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Digital engagement: is it time to shift attention from supply to demand, and from production to use?

The last few years have brought a cornucopia of innovation around data, with millions of data sets opened up, and big campaigns around transparency, all interacting with the results of a glut of hackathons, appathons and the like. Linked to this has been the explosion of creativity around digital tools for civic engagement and local government.

We at Nesta are heavily involved in these fields - and have just financed a new batch of research projects pushing the boundaries of data use to spot emerging patterns in the economy, as well as many projects to create new apps and websites, such as Make It Local, the Hyperlocal Media project, and dozens of the projects funded through Innovation in Giving. We're also closely involved in fields such as crowdfunding and collaborative consumption, as both a funder and through research.

There are plenty of big questions to ask about where digital technologies are heading. A slew of recent books do this well. Whether or not you agree with the arguments being raised by Morozov, Lanier and Carr, they're bringing a welcome critical intelligence to a field that's too often been gullible, and a slave to fashion.

There are also big questions to ask about digital technologies and public services - and in particular why so few public services have been radically redesigned. This has been talked about for as long as I can remember - and it's not hard to map out how a transformed health, welfare or transport system could work if you started afresh. But with a few exceptions (like tax) this isn't happening in any of the big public services anywhere. I'll be writing some blogs soon about how we might accelerate this kind of systemic change.

In the meantime there are some more pragmatic questions to ask about what is and isn't working. A pattern is becoming clear which poses a challenge to the enthusiasts, and to funders like us. In essence it's this: there has been brilliant progress on the supply side - opening up data, and multiplying tools and apps of all kinds. But there has been far less progress on the demand and use side. The result is that thousands of promising data sets, apps and sites remain unused; and a great deal of creativity and energy has gone to waste.

The reasons are fairly obvious when you think about it. This is a movement driven by enthusiasts who have tended to assume that supply will create its own demand (sometimes it does - but not often). Most of the practitioners are interested in the technical challenges of design, and a measure of their success is that for most applications there are readily accessible tools now available. Yet the much bigger challenges lie around use: how to develop attractive brands; how to promote and market; how to shape design to fit how people will actually use the services; how to build living communities.

We're beginning to think about what this implies for how we should work. It suggests we should pay more attention to four types of priority:

User-driven design - few of the basic insights learned by social innovators over more than a century are being applied in this field. These encourage innovators to start by understanding user needs, experiences and lives rather than starting with solutions. They advocate involving users in the process of innovation and design. A few crash courses, toolkits and supports for programmers might help - and a radical redesign of hackathons and the like to involve potential users and clients (many already start with problems - but often more work is needed to specify these more precisely). For example, we're interested in whether it would be possible to have advance purchase commitments rather than grants at the end of hackdays. There are some good examples of more rounded approaches - attuned to use as well as provision - such as this one... But they're quite rare.

Intermediaries - we've noticed a serious lack of intermediaries with the skills and resources to link emerging technologies, code, apps and web tools with potential uses. In other areas of technology intermediaries play decisive roles - but in this territory everyone wants to be an inventor not a distributor. So perhaps we should be doing more to support expert intermediaries.

Smart buyers - in some fields there are relatively few buyers, often sitting within public bureaucracies, either local or national. When there's an interested enthusiast they can move fast. But often we've seen key individuals move on, leaving projects floundering. What could be done to raise the overall level of competence and confidence in buying or commissioning user-focused digital tools? The Commons4Europe and Code4America model of embedding coders within public authorities is part of the answer - but it's unlikely to be enough ('designers in residence' face very similar challenges).

Marketplaces - there's a lack of events and places where supply and demand can be brought together. We know that conferences and visits still play a crucial role in technology transfer - because seeing is believing. Virtual marketplaces have a role - but usually in conjunction with physical ones. So how could we organise better events to connect the potential buyers of technology with the best of what's on offer? We're beginning to support events of this kind both in the UK and in Europe (with the Local Government Association and Commons4Europe), and we know that others elsewhere have faced exactly the same challenges (like the Global Living Labs, now CityMart company in Barcelona, Code for America, the World Bank and others). So what formats work best? What intermediation is needed within events?

Scale and scope - in some fields it feels as if many projects are being supported at too small a scale. In one view it's right to let a few thousand flowers bloom, and then back the ones that emerge. But one of the lessons of platforms is that it's not always the best ones that triumph - just as often it's the ones with the biggest marketing budgets or the deepest pockets, that then allow them to reach sufficient scale for the economics to work. So should funders be more strategic? Should they more often be encouraging projects to share technologies and underlying backbones while competing more on their ability to reach and segment users?

Finally we need more evidence. In another post I've written about the absence of smartness in the smart cities field: there are literally no organisations devoted to finding out what actually works, and therefore there's no one for cities to turn to guide them on what to buy. Perhaps the time has come for an organisation that's dedicated to being smart about smart things.

I'd welcome comments on both the diagnosis and the possible prescriptions. This is a fast-moving field that's full of potential. But I fear some of that potential isn't being realised. I'll shortly write a parallel blog on why the open data movement has both succeeded and failed: it's succeeded in opening up many data sets, and in some fields creating new industries making use of that data. But it has succeeded partly because it hasn't threatened any vested interests. The more interesting and important challenge may be to redesign systems to make the most of data.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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