Tech for Good, in practice

In a previous blog post, we examined why Nesta Italia thinks technology can exceptionally contribute to expanding the scope and impact of some of the solutions to both emerging and pre-existing social issues.

Thus, after having defined our “Tech for Good” vision, we can now focus on the methodology to be adopted: what are the processes and tools that allow us to develop and replicate projects and initiatives for a positive social impact?

Three key phases

The “Tech for Good” methodology adopted by Nesta Italia stems from the intersection of known best practices, relevant literature, and years of practical experience in the two areas that are most relevant to any Tech for Good initiative, namely technology innovation and sustainable development. 

Our methodology consists of three key phases. For each phase we identify a series of tools to be adopted depending on the specific context. 

The phases are:

  • Define Problem – Deeply understanding the issue at stake, its context, critical aspects, the key metrics to improve, and the levers we can pull to do so. In this phase it is crucial to involve the individuals and communities that are directly interested or influenced by the problem considered, as well as to talk to the experts and professionals operating in the sector.
  • Identify Solutions – Finding the solutions to be implemented in order to tackle the issue effectively. Depending on the degree of complexity and specificity of the matter, solutions may already exist, be in a development phase, or need to be created from scratch. The solutions identification entails an effort in terms of exploring, involving, and encouraging the innovators working on possible solutions to the problem. 
  • Validate and Scale – Iteratively introducing and disseminating the identified solution, involving users in its development, measuring its effectiveness and impact, and improving the competences of the working team, in order to ultimately ensure that the solution is sustainable and stays current in the long term.

The tools

A series of practical tools are associated with each of the three phases here illustrated and can help achieve their specific objectives. Thus, in the following table are delineated the main tools, which will subsequently be described within each phase.

Problem definition

Interview & focus groups 

Defining a problem necessarily entails the elaboration of a specific way to present the issue itself, so as to examine it from different perspectives. In order to do so, it is essential to engage a variety of stakeholders and advocates of different social issues.

To this aim, qualitative research methods are employed, such as interviews and focus groups: whereas the former can be structured, semi-structured, and unstructured, depending on the degree of freedom one intends to leave to the interviewee, the latter consists of a discussion on the research topic with a larger number of people, mediated by a moderator whose role can be more or less active. 

User story mapping

As previously specified, defining an issue means approaching the matter from a wide number of perspectives coming from users and beneficiaries of our actions. The objective is to achieve a so-called “shared understanding” of processes related to the challenges and issues at stake.

A useful tool for this can be the User Story Mapping, a methodology adopted in the field of software development in order to have users’ needs emerge and be able to focus on them more effectively by placing them within the context of the users’ path through existing processes.

Crowdsourcing

Another useful tool to define an issue is what is referred to as Crowdsourcing. Broadly speaking, it is an exercise that entails the active participation of members of the public, so as to ultimately gather as much of a wide range of opinions as possible, thus generating new and shared ideas. 

The Internet has undeniably extended the range of possibilities available in terms of public engagement and involvement, especially considering the possibility of conducting online surveys and questionnaires which allow to gather a vast range of information in a relatively short time. 

As case study, we cite the online survey that Nesta UK has launched to analyse and understand the UK public’s attitudes to innovation. Indeed, despite being directly concerned with people’s daily life, the social innovation sector often seems to be detached from a concrete dimension, thus resulting as an abstract and exclusive conversation, only accessible to few individuals. 

Crowdsourcing is not only limited to a passive gathering of information relative to a singular issue. Indeed, experimental exercises are re-orienting its application to a whole new set of levels, such as the one of citizens’ participation in policy-making processes. For instance, the European initiative DCENT is devoted to exploring the potential embodied by decentralized technologies to facilitate direct democracy, thus promoting collective intelligence as a means to set priorities and find possible solutions to collectively identified problems.

Credits: Per Loov on Unsplash

 

Solutions identification 

The adoption of collective intelligence is one of the most effective methods to find shared and scalable solutions to social issues. This is another method that benefits from the role played by the Internet in breaking down space and time barriers. 

Three are the main tools that prove to be rather effective to this aim; they have been especially central in the recent public debate, given the historical moment and necessity of identifying solutions to the COVID-19-related issues. These are: Call for Ideas, Challenge Prize e Hackathon.

These tools build up on a paradigm rather shared: a given organization issues a challenge / a question / a problem on a given topic, offering a prize to whoever succeeds in finding a solution, should this be a single individual or groups of people.

Call for Ideas

A call for ideas generally seeks solutions that are ready to be tested, applied, and scaled. The monetary prize can be accompanied by a learning experience (such as seminars and workshops) and provides candidates with other benefits, such as acceleration programs and consultancy services. 

For instance, in 2018, Nesta Italia launched a call to test innovative ideas in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), whereas this year Nesta UK has issued a call to finance ideas aimed to combine AI and Collective Intelligence (CI) as a means of recovery post-pandemic. 

Challenge Prize 

Challenge Prizes is, among the three identified tools, the oldest; indeed, it has been introduced in 1745 by the British Government to tackle issues of orientation encountered during maritime navigation. 

In this case too, it is about public competition that allows to identify the solution to a specific problem, avoiding the wasting of resources through non-efficient solutions: the prize, indeed, is only granted once the given issue has been solved. 

The international re-discovery of this innovation technique started particularly thanks to the work conducted by Nesta UK and its Challenge Prize Center, which has gathered valuable advice for the organization of a challenge prize within a practical guide that we have subsequently translated in Italian.

Hackathon

Hackathons are just like innovation marathons (the terms comes from the union of ‘hacking’ and ‘marathon’), born to develop in very little time functioning software. They are usually brief events (2 or 3 days long) and are directed at programmes, data scientists, designers, and other experts of the like. 

The range of application of this tool has expanded to a variety of sectors. Thus, hackathons increasingly see the development of solutions based on technologically creative and interdisciplinary tools, such as applications and platforms. The aim, then, is not only to find solutions, but also to create and strengthen the communities that revolve around certain themes, as well as to generate multi sectoral collaborations and partnerships.

2020 has seen the organisation of a significant pan-European hackathon, EU vs Virus, which has gathered more than 40 countries in order to develop post-COVID-19 solutions in sectors such as health, social inclusion, finance, education, and remote working. 

Credits: AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Validation and Growth

Once the problem has been defined and solutions have been identified, the last step consists of a process of iterative validation and development towards long term growth and sustainability. At Nesta Italia, we have decided to gather validation and growth within the same phase for they are inseparable from the same, continuous learning cycle, which is needed for the durability and resilience of the solutions of each organization. 

Validation 

Impact monitoring and evaluation 

In order to monitor and evaluate the impact of the different promoted initiatives, Nesta Italia refers to the so-called Theory of Change (ToC), a participatory process through which identifying the motivations and modalities to follow for the achievement of the collectively identified goals, to then evaluate the final impact. 

The objectives are indeed defined during a first evaluation phase which begins with the evaluation of the long-term goals, to then work backwards with the definition of all the conditions necessary and, thus, of the so-called “pathway to change”. The process aimed at setting the evaluation criteria, as well as the short-, medium-, and long-term goals, allows for an accurate and effective planification and evaluation of the social impact obtained. 

Thus, the process built on the ToC provides initiatives with a series of criteria and indicators that:

  1. Guide the process, establishing the steps and actions to take;
  2. Positioning the initiative, with respect to both the internal and external partners, facilitating the possible collaborations and partnerships;
  3. Build the ground for the impact evaluation process, defining key concepts such as “success” and the relative analysis criteria right from the beginning, so as to guide the evaluation of the final results and social impact brought about. 

Build-measure-learn

One of the main tools for iterative validation and development is the build-measure-learn feedback loop: it is a matter of applying a process of verification and continuous learning that allows an organization to proceed towards the achievement of the objectives set in a progressive way and testing the effectiveness of what is built. 

It is a process that belongs to the lean startup methodology, introduced in 2008 by entrepreneur Eric Ries and spread quickly, thanks to word of mouth via the web.

From this methodology originated the so-called agile software development, a less rigid approach that focuses on achieving objectives, aiming at the quality of the result and reducing, at the same time, costs and time.

Credits: Edward Howell on Unsplash

Growth 

As regards the growth of an idea or organisation itself towards long-term sustainability, it is important that the team undertakes a long-lasting path of continuous learning to equip themselves with the knowledge necessary to undertake the path and to keep up to date along the way.

For these purposes, there are special programs, now consolidated in the innovation landscape: incubation, acceleration, capacity building. These tend to rely on the training and strengthening of a team or project proposal, to ensure that they are better prepared for the scale of the organization and its products and services, as well as for investment research, if necessary.

Incubation and acceleration

While incubation is generally aimed at embryonic projects, acceleration differs in some features, such as a high level of selection at entry, limited duration in time and targeting consortia or start-up groups, rather than to individual organizations.

Capacity building

Capacity building refers instead to the ongoing strengthening of existing skills within an organization, to ensure its sustainable growth over time. It has acquired particular value in the non-profit context, as a set of tools that support organizations in exerting a positive impact on the communities of reference.

However, there is often a risk of reducing these pathways to learning moments to passive learning moments, when the best way to strengthen skills – as Geoff Mulgan pointed out – is through constant training, through experience, a bit like it happens with muscle growth, which requires regular and continuous exercise.

What to do in practice?

The tools for defining, developing and applying solutions to social challenges are numerous, widely documented and adopted in different policy areas.

Given that the three phases described (i.e., definition of the problem, identification of solutions, validation and growth) are three necessary steps to achieve an effective solution, the tools can instead be modulated and, in order to choose which ones to adopt, it is essential to first consider the context in which one operates, the resources available, and the actors involved.

In the coming months we will talk in more depth about our projects on the territory and how we implement the methodology and tools presented in this article.

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