Social tech: digital supporting social innovation
In the film "Demain" , Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent meet groups of individuals who, thanks to new technologies, organise themselves to resolve failings by the State, local authorities and the business world. The film highlights Incredible Edible , an association launched in Todmorden, a British town strongly affected by the industrial crisis. The association makes use of empty urban spaces to plant edible plants for everyone’s use. The initiative, circulated on social media, has spread throughout the world . Another example is the zebra movement , launched by novelist Alexandre Jardin. This online platform, which encourages micro-actions, advocates “doers” rather than “sayers," the need to find the power to act, and independence from the State and businesses.
The use of technologies by these new citizen movements could indicate the development of social tech as a community which decides to use digital to support citizens working towards a certain idea of the common good. Whereas civic tech (link to civic tech article) demonstrates citizens' desire to take part more broadly and directly in political decisions which affect them, social tech focuses on the field of citizen action: acting on inequalities, forging new solidarities, producing social innovation. By mobilising technological capacities, social tech would promise each person the ability to act for the common good.
Nevertheless, the field of public interest and social value is already well occupied, in France, by the social and solidarity economy (SSE), and at an international level by what is known as the third sector. SSE, due to its legitimacy and experience, could decide to support or take inspiration from these new citizen movements and make social tech worthy of its name...
The SSE and social tech: a love/hate relationship
While the worlds of SSE and social tech are interested in cooperating - an in-depth experience of solidarity and fighting against social inequality on one side, an understanding of technology and new approaches on the other - they still tend to ignore or even distrust each other.
In the eyes of the SSE, digital companies have never demonstrated a genuine interest in disadvantaged people or vulnerable minorities. In addition, when they are interested interested, their approach is based on Angli-American style social entrepreneurship rather than a French concept of social justice. The goods donation platform Yerdle was criticised for its partnership with Walmart, an American retail giant and the quintessential symbol of consumerism, whereas Yerdle defended its commitment to the circular economy and form of degrowth. These digital start-ups are noted for their economic liberalism, far from the values of the SSE, which is often established with government support. Finally, the philosophy of the SSE often looks to encourage direct human relationships, building social ties and long-term actions and rejecting an excessive focus on efficiency and measurements, whereas technology can in some cases be perceived as a source of dehumanisation, individual isolation and a race for productivity.
On the other hand, in the eyes of the new “social geek” wave, SSE players can seem a little outdated, bogged down in statutory and regulatory issues which prevent them from offering more effective solutions. These digital social innovators have a strong distaste for established orders and overly restrictive frameworks, preferring rapid change and “disruption." In addition, with the exception of cooperatives, SSE governance remains mainly hierarchical and centralised, far from the culture of horizontality and autonomy favoured within young digital companies.
In view of these differences in background and style, the SSE seems to be unable to lead social tech, even if it is in its interest and it has political and economic legitimacy. In addition, digital players have progressed on the topic of “public interest digital," for years already,w ithout its support...
A digital world of solidarity which keeps itself to itself?
In the 1980s, Richard Stallman, a visionary programmer and activist, launched the free software movement, best symbolised by the operating system Linux, providing everyone with free or easy access to alternatives to the proprietary solutions of Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, etc. In 1993, on Tim Berners Lee decided, as a response to the dominant business approach, to make his invention protocols freely accessible to all, which was the start of the World Wide Web. In 2001, as part of this drive to make information available to all, Wikipedia entered the scene. In the same vein, in the 2000s Salman Khan created a forerunner to MOOCs, the Khan Academy .
Progressively, the aspiration for a more participatory and open society took shape: Web 2.0, a peer-to-peer model, sharing resources and skills, free circulation of knowledge.
In the early 2010s, the terms collaborative economy and sharing economyentered the scene, promising to invent new ways of consuming and living together, giving consumers the unique power to act on the organisation of the economy and society. In addition to day-to-day services which are now an essential part of the collaborative economy (private rental of apartments, cars, tools, sale of second-hand items...) some initiatives have a purpose beyond the simple intention of “consuming differently”: crowdfunding for artistic or charitable projects (Humaid , Babeldoor ), food short circuits (la Ruche qui dit oui , Open Food Network ), knowledge crowdsourcing (Open source seeds ), etc. Events and networks are quickly established around this restless collaborative world : the Social Good Week , Oui Share , Urgenci , etc.
Unfortunately, the spiritual heritage of Richard Stallman, Tim Berners Lee,and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) has not always managed to attach these initiatives to a social economy, sometimes for economic reasons. The free accommodation network Couchsurfing has changed its business model along the way, transitioning from a non-profit organisation to a commercial enterprise which selles its user data. The journalist Hubert Guillaud regrets that collaborative platforms have tended to make social activism a market like another, by promoting “trade exchanges against non-trade exchanges, effectiveness against inanity, calculation against disinterest, utilitarianism against uselessness, individualism against solidarity, ownership against the common good." A statement which seems excessive. Some platforms focus on “holding up both ends”: an agile approach and a robust business model linked with democratic governance and social objectives, in the style of Loconomics , Resonate , Members Media and Fairmondo ... Furthermore, the collaborative economy is not the only way to build a digital world with social and caring aim: sensors allow Kenyan farmers to analyse their soil without going through a laboratory, the Raspberry Pi motherboard helps manufacture computers for less than thirty dollars, increasing access to digital tools, etc.
At the same time, the traditional, pre-digital economy is increasingly interested in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and Anglo-American style “social business” The conclusive proof: the major French business schools have their own social innovation incubators, creating a new market segment which does not correspond to public service or to traditional business. For example, Antropia - ESSEC’s incubator - has a crowdfunding platform for the homeless , another which fights job insecurity , etc.
An economic world attracted by social business, a social and solidarity economy which distrusts digital, digital players who cannot reconcile a sustainable economic model and social purpose... How can we take advantage of these different dynamics to help social innovation flourish?
Social tech at the crossroads between worlds?
Things seem to be changing, heralding a possible reconciliation between these two different universes.
On the one hand, SSE players are progressively appropriating technologies and forging alliances with the other world, like the association SOS Méditerranée which is working with the hacker Gaël Musquet to improve the communication system of the Aquarius, a boat which sails off the coast of Libya to try and save migrants. Another example is Emmaüs, which has launched an online store, Label Emmaüs, a solidarity-focused version of Le Bon Coin, to sell second-hand items collected by Emmaüs workers. All revenue is returned to Emmaüs communities or reinvested in other Emmaüs projects. Finally, the legal structure is a SCIC (Community Cooperative), with governance shared between employees and supporters.
On the other hand, digital players who thought that they could change the world thanks to new technologies, are becoming a little less naive. They have realized that a platform's collaborative nature and worthy original intention are not enough to make it social or fair. The idea of platform cooperativism took root in the minds of the journalists Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, who highlight the importance of shared ownership and participatory governance of digital platforms. Another example is the creation of theVirtual Assembly , “an ecosystem of players collaboratively developing commons (tools, methodologies and projects) for the world of transition." There is the desire to work together to affirm common values and objectives in opposition to capitalism, which tends to support private economic interests to the detriment of public interest.
Finally, another very pragmatic element links the two worlds, as described in the film Demain: citizens themselves. For example, they take over public spaces and transform them into urban commons, like the citizen laboratories in Madrid. These are self-managed spaces which seek to meet the specific needs of residents, due to a lack of public or commercial responses: childcare, access to culture, skill sharing... Technology is not always central to these citizen initiatives, but it is increasingly integrated: local exchange platforms (Sharevoisins ), collaborative decision-making tools (Doodle , Loomio , Cobudget ), fundraising (Leetchi , Payname ), etc.
Social tech: an incubator for social start-ups?
The existence of social tech at the crossroads of two cultures (SSE and “public interest digital”) could help make social innovation digital while inventing new legal and economic strategies to ensure that the social purpose of these initiatives is maintained over time.
This kind of social tech could develop and deploy a solidarity and integration jobs platform within the SSE community, to offer an alternative to platforms like Youpijob or Taskrabbit , which tend to create more uncertainty than freedom of activity. It could create an shared open accounting tool in order to make transaction flows and economic links between players transparent or even to make the blockchain available for the production of common goods, for example by creating a non-speculative chain, etc.
The Hamon Law of 31 July 2014 on the SSE could be used as inspiration to create this social tech. The law defines the SSE, not based on a statute but using three cumulative criteria: a social purpose, democratic governance and a management method which ensures that profits are allocated to the development and maintenance of the activity as a priority.
By using this triple definition, social tech could be established as an incubator of “truly social start-ups." This raises the question of how to finance a project whose the purpose is not clearly economic profitability. Beyond some rare existing tools like PESS loans from the French public investment bank BPI , there is room for innovation, with ideas like an investment fund dedicated to digital social innovation, topped up by SSE players and citizens (solidarity savings, donations), a common fund which would be based on participatory organisation, both for strategic guidelines for investments, and co-construction of digital solutions. We all know that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself...