Social Innovation Camp

Chris Adams discusses the ideas for tackling social problems that were discussed at the recent Socia

On the first Friday of this month, I joined a load of other well meaning programmers, designers and social entrepreneurs at Social Innovation Camp, to see if we could apply novel uses of technology to tackle social problems.

By lunchtime the same weekend, we had split into seven teams, and each team had developed an idea into a working prototype of an online service to pitch to a funding panel that would pick the top two entrants for further development.

What kinds of problems do people set out to solve in a weekend of hacking? Lets have a look at the entrants:

Enabled by Design (the first prize winner of £2000 of project funding) helps match disabled people doing common difficult tasks with product designers to make better tools, and find investors to put them into production.

Rate my Prison (the runner up, winning £1000) sets out to make prison visits accessible to families of inmates, and improve transparency.

OntheUp helps people track their personal development over time to provide new ways of measuring the impact of social work.

CV Lifeline is aimed at skilled migrants who miss out on jobs they're qualified for, instead of languishing in low paid work because they don't know enough about how to present themselves in the UK compared to their native countries.

Stuffshare acts like an eBay of sorts, for borrowing items in trusted groups to cut down on wasteful purchasing of rarely used items like camping kits, or power tools.

The Glue sets out to help users look after older loved ones who they don't live with, and connect them with carers who can help when they can't be present, and help families stick together.

Wibi.it is a service that links real world items with relevant information on the internet to help people become active, aware customers when shopping.

I worked as part of the team with Wibi.it (formerly known as the Barcode Wikipedia). Our general idea was that if your phone could read a barcode on a product, it could be used like a hyperlink on the internet, to search online for related information to that product. We designed an application that gave your phone the ability to do this, and created a website for the online community to pool information about any product you pointed your phone camera at. This made it easier for users to make informed choices about who they spend their money with when shopping.

Of course, what constitutes an 'informed choice' varies from person to person. To some people this means ethical consumerism; tracing wine or bananas or suchlike back to their farms where they were grown. To others it's just whether amazon.co.uk is selling the same item at a lower price, or whether your friends have already bought what you're looking at. Which of these considerations takes precedence when designing a system like this?

The 'informed choices' issue highlights how the problems we're facing are changing in the field of new media. Technology is getting cheap and accessible, and the barriers for entry are so low, that we're encountering all kinds of other interesting problems that people would only really encounter in R&D labs previously.

For example, in the case of wibi.it, how exactly are you supposed to present all this information in a digestible form in a screen two inches wide? Or just how foolhardy is it to map the way we use laptops and desktops onto how we use mobile phones? When the information you can access by reading a label is potentially infinite because it links to further info, how does that change how product labeling should be regulated? What would a supermarket trip be like if we googled every other item we looked at before popping it our trolleys?

Questions like these make using new kinds of technology to tackle social issues so interesting - they force you to challenge long-held assumptions about what's possible, or even appropriate, when trying to find smart solutions to complex social problems.

Which is what we're interested in here on this blog.

Selected links about social innovation camp:

The Guardian's coverage of Social Innovation Camp

Premasagar Rose of Dharmafly's account of developing stuffshare, with a video of their presentation to the funding panel

Aleksi Aaltonen's exhaustive list of links to every video, and blog post related to social innovation camp

Yahoo Lead Developer Chris Heilmann's take on Social Innovation Camp

Enabled by Design developer Matt Collins's blog post

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump