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!