Building a vigorous tech for good sector will power up the UK

Martha Lane Fox

Written by Martha Lane Fox, Founder and Executive Chair

When we set up in the late 90s, Brent and I used to go to the meet-ups in the e-commerce sector where it used to be us and one other company. Right now in London, every hour a new commercial internet company is started. In 20 years, that is really very significant.

However, I dont believe that the commercial landscape is whats going to drive the success of the UK over the next 10 years. Its difficult to say this as someone so passionate about entrepreneurship and the capacity of the UK. But we are an insignificant minnow compared to giant tech investments being made globally – in China particularly but also in the US.

I believe deeply that here in the UK we must grab other kinds of opportunities instead and build a different kind of resilience, a digital resilience beyond the commercial.

That some of our leading funders, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, Esmée Fairbairn, National Lottery Community Fund, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the Department for Digital Culture Media & Sport have just come together to move the dial in how we approach digitisation in this country, and have formed a radical new collaborative The Catalyst, is a major step in the right direction.  

The Catalyst, which sets out to revolutionise how we tackle social and environmental problems in the UK by massively accelerating how charitable and voluntary organisations use digital, is vital. Because a full decade after I tried to tackle poor use of digital within civil society, when I was UK Government Digital Champion, we still havent even really scratched the surface of using the tools of the modern age to solve our most pressing problems or to support and enable those people who most need help. Far too little has shifted or changed.

Right now we have hundreds of thousands of charities, many of whom are trying to focus on loosely the same issue, many of whose leaders and staff have little or no digital understanding of the tools available to them in 2019.

Its absolutely essential if were to build a robust and resilient post-Brexit UK that we have a much more deep understanding of technology across all sectors, but particularly within this sector.

Reshaping voluntary and charitable organisations to be more responsive to the communities they serve; more resilient; and more collaborative in the creation and scaling of solutions is genuinely urgent work. Embedding a culture of reuse – of ideas, products and code – to dramatically cut the cost and accelerate the speed of innovation within these organisations is not optional. We wont be able to effectively change millions of peoples lives if we dont use the best tools of the modern age.

While Im fundamentally an optimist, the UK needs this right now. We are staring into more complex challenges than ever before. Climate crisis, whatever happens with Brexit, the mass movement of people and the enormous retrenchment of public services. I dont make a political point. I make a point about the state of our country right now and how much civil society is being asked to catch people who are in difficult situations. Doing so, I believe, will be impossible without much deeper levels of digital understanding.

We are a small country, and one with so many resources. We have a vibrant and extraordinary social sector. It needs to be brought into the modern age and encouraged by funders, government and the sector itselfexactly what The Catalyst sets out to do. The internet is the organising principle of our age and these technologies are getting faster, more prevalent, more deeply entwined and require dramatic policy shifts and cultural shifts so we can use them and the opportunities they present.

There are 25,000 mental health apps out there. A shocking number, not shocking because all those entrepreneurial people are wanting to do something to improve peoples wellbeing, but because all that app-building talent is not being effectively managed or corralled when we have so many other pressing challenges.

And so Id ask anyone out there developing a digital product to question yourself: are you working on the right problem? Id ask anyone in civil society, are you using the best tools that are available to us in this amazing age we live in? And Id ask both of you whether you are working with people from a broad spectrum of classes, races, cultures, genders and backgrounds and who might be facing very difficult circumstances of their own. I believe only when we do all three: right problem, right tools, right people, will we really power things up.

So no, I dont believe the UK will compete on the world stage just by building another ride-sharing service or another gig economy platform. That’s not going to happen. Enough with the pizza delivery services.

But we could compete and we could transform ourselves if we think about society and the problems that we need to address for all of us living here collectively on this small island. If we keep resolutely focussed on tackling the right problems and ensure that we use the tools of the modern age. If you agree, please do follow and join forces with #WeTheCatalysts

This is an edited transcript of a speech given by Martha Lane Fox at the inaugural gathering of The Catalyst. twitter: @WeTheCatalysts URL:

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