Technology’s emerging role as a driver for social good has received fresh impetus with a scheme to support British entrepreneurs committed to tackling issues ranging from mental health to youth unemployment, social inequality and climate change.
In a move designed to add momentum to a fast-growing market, a £1m fund has been made available to support start-up businesses that believe technology can provide a solution to persistent social problems. Nominet Trust, a charity set up to find ways of using the internet to improve lives and communities, has confirmed the launch of the “Social Tech, Social Change” fund, where projects designed to stimulate the growth of emerging UK businesses receive funding. The trust hopes that the expertise and funding could use the benefits of technology to improve areas such as healthcare, education and crime prevention, and edge Britain towards a more socially inclusive “e-topia”.
Annika Small, chief executive of Nominet Trust, said: “The talented individuals behind this industry have fundamentally changed the way we communicate, work, learn and shop. Imagine what’s possible if these same individuals, who have done so much for our economy, turned their attention to the tougher social challenges.
“For instance, rather than necessarily building hospitals, getting young people into more care professions is one way of rethinking some of these challenges,” added Small, former leader of Tony Blair’s global education programme and former chief executive of Futurelab, the leading educational research organisation chaired by Lord Puttnam.
Mandeep Hothi, from the Young Foundation, technological entrepreneurs dedicated to tackling some of the UK’s major social issues including unemployment, education, social isolation and health, said: “We are just scratching the surface of what the web can do to improve social issues.” He said that many enterprises examining social issues began life on the web.
Benjamin Southworth, deputy chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, David Cameron’s initiative to champion the “silicon roundabout” in east London, said: “It’s a massive market, the idea of creating a little bit of good is very British in a way. Creating businesses to solve real problems like the homeless and clean water quality in Africa.”
Twenty companies will be awarded £50,000 grants to develop their prototype projects and will also be available to tap into advice from mentors including Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and Autonomy founder Mike Lynch. Small said the type of project they were looking at included Big White Wall, which uses technology to link people to counsellors online and is anonymous and secure. The venture, says Small, partly addressed the stigma attached to mental health issues and allowed people not confident enough to approach their GP to go online and get feedback.
The reach of such projects is evident by the fact that the online counselling service covers an estimated 22% of the UK adult population.
“It’s had particular traction with army personnel returning from war and who are struggling with mental health strains,” said Small. There are 68,000 social enterprises in the UK contributing more than £24bn to the economy and employing more than a million people.