On Wednesday, Nov. 1 a gathering of citizens and tech-savvy social entrepreneurs from the St. Louis region attended a discussion centered on the exploding arena of digital entrepreneurship aimed at the social good. This was the second of a series of four forums on “Civics & Civility” to be held by FOCUS St. Louis and sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council during the 2017-18 year.
The session was keynoted by Dr. Joana Breidenbach, an internationally recognized Cultural Anthropologist visiting from her native Berlin who investigates the intersection of digital media and social well-being around the globe. She is also the founder of Betterplace.org, Germany’s largest social good crowdfunding platform, serving 23,000 organizations overall and 1,000 new projects per month. Drawing on multi-year work in 24 nations around the globe Dr. Breidenbach shared three broad themes of the new wave of digital social entrepreneurship:
- Decentralization: The real-time capacity to collapse global phenomena and activities into effective action via digital information gathering/crunching, and via the crowdsourcing of not just investment capital, but other building blocks of social successful social change (such as accountability and management) mean less central planning and more stakeholder-responsive action.
- Constant Beta: Every version of social innovation via the digital sphere is merely the test platform for the next version.
- Collaboration/sharing: The office has officially lost its walls.
Digital social innovation is not a first world phenomenon. It is global. From micro-mappers using UAV imagery available on the web to guide responses to Hurricane Irma, to collaborative self-insurance for small farmers in southern Africa; from mapping immigrant resources in Germany, to tracking hyper-local rice shortages in the third world via twitter data analysis, successful ventures share some basic characteristics worldwide. They are authentic, not focus-group developed and marketed. They are accountable to their investors and stakeholders, and they capitalize on current behaviors. They don’t try to re-invent the wheel when it comes to how humans access information. Finally, increasingly social impact initiatives are choosing the for-profit model because of the greater ease of access to capital and investment dollars.
Adding the St. Louis perspective on digital social innovation were two St. Louis entrepreneurs: De Nichols, Director and Principal Designer of Civic Creatives, and Paul Sorenson, Founder and CEO of GoodMap. Each brought a number of valuable lessons learned to the table.Speaking about the approach to social digital entrepreneurship, Paul Sorenson reminded participants to “fall in love with a problem, not a solution” because the first solution you come up with is probably not going to be the final one (nor is the second, or the third …). De Nichols emphasized the importance of centering on the community you are seeking to help. Success in social change is not for those seeking entrepreneurial glory. Instead it calls for a low-ego/high-impact approach. Digital means can be used not just for data crunching and office collaboration. They can be used for story-telling and empathy building too. And these elements are crucial because as every digital entrepreneur will tell you, the tech is a tool, it cannot replace the human relationships it takes to make real change happen. But it can make those relationships many times more powerful and impactful!