Prototyping a new Kosovo

[Blogging the Kosovo Innovation Camp, May 2012]

Social Innovation Camp brings together ideas, people and digital tools to build web-based solutions to social problems in just 48 hours. One of the reasons we can do this is the power of prototyping. We set up Social Innovation Camp to imitate the speed of digital startups and the way they can deploy a working prototype in less time than it takes an NGO to write a funding application. A team assembles, and idea is ready, and the race is on to get something that works out in to the world. Everything useful on the web is in permanent beta; never finished, always adapting. This is the dynamism made possible by internet-connected technology. (For more on this, see ideas about the lean startup and ideas of the minimum viable product).

(Image: the NEWBORN monument in Prishtina)

At the same time we're trying to tackle hard social problems - stuff that isn't easy to solve, where people are probably short of resources. So we take an asset-based approach, encouraging projects to pull together the things the community does have rather than complaining about what's missing. This is also given a boost by internet-powered technology, as the internet has turned out to be very good at making something significant by assembling lots of small contributions (think of crowdsourced projects like wikipedia or open street map, which are unimaginable without the net). This is why Sicamp has helped start great projects like The Good Gym.

Technology know-how is central to Social Innovation Camp, but technology only makes a difference when it's used to redesign the way the world works. The Sicamp outlook is related to the emerging area of Service Design - the reorganising of a service or the creation of a new one based on the participation of users. Sicamp projects bring a web perspective to this, with ideas of mashups and peer-to-peer services. Sicamp supports people to do something directly about their 'itch' - the issue that frustrates them or that they feel passionate about. In the world of the web, they can do this directly and without asking permission from the self-appointed authorities who claim to own that issue.

Fundamentally, Sicamp encourages people to hack their reality - to realise that, via technology, they can prototype a better way to get things done. Sicamp applies the self-confidence of the Web Kids manifesto to really important social issues. We know it can produce good projects, but we also know that it can make a longer term change in the attitudes of people who take part. People get excited about making stuff, and more confident about their power to make a change. With a prototyping and hacker approach, young people in Kosovo can use the internet to re-assemble different parts of their society. When it works they can build on it, when it fails they can learn and move on.

Many people in Kosovo tell me the system is basically corrupt. The influence of money and politics touches every decision and every appointment, while the economy and infrastructure are languishing in a post-war state made worse by the current financial crisis. Of course, their are already NGO projects like which encourage people to report corruption via an online map. But my hunch is that the spread of a social hacker ethic in the younger generation will do more to limit corruption and can also create a lot of positive side-effects like projects, startups and networks. That's why I think Sicamp is a good match for the current needs of Kosova - helping people use the web to assemble small resources in to something bigger, helping people to route around and bypass the blockages of the current system, and (to rephrase the IWW) helping prototype part of a new society in the shell of the old.


Young Kosovars take a break from a training session at the Innovations Lab

Mental Health Camp UK

The moment I spotted MentalHealthCamp Toronto I wanted to help make it happen here. Years ago I was a volunteer MIND mental health advocate in the old Hackney Psychiatric Hospital (a former workhouse) which was a schooling in one side of mental health services. Now that I'm an accidental digital innovator I can see the huge potential in a mashup of mental health and digital, which I can’t really put better than the MentalHealthCamp Toronto mission statement :

“We live in a society with access to the newest technologies, open access to information and the possibility to connect through social media and online communities. Our goal for MentalHealthCamp is to ignite conversations around how can we use these technologies to promote better mental health and help improve the lives of people with mental health problems.
Mental health concerns everyone. So if you’re a mental health professional, someone with lived experience of mental health problems, a family member or friend of a person with mental health problems, or have a passion or an interest in the topic, then MentalHealthCamp is for you! MHCTO also welcomes technophiles, change architects and all sorts of social media types.”

In the tradition of our times, MentalHealthCamp UK started with a hashtag (#mhcuk), exchanged in tweets with the organizers of the Toronto camp, and is now working its way into reality.  I hope that #mhcuk will be about positive mental health as much as it’s about mental health problems, which it surely will be as one of the other organizers is Andy Gibson of Mindapples. I also hope that it’ll get gritty and apply digital innovation to some of the more intractable issues around mental health, whether that’s the limitations of statutory care or the stigma of being labelled as ‘mad’. For an idea of topics covered in Toronoto check out their Take Action Videos.

And for me #mhcuk is just a start – an idea generator and constituency builder for the idea of a mental health Social Innovation Camp. There's already been a #sicamp pilot for a specific sector -  the team ran the Jailbrake weekend to find and support great ideas that could break the cycle of youth offending using simple web and mobile tools (see here for the film of the weekend).

There are already pioneering projects exploring the potential of digital for mental health, like Buddy, the social media radio from Sidekick Studios which they're developing with South London and Maudsley Trust. Some studies show that online social support is an effective means of mediating stress and Social Innovation Camp Central & Eastern Europe generated the Betterfly project for psychology first aid. On the other hand, this Psychology of Twitter article asks whether it's supporting self-actualisation or leading to increased narcissism.

Holding a mental health sicamp and extending some prototypes in to really useful working services also fits with my new role at Media for Development and my aspirations for the ways digital innovation at Media for Development can use the untapped potential of media to empower marginalised communities.

But first, #mhcuk. The silos of the mental health scene can only benefit from the peer to peer conversations that’ll  take place at Mental Health Camp UK, and the follow-up could inject a post-digital kind of co-production into the mental health scene. As the folk of MentalHealthCamp Toronto said

“The age of digitization and technology enabled living is here and has catalyzed a new paradigm of participation. Please bring your ideas, questions and open minds as we work on solutions that are possible today and that we are dreaming about for tomorrow.”

At this stage we’re looking for potential venues, potential sponsors, and (of course!) passionate participants. If you are any of the above then please leave a comment, head over to our wiki or join the google group.

photo credit: Lada Brunova

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