What we need is open innovation for social good, not social media

I really haven’t a chance to fully reflect on the Social Innovation Camp experience (yeah, that was back at the beginning of March!) other than a resolution that if I get to take part next time, I’ll be picking a team and rolling up my sleeves so I can dive in and really contribute something substantial. I did end up helping out one project with a bit of emergency ‘wire-storming’ (i.e. collaborative wireframing, under time pressure using Balsamiq Mockups), but even just with my super user skills (as opposed to being a real hard core geek) I’ve realised that I could probably still have helped out more with actually developing a working prototype. This is based on the fact that what I saw at SI Camp was that rather than coding from the ground up, I saw the teams that were able to deliver working prototypes accelerate the development process by using tools like DrupalDjangoMediaWiki, and Pligg.

In this respect, while good ideas are important, I think the real benefit of the SI Camp approach is about testing those ideas in practice. In fact, allowing people to have the opportunity to play with an idea (rather than simply thinking or planning it) is an important step in the design process. This doesn’t mean that the prototyping process was entirely perfect or that we saw enough iterations of each idea this time around at SI Camp, however I’m confident this will improve with experience. In the end, my biggest take away from the event at this point was that the design process itself – rather than the social innovation ideas that came from it – has great value.

I actually think it would be interesting to now take the SI Camp concept and apply it in a more targeted way, to solve a specific need. Right now I’m reading the UK’s NESTA report on their open innovation approach, called the Corporate Connect programme. This isn’t restricted to the non-profit or government sector, although their open innovation ideas can perhaps surprisingly be applied equally to both the commercial and non-commercial sectors.

Two case studies in the NESTA report stand out:

Cancer Research UK ran an open innovation competition to crowd source ideas for new fund raising ventures, where the winning ideas themselves received seed funding from the charity to get started; and
Tesco (a UK supermarket chain) organised a ‘T-Jam’ to bring customers and external software developers together to design new online shopping applications.

I know you are probably thinking, what’s the link between Social Innovation Camp and these ideas? Well, both these ideas used Web 2.0 approaches as part of an innovation process that either created a social innovation (Cancer Research UK) or encouraged the use of a public good (Tesco’s shopping API – T-Jam, just like GovHack). Social good takes many different forms, but what has changed is the tools and techniques we have at hand to help those new ideas emerge. 

While on the topic of creating ‘social good’, this brings me to the Digital Citizens event I attended last night, about Social Media for Social Good. Personally, and while I wouldn’t criticise the event overall or the calibre of their panel (who had great experiences to share), I left feeling that I wanted more breadth in the discussion about creating social good beyond using social media for communication. It was of course primarily a digital agency and PR crowd at this event, so to an extent this was to be expected.


However, as someone from the non-profit sector commented to the organisers as they passed around a collection bucket, they don’t want donations… they want to tap more effectively into the ideas and experiences of the people in the room. This doesn’t change the fact that social media is affecting how the non-profit sector engages with the media, its supporters and the people they assist or support (and @KaraLee_‘s experiences with Headspace is a good example of how to do it right). But I think there is scope, as ‘digital citizens’ exploring this world that is emerging, to look beyond Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.

To quote the NESTA report:

Open innovation represents – in part at least – a re-invention of the organisational models that we have come to take for granted. In a networked world where knowledge is becoming like water, it is no longer possible to ring-fence what we know or have invented and to create new value through internal means alone. Rather our networks and partnerships are increasingly becoming the key to value creation, above and beyond our inventive ability as organisations. 

Perhaps a better topic to discuss might be open innovation for social good?