Power to the People… and communities

July 2018

A call for Tech to Unite Us

16 Jul 2018

Annie Radl

Annie ‘keeps it real’ at the Trust, ensuring our programmes, such as the NT100, Digital Reach and Tech to Unite Us are grounded in lived experience, strong evidence and shared inspiration.


Fostering unity and equality

We cannot deny that tech has had a significant impact on our lives.  According to the 2018 Digital Attitudes Survey, 50% of people say the internet has made life ‘a lot better for people like themselves’. But only 12% say it’s had a ‘very positive impact on society’.

We’re not alone in refusing to accept a future where tech divides us, isolates us and exacerbates the inequalities between us. We believe tech has enormous potential to foster unity and equality. In fact, we believe that tech can be created from the outset to embody these qualities and deliver transformative social impact at scale.

There’s a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate tech’s transformative potential to unite us.  And with momentum gathering for socially conscious tech, the time for change is now. That’s why we’ve developed ‘Tech to Unite Us’ as the theme for our inaugural Innovate Social Tech grant programme.

In a world where we’re supposedly more connected than ever before, it appears that we’re not embracing the human connections that engender meaningful communities.


Transformative potential

Tech is a key driver of social transformation. Our decade of experience in supporting socially driven tech ventures leads us to believe that the relationship between tech and society needs to be turned on its head.  Rather than begin with the tech, we need to begin with the social change we want to see in the world. We believe that by embedding social transformation at the very heart of tech design, we can drive inclusive and innovative tech solutions that strengthen communities and bring people together.

In our experience, a truly ‘transformative’ venture looks at the bigger picture. It envisages a better future and works out how to get there. When it comes to building an equal and inclusive future, a transformative venture challenges and changes systems which currently entrench inequalities. It might create and strengthen new systems which actively value and promote equality and inclusion. It addresses the root cause of a problem or reimagines a system entirely; changing approaches and seizing opportunities.


What does transformative potential look like in practice?

Open Utility, is a venture Social Tech Trust supported to develop Piclo, a data-driven, peer-to-peer marketplace for renewable energy. Why are we using this as an example of the kind of transformative tech innovations that can bring us together? Good question.

Underlying the product, is a vision. One of “democratising energy”. Open Utility is transforming our current energy market by forging the creation of a new one. A marketplace that decentralises power, that opens-up local markets, and gives transparency and choice to people around a fundamental need.

Our 2016 NT100 venture Brooklyn Microgrid, also believes the ‘future of energy is local’ and takes advantage of the affordances of blockchain to develop a ‘community-powered’ microgrid.

Blockchain is a subject of fascination right now: “a massive social experiment” says Raphael Mazet of Alice. Although we’re aware that the majority of blockchain R&D is happening in the central banks, we would argue there is room to develop and shape its uses to be profoundly social. There’s already incredible work being done by ventures using blockchain to support solutions such as digital identification for refugees. And in the past year, Ukraine, Kenya and India have all seen blockchain-based start-ups emerge to bring transparency to land ownership, empowering citizens and communities to enact their rights. Blockchain allows for this even when mistrust still divides people, because “the system itself is trust”.

Wefarm is another example of social transformation driving tech. There are 500 million smallholder farmers in the world, most of whom live on less than $1 a day. With nearly 1M users, Wefarm is the world’s largest farmer-to-farmer network: it enables every farmer who participates to contribute, share and benefit. It shifts the concept of ‘expertise’ to having direct experience of a problem. The innovation is driven by the farmers’ needs – combining low tech SMS with machine learning and elegant algorithms which direct each farmer to the most relevant answer, and to local products and services.

These ventures demonstrate the variety of social challenges that tech has the potential transform; increasing access, opportunities and quality of outcomes in areas such as wealth, environment, health, education and agriculture.


Transformation, not disruption

We talk about ‘transformation’, rather than Silicon Valley-style ‘disruption’ because the people our ventures work with have seen too much disruption – to their families, to their livelihoods, to their communities. For the ventures we’ll support through Tech to Unite Us, people’s families, livelihoods and communities are the very reason they innovate.

The more we can support innovations that are genuinely driven by humanity – that connect people to one another, to better opportunities and to better outcomes, the more we can help shift the perception that tech only benefits individuals.

So, if you think you venture is striving to realise our vision of a world where social transformation drives tech, find out more about Tech to Unite Us and apply here.

P.S. We’re not just looking to you to realise equality, we believe that social investors, like us, have a responsibility to promote it too.  That’s why we’re proud to be collaborating with the Equality Impact Investing (EII) project for Tech to Unite Us. The project is led by Ceri Goddard, whose work on gender lens investing for the Young Foundation, The Sky’s the Limit, has inspired our thinking about equality and transformation.