social startups versus strategic bankruptcy

Somewhere in the rough and tumble of April's Minibar there was a moment of alchemy. Minibar is always lively - turning the usual suspects of startups, VC's, coders and designers in to a once-a-month carnival night. But April's line up included the two winning projects from Social Innovation Camp, dropping the notion of social impact in to the mix like acid at a 1960's happening. I could sense the start of something.

But, of course, that 'something' is already happening. Although the London digital startup scene is hot there's already a well-formed critique of the Silicon Valley model. Folk like Headshift's Lee Bryant are clear there's no point in emulating a US scene whose sole goal is inflating a startup to the point that is can sell out to Google (or whoever). And the other bee in people's bonnet is tech-enabled social innovation and making a positive difference.

But imagine my surprise when the inimitable Steve Moore pointed me to Umair Haque's Open Challenge to Silicon Valley. You could have knocked me down with a feather; soundbites for social innovation coming straight outta the Valley!

Haque talks about "moral and strategic bankruptcy of today's crop of venture investors" - that in the face of today's global challenges (food prices, financial meltdown, energy crisis) entrepreneurs are "lost in the economically meaningless, in the utterly trivial, in the strategically banal: mostly, they're cutting deals with one another to try and sell more ads". Obviously not a man to mince his words, Haque says "the failure to address these problems is a strategic bankruptcy as well. The self-indulgence of today's so-called revolutionaries in a darkening economic twilight is a recipe for strategic suicide. So here's my challenge. If you're a revolutionary, then be one: put your money where your mouth is, and fix a big problem that changes the world for the better - if you really have the courage, the purpose, and the vision, that is."

To an NGO leftover like me it feels like the London startup scene is ready to grow beyond the 'we wanna be the next Facebook'. Part of that will be the development of sustainable niches with social goals, and there are many dissatisified midshipmen (non-gender!) in charities who would jump ship to join them. This will get an unexpected boost from broadcast, as Channel 4 puts big money into creating digital public value , and the Mike Butcher's of this world badger the BBC to get stuck in. No doubt July's 2gether festival will be a trigger for more evolution of the space. And it's evolution we need; of a European social innovation ecology that can grow the social startups we deserve. And here's my twist; as the pervasiveness of social technology continues apace, the innovation is going to come from the fringes. Note that it's recent immigrants driving advanced mobile phone use, both in Europe and in the US. It's social need that's going to pull new tech across the chasm in the diffusion curve!

Social Innovation Camp - The Movie!

Mikey and Hektor from The People Speak have done us proud with Social Innovation Camp - The Movie! You can almost smell the coffee and the over-heating laptops...

Lightweight Structures for Social Innovation Startups

Coming out of Social Innovation Camp, I've been wondering how the projects we helped to kick off can find sustainable structures for development.

Our criteria for the camp selected for ideas that could be carried forward after the weekend. The winning projects have certainly showed dynamism and commitment; but how can they organize to get things done when it's not (yet) anyone's day job? How can they get structure without losing the passion?

Synchronously, similar questions & suggestions have cropped up in other discussions. In the Gaming for Good roundtable folk wondered how to apply the voluntary association & dynamic purpose of the World of Warcraft raiding party to the real world. At the Tuttle Club Breakfast , freelancers were feeling their way to structures that sounded to me most like medieval Guilds (an idea that Open Business has already written about) . And in an ippr briefing, the MP Tom Watson invoked the cooperatives of the nineteenth century as a good fit for organisations making a social use of the web.

Seems there's a sea-change coming as organisational models are mutated by the web. With the emphasis on lightweight, dynamic & flexible structures, it seems to echo the radical architecture of Archigram back in the 1960s.

Whatever model we raid, from real or imagined history, there's still the practical question of who pays the bills. Sustainability is the plan for all Social Innovation Camp projects, whether from a commercial business model, grant funding or a mix of the two. Can we also learn from open source, where companies pay staff to work on open source projects for part of their time because there's a wider value to the employer? Social Innovation Camp had the backing of a sizeable posse from Headshift (thanks guys) - perhaps signposting a wider possible solution where commercial companies support social ventures with geek-time? As my colleague Peter Grigg has pointed out, companies need to go beyond CSR and get real about supporting pro-social activity; and what better way than to back projects like these ?

Social Innovation Camp: speed-startups for social impact

Social Innovation Camp happened this weekend, and it rocked.

Inspired by a mashup of netsquared, barcamps and seedcamp, it brought together a diverse bunch of hackers & social change activists to cook up prototype projects over the space of a weekend.

And it worked. People brought dedication, passion and skill. They had some fun. They went without much sleep. (I wrote my half-way analysis at 2am; Live from Social Innovation Camp, the laboratory of buzz).

Two things stood out for me; first, it proved (again) that the social web is a generative platform for social impact; and second, that it's possible to do events that go beyond talk and lead to real projects and social businesses. But of course, that's the business of netsquared as well :)

Our small organising collective is now recovering, er, aiming to help the projects sustain and grow. There'l be a lot of write-ups, inteviews, videos etc coming out of the camp - more of this later. In the mean time here's a flavour (more materials at Social Innovation Camp materials):

David Wilcox says Social Innovation Camp: imitations, please and thinks that it "will make a big difference in the way that we think about doing good stuff with new stuff".

A full narrative from Bobbie Johnson, our embedded Media Guardian blogger:


A view from partners The Yahoo Developers Network.

Enthusiasm from a sponsor (which is nice!) at Accelerating Social Innovation: lessons from SiCamp where Roland Harwood says "On of the big lessons for me of the weekend was how limited organisation can unleash ideas, which is counter-intuitive for many".

"Teamwork, Quick!" by participant Huey Nhan

Photos on Flickr.

Videoclips and mini-interviews by David Wilcox at Qik

YouTube videos tagged with sicamp and sicamp08 (mostly by The People Speak team)

All the feeds from our backnetwork (warning: includes tweets!)

Live from Social Innovation Camp, the laboratory of buzz

Amazing amount of buzz at today's Social Innovation Camp. A diverse bunch of dedicated folk has alighted at the Young Foundation ; and Simon Tucker 's welcome last night made it clear we're continuing Michael Young's tradition of disruptive social innovation.

Prison visits and creative tensions

Working with the Prison visits team (I like my projects to be gritty :) was fascinating. For me, it surfaced some of the tensions implicit in the Social Innovation Camp mission, as we discussed our way passed the idea of creating a better information site or helping NGOs to coordinate better. And there's some merit in asking whether nonprofits, designers, and techies can talk to each other . (The answer, by the way, is yes).

Benign Ruthlessness

There's also a creative tension between the breadth of the social mission and the endless possibilities of technology versus the need to produce a working prototype in less than 2 days. Time to apply Michael Young's principle of "benign ruthlessness". With a bit of prompting from Greenman we settled on a simple user review system as our technical nugget. As Jeremy Gould pointed out, we can emulate MySociety projects by offering users more opportunites to get involved as later steps. And since the potential for big vision advocacy relies on building the community, we wanted an easy and useful hook to get it all started.

photo of prison visits team by jeremy gould

Campaigning by doing

As someone complained that the Government should be doing this stuff anyway, I remembered one of my personal aims for setting up Social Innovation Camp; a notion I'd call 'campaigning by doing'. As our friends from the Prison Advice & Care Trust pointed out, prisoner's advocates can argue till they're blue in the face without any response from The System. But with the low barrier power of the social web, we can do something small right now to tackle a problem by tapping in to the experiences of those who are affected. And if that snowballs, like Patient Opinion, it becomes something that institutions have to take notice of.

Adapt or die: the accelerated historicity of the Camp

As I wandered around all the projects I was struck by the different approaches; from an attic of half-a-dozen geeks to a discussion circle of eighteen worrying about trust, from massively detailed user stories to balloon metaphors. It seems to me that the Social Innovation Camp is a laboratory, fast-tracking the kind of fall-out that startups experience, and raiding the recent history of the social web (from wikipedia to netmums) in search of conceptual templates. I'm sure that Aleksi Aaltonen will have more to say post-Camp about the patterns of co-creation that emerged.

Lines and Circle

When Mikey from The People Speak was interviewing me about the Camp he reported his observation that the geeks tended to sit in straight lines. And I saw plenty of discussions happening in circles. Should lines and circles be the new logo of Social Innovation Camp?

Update; ideas that will be developed at the Social Innovation Camp

We've selected the ideas that will be developed at the Social Innovation Camp, 4th-6th April 2008. A big thanks to all those who contributed to the more than 70 ideas we received, and to the advisory board for helping us decide on the six that the Social Innovation Camp can accelerate for the most impact.

The ideas are:

- Barcode Wikipedia

A site for storing user-generated information – such as carbon footprint, manufacturing conditions and reviews - against a product, identified by its barcode number.

- Enabled by Design

A resource for anyone looking to make adjustments to their lives, be it as a result of disability, injury or impairment.

- Personal development reports

An online system that supports young people to identify their personal skills and qualities.

- Prison visits

A tool to support the families of prisoners coping with the experience of being apart from a loved one.

- Rate My CV

A site for helping jobseekers using Web 2.0 tools, with a special focus on the needs of migrant workers.

- Stuffshare

Freecycle meets Street Car: a stuff club.

You can find out more about the decision process on our blog. The write-up also describes the different ways people interpreted the opportunity e.g. as a way of improving NGOs, or helping government reach people. I think the most interesting possibility is for disruptive innovation; for the people strongly affected by an issue to participate in solving it with the help of web tools. I'm starting to think of this as community hacktivism.

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