Social Innovators & Tech Innovators Collide
This was the year that social entrepreneurship crossed into the IT geek consciousness of South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), with the advent of Good Capitalist party (info, report). Good Capitalist, attended by nearly 2000 people, by some reports, was created by social media / social entrepreneur crossover star-child Martin Montero, aka the ubiquitous @montero in the #socent world on Twitter. The party was celebrated with gusto by the social entrepreneurship community, heralding their acceptance by “the cool kids.”
Triple Pundit reported on a different angle of this intersection at SXSWi, and called it the “Big Green Disconnect” between tech and sustainability communities, saying “the few green related panels were under attended and often rudimentary,” suggesting that each community is talking a different language. Our friend and advisor Bill Shutkin had a similar, less politic rant over dinner a few weeks back, along the lines of “do we really need another Twitter app while our energy and financial systems are in crisis?.” Both comparisons were predated by Silicon Valley tech guru Tim O’Reilly’s call in 2008 to “work on something that matters,” where he beat a drum of “create more value than you extract.”
So, now the meme has been released, and some cool kids in technology (largely a comfortable-if-not-affluent crowd from a global perspective) think social entrepreneurship is the next big thing. Mostly, this is good. Right?
Well… a great piece in the NY Times on March 14th reported a story that pointed to an important trend — when inundated with snow, the Washington Post was not using Twitter, YouTube or Foursquare, but rather Ushahidi, an IT platform built in Kenya, to map road blockages and resource availability during the disruptive storm.
The article points out, “Ushahidi comes from another world [than Silicon Valley], in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff. Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computer systems out of the reach of many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.”
The Washington Post serves an important lesson to the Austin-Boulder-SF-Cambridge crowd of digi-do-gooders and green lemmings at SXSW. Even thought an important tide is tipping in the consciousness of the web-tools crowd, practical results still seem far off. And in the (currently somewhat less) well-financed hubs all trying to “the next Silicon Valley,” e-mails about new conferences, magazines and other gathering points for this new intersection are traveling the web today. The space will surely evolve, but today, the bottom line remains pretty much single in the tech community.
As Triple Pundit points out, much of the progressive IT community is still pretty slow to get even the second layer of complexity in the massive puzzle of global human sustainability, even as they drink the free green beer at a SXSW party called “Good Capitalist.” In the meantime, the ability to actually get things done is created by people who have a pressing, immediate need for the transformation of data and information into the knowledge and understanding that can affect practical decision-making. As the back-to-back DC blizzards (a climate anomaly, at least) pressed the city into micro-catastrophe, tools borne out of crisis trumped tools born out of opportunity.
Even though sustainability thinkers like Shutkin debate the value of “sky is falling” framing for the presentation of a new social innovation, we think there’s more Nairobi (necessity is the mother of invention) and less Sunnyvale, CA (wouldn’t if be cool if…) in creating social-purpose IT. The consciousness shift will be complete when technological innovators realize that the balance is not between making profits and serving people, but between earth’s resources serving 3 billion people or 9 billion. Until that shift happens, we’ll still be chipping ice off the icebergs for our drinks at the next party.