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Bringing Social Purpose to the Digital Revolution

25/05/2016 16:10 | Updated 25 May 2016

tech-for-good

Digital technology has had a profound effect on our lives, transforming how we communicate, work, learn, shop, even how we date. And yet we are only just beginning to realise the potential of technology to address some of our most pressing social needs in health, education, care and the environment.

Early pioneers are showing the way, using digital tools to radically rethink existing services. Take Open Utility, which has created the UK's first online marketplace for renewable energy, enabling people to buy and sell energy directly at prices they agree on. And Refugees Welcome, which connects refugees, Airbnb-style, with homes that have a spare room they're willing to share. These ventures are part of what is a still nascent yet burgeoning 'tech for good' sector comprised of entrepreneurs who are using technology to fundamentally re-design how we address social challenges.

Alongside these tech for good startups, some established charities are switching on to digital as a powerful tool to improve their service delivery, drive down costs and diversify income. With over 100 billion Google searches a month, people seeking support increasingly expect an accessible and relevant digital approach, at the click of a mouse.

Some charities are recognising that, in order to remain relevant, they must meet the needs of people who expect digital-first solutions. For instance, when Carers UK decided to launch a new service a couple of years ago to help connect people caring for a member of their family or a friend, it was technology that they turned to. Their app, Jointly, now enables multiple carers to share a calendar, task and medication lists and group messaging is being used to support some of the 6.5 million carers in the UK. One year prior to Jointly's launch, vInspired, the UK's leading youth volunteering charity, saw an opportunity to extend its service by developing an online recruitment platform - vInspired Task Squad. The platform connects vInspired's young volunteers with temporary and permanent paid employment, helping them improve their career prospects and reach their full potential.

vInspired Task Squad has provided young people with 25,000 hours of paid work to date and £250,000 in wages, and in addition is helping energise and grow its parent charity's thriving volunteer community.

And yet many charities still lag behind in their tech strategies, daunted by the seemingly insurmountable challenges of developing new digital products and services. The Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technologies (CAST) is addressing this issue by launching Fuse, the UK's first tech accelerator for nonprofits. Incubators and accelerators are well established in the commercial technology sector and, when they're run well, provide a huge boost to growth-stage ventures. They can enable new ideas to be quickly tested and, with the right support, this leads to high-quality digital products and services developed in a short period of time.

The Fuse accelerator, which is funded by Comic Relief, merges the fast-paced approach of agile tech startups with the scale, networks and reputation of established social organisations. The current CAST cohort includes Breast Cancer Care, which is developing an online peer support app for women diagnosed with, and recovering from, breast cancer; Oxfam's UK Poverty team, which is using data to understand the causes of food insecurity in families and creating a new service to help alleviate this; and Centrepoint, which is developing an online service that connects vulnerable young people with relevant support in order to reduce the likelihood of them becoming homeless. All these charities are co-designing the new services with their user base and, once fully tested, are well-placed to roll out at scale, thanks to their brand and reach as well as the support of their senior management.

Nonprofits are, of course, just one element in the tech for good landscape. Over the last few years the CAST team has also supported a number of fantastic 'profit with purpose' digital entrepreneurs to develop sustainable, revenue-generating businesses - and we intend to continue. But charitable organisations are nonetheless a crucial part of the picture, and one that is all too often left out when we talk about tech trailblazers. We need to support the social sector to develop and celebrate strong examples that will inspire wider digital transformation, and promote effective and resource-efficient innovation.

We have seen the power of technology to up-end business models from the finance sector to the creative industries (just look at music or publishing). It's encouraging to see the growing use of technology by social enterprises and charities to radically transform public services. If, however, we are to have any chance of solving our society's most pressing needs, there is still much to be done in bringing together the social sector, tech talent and the investment community. Only through an open, cross-sector approach can we realise the potential of technology to drive social change at speed and at scale. The good news is that here in the UK, we have all the right ingredients to make this happen: a vibrant tech community, strong, well-established social sector and growing social investment market.

As the tech for good sector matures, now is the time to cross-pollinate ideas, knowledge and experience across these different areas to achieve our shared goals.

The UK has the opportunity to lead the world in bringing a social purpose to the digital revolution. Let's realise the original promise of the Internet where people work consciously, collaboratively and creatively to solve social problems in bold new ways.

HuffPost UK Tech is running a two-week focus on our Tech For Good campaign, which aims to highlight the technology that is driving social change and making a positive, long-lasting difference to our world. If you'd like to blog on our platform around this topic, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about.

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