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5 Transformational Forces That Should Be Driving The Social Sector (But Aren’t)

Technological advances that are powering the rest of the economy have been slower to make their mark on people working for change. What could happen when they are fully unleashed?

"The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed." This observation attributed to science-fiction writer William Gibson perfectly captures the increasing divide between the social sector and the rest of the world. The future is already here for the mainstream global economy, built on open data, mobile and social connectivity, and the wisdom of crowds. The social sector, by contrast, is showing few signs of the future, continuing to operate in an increasingly outdated paradigm that places a premium on control; a reliance on experts and one-way communication flows; and exists purely in the physical world.

The orientation of most of the social sector is akin to that of a crew team during a race—furiously rowing to reach its goal, all the while with its back to the future. In today’s environment, with even greater demands on already stretched budgets, high-performing, public-purpose organizations should be asking themselves how these five transformational forces—forces that should be driving the social sector into the future but aren’t—can change the way they work.

Portable, Participatory, and Personal Information

As the central vehicle that individuals—regardless of race, income, and age—use for information, social connectivity, and more, the mobile phone has become a platform for infinite innovation. As the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project states, because of the mobile phone, "Information is now portable, participatory, and personal."

Scores of businesses are fully aware of the transformative nature of this tool and are innovating with it. Over 600,000 apps have been developed in the last three years. They have been downloaded 10.9 billion times. If Instagram can attract 80 million users who share 4 billion photos, why aren’t we seeing more creative uses of these technologies to tackle unemployment, increase government accountability, and improve the scope of social services?

Ushahidi—an open-source software platform that lets users "crowdmap" information in real time via text messages—is an example of what is possible when mobile phones are deployed for social change. Ushahidi was developed in Kenya in 2008 to map reports of post-election violence when almost all other media was down, and it has since been deployed around the world for disaster relief, election monitoring, and documenting human rights and environmental violations.

Social Networks and Media

Today, there is a new 'social operating system’ that is in stark contrast to the one that was built around geography and small tight-knit groups. People—connected by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and online discussion forums—are now part of broad, loose, and complex networks that readily share information and mobilize.

We have seen how these technologies can be used to drive social movements and democratize the creation and dissemination of information, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. And the proliferation of the largely online sharing economy is creating new marketplaces that connect people to everything from transportation (Zipcar) to accommodation (AirBnB). The private sector is recognizing that the future requires them to rewire their business models to account for these shifts in how people buy, share, and communicate. Why aren’t these technologies being used to better connect people to child care, social services, and jobs in new ways?

Big Data

From the Twittersphere to the wealth of available government data, more data is being created and harnessed today than ever before. The great promise of Big Data is that it can become "humanity’s dashboard" providing us with better ways of understanding ourselves and determining where our resources should be concentrated to make the biggest difference.

Today, businesses spend more than $5 billion on consultants to help them harness Big Data’s power to better understand their customers, dynamically alter pricing based on real-time demand, and even change their business models.

The social sector’s use of Big Data is nascent. There is great promise in civic tech, or the building of apps based on public data. This movement has resulted in real-time bus schedules and virtual land-use planning. However, one can imagine many more transformational applications that could benefit low-income people, from altering the relationship between police and neighborhoods to enabling online enrollment for public benefits. In Chicago, for example, the city is focusing on finding patterns in 311, 911, and other large data sets in order to predict health, crime, and economic growth. Aware that the future is here, Living Cities is working to understand both the current state of practice, and how best to support the development and deployment of next generation civic-tech solutions.

Big Data is not only relevant to municipal governments—social sector organizations can also leverage it to enable more accurate impact evaluation, identify needs of target populations, and understand possibilities for new business models to serve low-income communities.

Frugal Innovation

Historically, social change organizations in America have been slow to embrace technology, often citing cost as an excuse. Yet across the developing world, the concept of "frugal innovation" is being applied to create lean solutions that deliver improved or previously non-existent services by stripping down products to the level of basic need and identifying imaginative ways of using old technology.

Companies big and small are taking note of the opportunity to provide affordable goods and services to the poor and recognize frugal innovation as the way to do it. In India, this led to the $2,000 Tata Nano car. And through cheap, stripped down mobile phones, financial services have been extended to previously unbanked populations. For example, 70% of financial transactions in Kenya are now handled by M-PESA, a mobile money platform.

Not surprisingly, the conversation about frugal innovation is largely focused on the developing world. Yet wouldn’t the same principles be valuable in the United States, where we continue to struggle with a digital divide, unaffordable health care, and inefficient service delivery?

Collaboration is the New Competition

The business community has realized that going it alone in a hyperconnected, globalized economy is counter-productive. Today’s challenges are too interconnected and complex for any one organization or sector to address on its own. In the words of Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, "collaboration is the new competition."

Two key results of this new way of working are not in the DNA of the social sector but need to be: letting go of information and the invention of new collaborative problem-solving mechanisms to achieve larger goals.

Today, organizations are using crowdsourcing platforms to leverage a distributed virtual labor pool. InnoCentive, a platform created by Eli Lilly to tap into the wisdom of customers, partners, and others, is a great example of how the business community is giving up what was long considered proprietary information in order to solve problems.

Letting go of information is also about recognizing the importance of being part of a problem-solving network. In today’s world, influential members of those networks must harness technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build collective knowledge.

At Living Cities, we’ve seen firsthand the impact of this type of distributed and networked leadership through our support of the viral Strive Network. Partnerships based on the Strive Together model (a Roadmap to Success that plots a student’s journey from early education all the way to a career) are forming in cities all over the country, focused on building multi-sector "tables" to reengineer our education system, from cradle to career. These tables adopt a shared vision and use a combination of data-driven decision-making and public accountability to drive results and move funding to programs that work.

The longer it takes for the future to come to the social sector, the greater the gap will grow between wealthy and poor communities. Billions of venture capital dollars and thousands of organizations are working in the mainstream global economy to profit from the future every day. The same level of commitment from public and private organizations committed to a more just society is needed now more than ever.