Social Missions and innovation

Rachel Coldicutt
Jul 14 · 7 min read

Using the wisdom of civil society to forecast and anticipate social issues

A graphic illustration of a white mountain with a flag in the top
A graphic illustration of a white mountain with a flag in the top

This is an extract from a letter sent to Danny Kruger MP as part of a consultation for the UK Prime Minister, exploring how to empower and strengthen communities for the long-term.

The wisdom of civil society

Civil society is well-placed to use its empirical and on-the-ground expertise to forecast and anticipate societal issues. Leveraging this wisdom is vital to realising the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Mirroring the Grand Challenges set out in the Industrial Strategy, there is an opportunity for civil society to set a number of critical Social Missions for post-Covid recovery. This is a much bigger transformation than looking for the first-order efficiencies created by data sharing and better administrative systems: it is an opportunity to regroup, to rethink structures, and to create imaginative solutions that set out a better future for more people.

These missions should be lean, iterative, have a local or regional focus, and incentivise reproducibility and maintenance, so they can be exported from one place to another with reasonable ease.

This post sets out the case for these Social Missions, in particular the potential for civil society to be on the front foot, the importance of alternatives to Silicon Valley-owned digital infrastructure, the role of public trust, and lean ways of sharing capabilities across sectors.

1. From responders to forecasters

A graphic image of two hands holding a telescope
A graphic image of two hands holding a telescope

The abundant “innovation, flexibility and can-do spirit” of the sector, as evoked by the PM, means that civil society, in its broadest sense, is frequently called upon to respond to societal problems as they occur. This is a missed opportunity. If the UK is to renew with a focus on innovation, then the empirical knowledge of civil society is abundant — but it is also an under-used resource.

And it echoes the ambition of the recently published BEIS UK Research and Development Roadmap (1 July 2020), which asks how the UK can “engage in new and imaginative ways to ensure that our science, research and innovation system is responsive to the needs and aspirations of our society”. This may not seem at first to address civil society, but on closer examination it sets out a clear role for the sector in the innovation pipeline — unlocking improvements in health, wellbeing and prosperity.

If HMG is serious about achieving net zero carbon emissions, a resilient economy, environment and society, and improved quality of life for all, then civil society must be at the forefront in shaping those outcomes. The creation of Social Missions would unlock insight from those working at the frontline of Britain’s inequalities and enable lean, scalable cross-sector collaborations.

2. The need for alternatives

Graphic illustration of 4 people on a video call
Graphic illustration of 4 people on a video call

WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, and Google Meet have played a critical role in civil society’s rapid response to the Coronavirus crisis. Newly minted Mutual Aid groups have appeared across the country; playgroups, choirs, faith meetings and pub quizzes have gone virtual; and research by Catalyst shows that 66% of all charities are now delivering all work remotely. This activity is all taking place on digital infrastructure provided by US companies. In many instances it is free at the point of use and there is no obligation for providers to continue offering a free, reliable, or privacy-protecting service.

While these technologies have provided a much-needed temporary fix, Silicon Valley platforms cannot form the underlying or ongoing infrastructure for UK civil society. Bringing the public, private, and community sectors together to identify and, where necessary, create the technologies needed to solve critical social problems would lessen dependency on these platforms.

3. Trust, data and innovation

Algorithmic oppression has no place in a country committed to renewal and levelling up

Social Missions must be deserving of public trust, and all data and technology used must be proportionate, rights respecting, and avoid replicating ingrained social injustice and bias.

Civil society is already working to realise good work, safe housing, healthy food, clean air, and access to education and care for all. The data required to tackle these challenges is among the most personal of all personal data — any innovation programme focussed on creating equitable futures must not exploit this, and public trust must be earnt.

Graphic image showing two figures beneath a globe, united by a heart
Graphic image showing two figures beneath a globe, united by a heart

Nesta’s recent Innovation after Lockdown report highlights the risk of public and stakeholder backlash against insensitive innovation. As has been seen with the NHSX track and trace app, rolling out post hoc damage limitation for over-ambitious or rights infringing technology is expensive and time-consuming.

Furthermore, the work of scholars including Safiya Umoja Noble, Virginia Eubanks, Cathy O’Neil, Meredith Broussard, Ruha Benjamin and many others makes abundantly clear, that — without due protocols in place — the injudicious use of data and emerging technologies risks entrenching historic social bias and injustice.

Rather than offering liberation, data-driven decisions already play a role in setting back human potential and deepening inequalities. Access to information, work, housing, credit, and justice are already frequently by insufficiently governed algorithms. Extending these new methods of oppression have no place in a country committed to renewal and levelling up.

This does not mean there is no potential.

Focussed Social Missions would allow an iterative, sandbox approach to safe insight-sharing and cross-sector collaboration — bringing best practice from innovation to build a better society. Constraints are the lean innovator’s best friend, and introducing them early would help civil society to become more future focused, less reactive, and more proactive in tackling inequality and injustice — while also lessening the risk of getting it wrong and damaging public trust at scale.

DataKind and CAST already run fellowship programmes that make data scientists and digital specialists available to civil society organisations. HMG should take advantage of this expertise, incentivising more businesses to offer this kind of pro bono specialist assistance to help surface more insight from civil society.

4. Sharing insight, skills and capabilities

Rather than building complex data observatories, we recommend that partners across public, private and community sectors share insight and knowledge around mission-specific issues.

Sharing insight, skills and capabilities across public, private, and community sectors will enable rapid and respectful collaboration, allowing each sector to work to its strengths and understand potential future models for cross-sector data sharing.

Graphic image showing 3 people with different icons
Graphic image showing 3 people with different icons

Rather than building complex data observatories, we recommend that partners across public, private and community sectors share insight and knowledge around mission-specific issues. This intelligence will help pinpoint areas for deeper collaboration and avoid complex ethical and information governance issues.

Data is not useful until it is analysed and understood. Indeed, venture capitalist Mary Meeker expects that by the end of 2020 only 16% of information collected worldwide will be structured. New intermediary bodies are needed to facilitate ethical data sharing at scale across sectors, and these will take considerable time and effort to establish.

CAST is already investigating capability building for data-sharing across civil society, while the Open Data Institute has explored the potential role of data trusts. These initiatives should be explored in more depth, but in the meantime there is an opportunity to work more quickly to fold together cross-sector, mission-specific insight.

Actionable insight is more valuable than any quantity of data

Actionable insight is more valuable than any quantity of data, and it can be easily shared in privacy protecting ways and challenged via ethical oversight and public engagement. Frontline civil society organisations have an abundance of actionable insight about how social inequalities arise and the lived reality of the people who experience them; listening and acting upon this insight at an earlier stage could prevent inequalities spreading and deepening.

Beginning at the higher level of insight, rather than with more granular data, would also allow empirical and qualitative knowledge from civil society and the public sector to be combined with and stress-tested against quantitative data from businesses, leading to the development of robust hypotheses that could be further tested. Not all data can be reduced to the same format, and coincidences in numbers do not tell the full story. Ensuring innovation meets the needs and aspirations of our society entails imagining the unimaginable; data cannot do that on its own.

Glimmers

Digital futures for civil society

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