Social innovation through digital technology

TL/DR social innovation with digital technology is hard, but there are more and more approaches/resources that can support us addressing social challenges through digital. Here’s one such resource we used ‘Problem Canvas

A shot from one of our December Design Hops — intensive 3-hour introductions to user-centred design

Innovation is the creation of new value.

That’s it. Sounds simple.

We can go further and describe that it’s the creation of economic or social value, but with that simple definition, we can account for all manner of innovation: disruptive, radical, incremental, digital, social or otherwise. It’s not the newness, the change or the shininess, but that new value has been created.

Within our work, it’s social value we’re interested in, and mostly value for those in the most challenging of contexts.

We use a longer definition that unpicks that definition a little, that innovation is the application of new ideas, generated at the intersection of insight and invention that leads to the creation of social or economic value.

During December we worked with over 70 charities to explore how they might create new value through digital tech, alongside our partners Co-op Foundation, Comic Relief and Big Lottery Fund. I want to use that definition of innovation as a way of reflecting upon that series of Design Hops.

Insight: insight is vital to understand the context of the problem, the reasons it occurs, as well as understanding what else is influencing it or trying to address it. Insight alone (often called research) is great, but it’s not innovation.

The people who joined these sessions, as with the wider sector, have incredible depth of understanding of the social challenges they’re trying to address. Their insight into those challenges; the context in which they occur and the sorts of influences and causes is incredible.

This insight explains both their commitment to addressing it, but also their advantage in being able to find new ways to create value.

Describing those challenges from the perspective of the ‘end user’ or ‘beneficiary’ though, and then validating those problems, is something that few charities do naturally. This is central to developing digital tools that get adopted, but even more important when we recognise how vital it is to create ‘user value’ (things people actively choose to use). Equally understanding new digital behaviours and expectations of those they work with is something that requires deeper exploration — otherwise solutions are built on assumed digital behaviours, and therefore rarely actually get used or create value.

Luckily there are plenty of tools to support this (user research, jobs theory, ethnography etc) — but exploring this presents a demand to funders to support charities in exploring these challenges from a different perspective, before identifying how (or what) to solve.

Invention: a critical part of innovation is creating the new approach or thing. Working with those with experience in harnessing digital is often crucial, but short term invention alone, is not enough.

The sector is full of ideas. Every participant came armed with ideas — either of how to use digital technologies in new ways, or with deep understanding of a way to address big challenges. Building on deep insight (and using processes that continue to sense and respond to changes) is at the heart of finding inventive new approaches, but so is an awareness of the sorts of possibilities digital affords. Sometimes this is extending our expectations for what digital can do; other times it’s recognising that our ideas can be implemented very easily reusing existing tools.

Invention is vital: it’s the creation of something new — but it’s not innovation. However it’s often the way in our sector that we describe what we want to do (“we want to create an app that…”) and it’s often the basis of funding proposals.

Yet user-led and test-driven approaches demand that we only get to the invention stage once we have created a validated understanding of the problem– from the user’s perspective. It means that unless there has been significant user research, there’s little chance that the initial idea is the right one — and certainly little chance that the invention (the digital/physical form of the new idea) is the right one.

Discussing tactics and opportunities for user research at our Manchester Design Hop

Marrying the opportunity to create new user-led insight and then to explore the potential of digital is at the heart for creating great social inventions. But that’s still not innovation — it still hasn’t created new value.

Application: Putting the new insight-driven approach into practice is where value can be created. Here, established social organisations are in an incredible position to innovate.

The organisations that joined these sessions, and so many others across the sector have incredible reach into the communities they serve. Their reputation, expertise and commitment is perfectly placed to apply the invention or approach. Startups often struggle to break into a market, despite how great their product is, yet these charities are already in a position to deliver the new thing. And it is only when the new approaches are applied, or put into practice, that they can create new value.

Often funding stops at the point of launching a new product — but the new value comes after that. Supporting teams to deliver; test and develop in an ongoing way, is vital if we’re to realise the social value: realising the potential of digital to address social challenges.

Value: The creation of value is when innovation occurs. We’ve new tools/approaches to capturing this and ensuring this value creation continues and grows.

Creating social impact is a long-term activity. Particularly with new digital projects, measuring the social impact is likely to fall outside of a grant period — so another challenge from the teams we worked with is how to measure the value they’re creating — particularly within a grant-reporting period. Luckily, this aligns well with the test-driven approach that drives good development of digital products and services.

Here, the focus is not on measuring impact, but on collecting key data that gives confidence to continue in a certain direction (or confidence to change course) — in pursuit of the longer-term ambition. We use an approach called MIST Growth which identifies the metrics that matter across social, user, financial development, as well as capturing how the product and team are developing.

Tracking the different layers of value throughout the development of a new product/service

This provides a test-driven (or data-led) approach to guide development, but also provide short-term confidence that you’re heading towards longer term impact.

However, one of the key tools in digital development is the Minimum Viable Product — the smallest version of a service/product that can create value to the user by solving their problem. It’s critical in digital development because it’s recognised that the best way you can validate that your idea/approach is right is by seeing how people use it, and whether it creates value for them.

However this remains quite a new approach to the sector, and whilst all of the teams we worked with could define the ‘skateboard’ they could use, it’s important that funders give confidence to the teams to launch early with a product/service that is expected to change through use (rather than launch the ’right’ thing), often starting by reusing existing digital tools.

The application of new ideas, generated at the intersection of insight and invention, which leads to the creation of social or economic value.

There’s no doubt that the sector is inventive, ambitious and has incredible opportunities to harness digital to address big social challenges. Support to structure user-led, test-driven development is still needed — but if we can fuse these approaches with the expertise and reach of social organisations, we can create incredible new value.