Six tenets of tech for good

In our determination to see more and better use of tech for good, we’ve looked to understand what have been the underlying drivers of the massive digital transformation we’ve seen in other parts of our lives. These underlying actions and conditions have enabled an incredible scale of change, and if we’re to create a similar scale of social progress, then we need to ensure the right conditions exist for such development to occur.

Of course such change requires passionate entrepreneurs and teams with innovative ideas; of course effective funding and aligned investment and, of course, targeted solutions to real problems. Less ‘of course’ is the importance of good timing — but if we can get the right conditions in place, 2017 can provide that.

We’ve discerned six things that are needed if we want to create something comparable to the huge impact digital has created across other areas of our lives. They’re the underlying conditions that allow us all to practise in a way that can bring massive change. Six tenets for tech for good.

We’ll look to ensure that each of these elements are built within our activities, partnerships and conversations. If we can all do this — then we’ll really see the acceleration of social impact through digital technology. We’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges and additions to these, and to support them to be developed and practised.


Six Tenets of Tech for Good

  1. A culture of reuse
  2. User led, and test-driven development
  3. Creating three strands of value
  4. Lean metrics and ongoing testing
  5. Smaller problems for bigger solutions
  6. Addressing challenges, not suggesting solutions
  1. A culture of reuse

The history of computing and the giant leaps that it has powered, is a history of collaboration, asynchronous development and movements of people/organisations working on similar problems and solutions.

One to add to the reading list

From Lovelace and Babbage; Bell Labs and Bletchley Park; through organised cross-sector research ecosystems; the homebrew hackers of the 1970s and the open source movement — digital innovation has often come about when many people and teams work on similar problems and solutions. This indicates that to see similar advances within tech for good, encouraging/supporting people who appear (at a top level) to be doing the same thing is important — even though that can be difficult in such a resource-constrained environment.

However, central to such rapid development is that these innovators reused what had already been created. This is more than ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ building on previous ideas, this saw the reuse of hardware and code that could provide a shortcut to building solutions more quickly. From IBM open-sourcing their operating system to more modern reuses of tools/functionality this culture of reuse dramatically reduces the cost of early innovation, encouraging more (and wider) exploration. Whether you want a new website, online community; quiz or even a bot, there will be code and platforms available that can serve 80% of your needs for low or no cost.

If we could reduce the cost of early stage digital innovations by creating a culture of reuse; if we could increase our confidence in the need for investment by proving demand for new services (having evidenced use with what already exists), then we can begin to create the speed and scale of impact that digital has created in other parts of our lives.

Of course, this isn’t just about the digital tools, but the underpinning research too. Sharing, and searching for that which exists, increases the pace of innovation, and the effectiveness of our collective work. See our most recent blog for more on this!

Our challenge: to both share our products/outputs in reusable formats (whether as research, APIs, open data, quick wins etc), but also to develop the habits of reuse: searching for, tweaking and testing that which already exists (and giving credit to the work that has gone before).

2. User led, and test-driven development

At the heart of creating effective digital products and services is ensuring that it has ‘product-market fit’. That means the thing being created attracts users in a way that generates income. Startups continually test this fit, changing the product, the language and/or the price until the fit is made. Digital offers a unique way to do this easily, and relatively cheaply — providing cheap digital tools backed up by analytics programs to see how people behave with your new product.

Our Fusilier charities take a user led, test-driven approach to everything they create

In Fuse we test/talk with five people from day three, and aim to create prototypes to understand people’s behaviour with our ideas as quickly as possible. This test-driven approach continues throughout the three month programme and is baked into ongoing product development — ensuring that the products created meet the choice making and usage behaviours of our audience.

This isn’t just about taking a test-driven approach to development but places the users at the heart of development — even more so than many traditional co-design approaches.

Whilst we employ many co-design and participatory design techniques, all development within test-driven development responds to user’s actions rather than articulated desires. In this way their ideas, demands and behaviours are central to the work of the professional development team.

A lot has been written about test-driven and lean development — but at the heart it is about building confidence in your product/service because of the way people use it. That means getting a product into their hands as quickly as possible, rather than spending too long designing what you think is most needed/wanted.

Our challenge: to ensure all products, services and programmes are built around a test-driven and user-led process.

3. Creating three strands of value

We’ve written lots (along with the brilliant team at Shift) about the vital need for every tech for good project/venture to focus on building three types of value: social value; financial value, and user value. Without articulating and developing all of these strands of value, the whole approach will fail — so it’s vital to explore and build each of these values from the start.

The ‘triple helix’: Social value, financial value and user value

We’ve written about the theory, and the practical implications, so settle down with a cuppa and look through it. The key points include recognising that social value will only be achieved when a product/service is created in a way that people actively choose to use it (creating user value); that you’ll need to identify relevant metrics to test (and give you confidence) that these values are being realised — or that they have the potential to be realised, and that each of these value can only be evidenced based on their stage of development and stability.

This is an important focus for funders and founders alike — we need to support innovators to test and develop each of these areas of value, but similarly set realistic expectations of what can be achieved through funding.

Our challenge: to work with startups and new projects to build around these three values, and to work with funders, commissioners and investors to implement funding, support and evaluation frameworks that support such growth.

4. Lean metrics and ongoing testing

Lean metrics or lean analytics are at the heart of agile development and really significant in tech-led startups. They’re the important measurement-step that links ‘learning’ and ‘building’ in the famous build-measure-learn cycle.

Iterate your way from small short-term steps to big long-term impact, measuring as you go

What’s really crucial here is that there’s an established methodology for seeing short term development within a long term aspiration (such as creating a huge impact tech company). Building on this methodology makes a valuable approach to development across each of the three values that we need to realise — and also helps unlock the challenges of creating longer-term social impact by measuring and developing smaller steps towards it.

This helps ensure development is constantly evolving and focused on improvement, but also helps identify realistic expectations for collaborations with funders and investors.

Our challenge: to build all of our approaches using lean metrics, and to work with tech for good organisations to implement and support similar approaches — creating a shared measurement framework (and language) that is honest, justified and evidenced.

5. Smaller problems for bigger solutions

Last year we published a brief article about one particular benefit of digital approaches, that of trumpets, not trombones. The core argument there is that tech for good requires big problems to be very specifically described in order for a digital solution to be created. Consider how Google returns the search result ‘most relevant’ to you. If you searched for ‘local news’ — then each of those terms has to be defined very specifically: what local means to you, what counts as news.

In analogue vs. digital, the trumpet wins

In our sector we mostly focus on wicked problems — those that are big, challenging, hard to understand and address. Yet a digital approach pushes us to continually rethink and rearticulate the challenge in a way that helps creates specific solutions. Sensing making, user research, and test-driven development can all help with this, but digital approaches require a reframing and re-articulation of the problem which creates new ways of addressing them. Over time we can address lots of specific problems, rather than chasing a few big ones that can’t be overcome.

Our challenge: to continue to be specific and focused on where digital can make a big difference, and to work tirelessly to bring that value about. Being honest about where digital has no, or limited role, and ensuring we bring multi-talented/disciplinary teams to focus on identifying and addressing important problems.

6. Addressing challenges, not suggesting solutions

We’ve such expertise and experience within social organisations, it’s easy to see why so many new ideas, approaches and solutions are identified and developed each year.

However, an important lesson from tech development is that we’re not *that* good at judging customer/user requirements, and that we need to separate our beliefs/expectations from people’s actual choice making and behaviours.

Solutionising is not just a social sector problem!

This returns to the ‘product-market fit’ (noted in point two) where tech ventures can quickly and easily test user’s behaviour with their ideas before developing the most in-demand parts. If we can find a method to test our solutions, and to be prepared to change them — quickly — based on the behaviours and choices of our ‘audience’, then we can really begin to address big social challenges. The digital community takes such an approach using lean and agile approaches to ensuring the best product/service. If we can develop similar approaches, then over time we can really address big social challenges, not by following our initial solutions, but by following a test-driven methodology to addressing challenges.

This is more than a challenge for charities/ventures to adopt test-driven approaches. It requires funders to support organisation to address challenges, rather than to deliver solutions. This means being comfortable that solutions/interventions will change based on feedback/user-testing; being comfortable that the solution might change considerably from the original expectation. This doesn’t mean funding open explorations, but supporting trusted organisations to use a tested methodology to find (and then deliver) the right solution. It might seem more open — even more risky — but it enables a better targeted solution to be found and created.

Our challenge: to continue to use a test-driven approach to addressing challenges. To work with funders, investors and social organisations to understand and implement trusted methodologies to rigorously find the right solutions to big social challenges — taking into account the accountability and reporting differences that this may bring.

Here it is again, but bigger and more colourful :)

Six things. Each of them big and important — but together they create the undercurrent to power a wave of digital innovation that can have a huge impact on the social challenges facing individuals and our communities. If we can create this undercurrent, then the scale of that impact can be as big, and as transformative, as we have seen in so many other areas of our lives.

Just imagine the possibilities if we can really create such a change. These six tenets are the parts which shift that imagining into a focus for 2017.

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