Embed technology in services or go to the wall, warns digital expert

Annika Small, head of the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology, tells Nesta's FutureFest conference that front-line organisations could go under if not helped to embed digital in their strategies

Annika Small
Annika Small

- This article has been amended; please see final paragraph

There is a danger that charities delivering front-line services "will go to the wall" if the sector doesn’t change its approach to technology, according to an expert on digital strategy.

Annika Small, co-founder and director of the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology, issued the warning during a debate at the FutureFest 2018 conference in London, hosted by the innovation think tank Nesta.

Cast, a charity that supports charities and funders to use digital technologies, has provided advice to several large charities including Age UK, Centrepoint and Action for Children.

"If we don’t urgently support social organisations to embed digital in their strategies, in their services, in their culture, we could very quickly imagine a very different future," said Small.

"One where charities that are on the front line, and which act as a lifeline for millions of people in desperate need, will go the wall having failed to make use of digital tools and techniques to become more nimble, more sustainable and more democratic.

"I really hope we’re not going to sleepwalk into that sort of future."

Small singled out trusts and foundations for particular criticism, arguing that they "have been pretty slow to support digital transformation". She said: "Many see it as a core cost and very few are willing to fund that."

This concern was echoed by Julia Kloiber from the German-based tech foundation Prototype Fund, who joined Small on the panel and called on funders to "work on unsexy core funding" to support digital.

Suzanne Jacobs, chief executive of the domestic violence charity Safe Lives, also spoke at the event and described digital technology as "the most incredible force for radical democracy."

Safe Lives now provides a digital platform that connects hundreds of people affected by domestic violence, but Jacobs told the event that some colleagues had been sceptical when she first tried to introduce new tech to her organisation. "It’s a question of patience," she said. "You’ve got to bring people with you. Sometimes, what looks like resistance [to digital] is actually a lack of confidence."

There was also a danger that digital plans could be derailed by senior staff who were "totally gung-ho" about the latest big ideas, she warned. "Small and incremental change may be much less glamorous and sexy, but might be much more impactful," Jacobs said.

Jacquie Howard, programmes director at the Mobilisation Lab, which aims to connect changemakers around the world, heralded the change digital technology had already made as society moved "from a model of institution or organisation-led change to a model where people are leading change".

This had resulted in "a big challenge for lots of established charities and NGOs to actually let other people speak", Howard said, arguing that campaigns must be designed and directed by people on the ground rather than bureaucratic processes inside charities.

Highlighting the most inspiring examples of charities adopting new technology, Small mentioned Becca, the Breast Cancer Care app that connects cancer survivors with a support network to help cope with the aftermath of having the disease, and Wayfindr, the app devised by the Royal London Society for Blind Children to help blind and partially sighted people navigate public transport.

- The article previously said Breast Cancer Now had produced the Becca app. Annika Small's job title has also been corrected. 

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