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. Brilliantly described in The Innovators, the really big advances have occurred where there are patterns of asynchronous development and collaboration. 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.
This is at the very heart of speeding up the impact of tech for good. For 90% of ideas for tech for good, there will already exist code or platforms that provide 80% of the required functionality. Whilst this clearly isn’t enough for the full 100% product/service it is more than enough to start with, at low cost, to really test and develop the idea. We know how crucial early testing is, to ensure new products/services meet the needs and behaviours of users — and a culture of reuse makes this easier and cheaper to do.
Yet whilst this culture of reuse has spurred huge and quick innovation through tech, it is at odds with much of the social-impact sector where ‘brand new’ ideas are easier to get funded, and identifying a gap in provision (which highlights that no one else is working in this area), even more so. We need to be brave though, and to say we’ll search for what already exists; that we’ll reuse what we can, until that reuse reaches its limitations and we’re confident that something new is required. There’s a challenge in here for funders to want to fund people to reuse and extend, as well as for tech for good entrepreneurs to be actively searching for reuse opportunities (which are essentially shortcuts to creating a tested approach).
Whilst these are challenges to some of the culture within the sector, it’s worth recognising how much reuse already exists, especially of course the ‘charity shop’ model and within asset based community development. But with digital it’s even more so: 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 had 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. Our challenge is 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).
Collaboration is a natural by-product of a culture of reuse. Reuse invites positive interaction between two parties; highlights shared objectives and creates a reason for ongoing partnerships.
Even with a culture of reuse, of course we still require passionate entrepreneurs and teams with innovative ideas; we still require 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, including a culture of reuse, perhaps 2017 can provide just that.
This article first appeared on Digital Agenda.