can help introduce transparency to charity spending. And in Syria, the World Food Programme has used blockchain to record and authenticate the distribution of food vouchers to 10,000 refugees.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI enables us to handle ever more complex data for a multitude of uses – assisting in decision-making, teaching, diagnosing disease and alerting us to danger. The tech has the potential to bring critical services to more people – and support to those who deliver them. Israeli start-up Zebra uses AI to scan medical images to detect cancerous cells, achieving a reported 91% accuracy. This is a significant improvement on a typical radiologist’s rate of 88%, and with fewer false positives, providing much needed support to busy doctors.
While yesterday’s bionic tech was bulky and expensive, 3D printing and Body Machine Interfaces (BMIs) are making prosthetics easier and cheaper to manufacture. Open Bionics, a UK-based start-up, is able to produce a tailor-made bionic limb (pictured in the header photo) using 3D printing that costs just £3,000.
- Immersive technology
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) offer huge potential to transform lives through immersive experiences. Oxford University is experimenting with VR immersion therapy, while Patient’s Virtual Guide enables children receiving medical treatment to familiarise themselves with the hospital environment through a safe virtual world, before they are admitted as patients.
- Autonomous vehicles
Unmanned transport offers the potential for a lower cost, greener and more accessible way to transport everything from people to parcels. East Africa is spearheading the social tech drone revolution with the launch of Zipline, a national medical delivery service in Rwanda. On the ground, autonomous public transport systems are starting to take shape. And in Singapore, Changi General Hospital has successfully deployed self-driving wheelchairs, improving the quality of life for those with restricted movement.
Transforming lives with tech
We’re working to build a future where social transformation drives tech development.
We understand the challenges social entrepreneurs face, such as limited resources, funding gaps and regulatory concerns. From fake news to ‘robots taking our jobs’, we’ve seen tech come under a harsh spotlight, with its negative social impact under scrutiny. But there is also significant latent potential to use tech for social good so that it enhances and enriches our lives. We’re working to put social purpose at the heart of tech development, so that it can fulfil its potential.
Five years of NT100 have shown us what’s possible; now we’re sparking a global conversation about how all sectors of society can help make this happen at scale.
Read Transforming Lives With Tech: A Global Conversation here. The Nominet Trust also has a podcast series, Our Lives + Tech, which explores the relationship between tech and society with leading experts and practitioners.