Hats off to Mailforgood and its brainchild, Social Good Week France – a string of events celebrating “digital solidarity” from September 25 to October 2. Rallying around the theme of “How new technology is changing the world,” the initiative brought together a number of France’s top civic innovators in eight cities across the country.
Needless to say, this is a big step forward for France’s budding social innovation sphere. That being said, there was one aspect of Social Good Week that I found disquieting; mainly, the underlying thread of technological determinism lining much of the discourse.
The narratives established in the events’ programme were reminiscent of 90’s techno-fervor in its first blush:
“Technology changing the world”
“Technology making the world better”
Implicit in these phrases is the idea that technology is the driving force that shapes social structure; a notion that I believe is not only misleading* but disempowering Although we can’t deny the tremendous impact that technology has on society, as a young community we need to get over our naive fixation on technology. An overemphasis on technology in and of itself presents an incomplete picture; we need to remember to focus on where the magic really happens: people.
With that as a starting point, and as a quick tribute to some of those present at Social Good Week, here are three things I love the most about civic startups.
- Horizontality. Civic entrepreneurs are rooted in the local context and operate both in and through community networks. This is a refreshing change from hierarchical heavy-handed government programs in search of similar solutions. My French favorites: Kisskissbankbank, Blablacar and La Ruche qui dit oui.
- Pragmatism, not ideology. There’s not much room for partisan battles in innovation. The most effective solutions can come from both sides of the semi-circle and results win over politics any day. Here I’m thinking about Make Sense, Babele and Pro Bono Lab.
- Failure. Civic startups tend to be lead by rule-breaking visionaries who think imaginatively, move quickly, take risks and as a result sometimes, well, fail. Change.org, for example, sought to build every possible tool for non-profits and failed before pivoting and developing an online platform for petitions. Rigid state funding structures and political egos will tend to allow programs to underperform rather than declare failure and pivot.
Technological determinism can create an enormous amount of noise that sometimes drowns out this powerful signal: social innovation belongs especially to those that drive it. Social Good Week brought together hundreds of those French entrepreneurs at the critical juncture of technology, business and social change. The challenges they are facing are many and the majority are still dealing with how to catalyze sustainable and large-scale social change. While they’re at it, let’s make sure the spotlight’s on them.