Geoff Mulgan: Third sector leaders must grasp the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution

Artificial intelligence, big data, 3D printing and other emerging technologies bring great opportunities to the sector, but most charities are currently failing to take advantage of established technologies, let alone emerging ones

Geoff Mulgan
Geoff Mulgan

A fourth industrial revolution is sweeping the world, with rapid advances in artificial intelligence, mobility and advanced manufacturing. But not-for-profit organisations, including charities, pressure groups and NGOs, are currently playing little role in this revolution, whether as users of technologies, shapers or influencers.

For most of civil society, the priority is to get on top of already mature technologies, from basic data analytics to use of social media. Some organisations do excellent work to tackle this skills deficit - including TechSoup and DataKind in the US, and Cast, Doteveryone and Nesta’s own ShareLab Fund here in the UK. But these remain sporadic and quite fragmented. The gap between civil society and business and government is widening, and too little attention has been given to shared services that could reduce the need for digital skills in NGOs.

For those with stronger capacity, the next priority is more work on using digital tools to address charitable aims. There is already a wealth of emerging technologies that can be harnessed to support social change, and more and more forward-thinking not-for-profits are already adopting them to great effect.

To give just one example, Cancer Research UK has pioneered gamified citizen science to speed up data analysis and involve thousands of people in research, and is now exploring how it can use artificial intelligence and voice-recognition technology.

Nesta has been mapping and supporting this growing community of charities, social enterprises and grass-roots groups that are using digital technologies to tackle social challenges, a field we call digital social innovation. Our open data and research provide a valuable resource from which organisations can discover and adopt best practice. While many are using well-established tools such as crowdsourcing and geolocation systems, a growing number of initiatives are making use of more cutting-edge innovations.

For example, Open Bionics is harnessing the power of robotics to create open-source, affordable, lightweight, modular, adaptive robot hands and prosthetic devices, which can be easily reproduced using off-the-shelf materials and rapid prototyping techniques, greatly increasing their potential reach. In the humanitarian field, MeshPoint is a modular, open-source device for creating peer-to-peer internet networks in disaster areas and refugee camps, which can be built anywhere in the world easily and accessibly.

But despite these exciting developments, there’s still a long way to go. Many digital social innovations struggle to scale their impact, which is, at least partly, a consequence of the scarcity of capital when compared with that available for commercial digital innovations. And so far there has been remarkably little take-up of new tools by older, established charities and foundations, and others in the broader civil society such as mutuals and trade unions.

The biggest challenge of all, however, is to influence the direction of technology development: how public money is spent and regulations framed around AI, drones and the other emerging technologies. A new generation of more digitally-savvy leaders are moving into positions of power and influence. But we probably need new ways to bring them together to work at multiple levels, from the most basic skills and tools to influencing how billions of pounds of public money is spent to advance the fourth industrial revolution. Our existing umbrella bodies are struggling with these tasks. As a result, the big risk is that civil society will not only fail to make the most of the new tools, but will also fail to protect us from the many threats of a 4IR gone wrong: from misinformation, unethical uses of AI and pervasive digital surveillance to massive job destruction not matched by job creation.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of Nesta, the social innovation charity

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