Technology and Social Innovation: The Foundation for Social Success

Rey Raymond, Biz Stone and Julius Genachowski. Photo by Tech Cocktail.

“Technology and social innovation together, creates the foundation for a recipe of social success.”  Julius Genachowski, FCC Chairman (February 23, 2011)

On the eve of a potential U.S. Federal Government shutdown and a political showdown in Wisconsin about collective bargaining for unions, especially for teachers, one could get really depressed about the potential future for change and innovation within this country. As a daughter of a retired public school teacher and a wife of a mechanical engineer, I am a strong believer that education, especially in the math and sciences, is one of the fundamental building blocks for ensuring a sustainable American economy, especially since most technological innovations and discoveries were made by people in the math, science and engineering disciplines.

However, if we, the American people, don’t invest in education and build the capacity of our children to pursue careers in these areas, how will we innovate and lead the world in developing new technologies that enable innovation? 

Through recession or not, I believe it is essential to build these capacities as we are now competing in a global work place and our jobs can and will soon be outsourced if we do not do something to keep our competitive edge.  It is a scary fact that test scores of U.S. students is on the decline. In December 2010, The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), which represents 34 countries, released the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, which showed 15-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 25th among peers on a math test and scored in the middle in science and reading.

Even with all of this grim information, there is hope for future generations, especially with new collaborations and efforts focused on facilitating the necessary dialogues to answer these important questions. One such initiative is a new partnership, ConvergeUS, that aims to bring a cross-sectoral approach to finding and implementing social innovation projects that are effective and scalable. ConvergeUS  will function as a facilitator and convener to bring diverse stakeholders together to create a “Technology Innovation Blueprint.” The group’s primary focus is to accelerate technology-based social innovation for the education, health, sustainability and emergency preparedness sectors, with an initial focus on STEM (science, technology, education and math) and early childhood education.

ConvergeUS launched on February 23. Photo by Tech Cocktail.

Last week, ConvergeUS officially launched with an evening of informative debate between leaders in technology, government, media and business. The evening was hosted by Rey Ramsey, the president and CEO of TechNet, and featured these other distinguished guests:

  • Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter
  • Andrew McLaughlin, Head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google Inc.
  • Leland Melvin, NASA Astronaut and Co-manager of NASA’s Educator Astronaut Program (EAP)
  • Joe Waz, Senior Vice President, External Affairs and Public Policy Counsel for Comcast
  • Muhammed Chaudhry, President & CEO for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation
  • Marta Urquilla, Senior Policy Advisor to the White House Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation
  • Julius Genachowski, FCC Chairman
  • Patrick Gusman, Executive Director, ConvergeUS

Some of the topics discussed focused on how to promote technology and openness of information within the education sector, specifically in communities where people need it the most or who are left behind. Under the leadership of Executive Director Patrick Gusman, ConvergeUS is working with this formula to convene annual summits and provide an online innovation clearinghouse to create and implement blueprints on how to use technology to solve social challenges. ConvergeUS will also work on additional social innovation technology projects to realize the promise of social technology.

I am a firm believer that this approach can harness new ideas and changes for the communities that need it the most. But I also think there are a few other things that I  hope groups like ConvergeUS and others consider when trying to merge technological solutions for solving social problems:

  1. Don’t let the tools drive the final product. In line with what Biz Stone mentioned at the launch of ConvergeUS, “Create things that people can use everyday.” People will get used to those tools or technologies and then specialization will come, especially when people are familiar with the technology.
  2. It is not always the entry costs for technology that are the problems. Sometimes it is the fixed costs, such as with “smart” phones. If a parent of five children can barely provide food for her family, how will she pay for the services that enable technology to work? In this case, is there a way for the service providers to provide tiered pricing based on family income and need?
  3. When creating new products, especially for low-income communities, don’t forget to give those people a seat at the table to ensure their voices are heard. They often know what solutions they need to solve their community problems, but most of the time, they just don’t have the resources, whether that is financial, educational or otherwise. IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, created a technology platform, OpenIDEO, which allows for such open-source idea generation that can be adapted to local situations.  
  4. We need more positive influences in our society of people who are doing good things in the STEM communities. Media producers should be less afraid to take risks and show some of the cool things that people are doing in these areas. Not all news has to be negative. People crave positive, inspirational news stories, so provide it to them. Take the risk to do something new instead of following the trends.

Some other organizations and networks doing good work in this area include the Digital Divide Network and the National Science Teachers Association.