If you believe the tech evangelists, we’re living in a digital utopia. Every day, they tell us, new apps, platforms and websites are revolutionising the way we shop, travel, do business, listen to music, eat and socialise. Techies even have a special word for it – disruption: the art of manipulating the social and economic status quo to create new markets and, they hope, vast rewards.
And who hasn’t been tempted by a cut-price home-stay on Airbnb or used Skype and WhatsApp to stay in touch with far-flung relatives for next to nothing?
“Job creation is a big motivator for us – it’s one of the things our funders are looking for.”
Of course there is a cost. In our search for online bargains, it’s easy to forget that new tech produces losers as well as winners – just ask a taxi driver what he thinks of Uber or an Amazon worker how fulfilling life is in a fulfilment centre. And surely there are more worthwhile uses for the prodigious networking capabilities of our digital devices than swiping away dodgy dates on Tinder. Dotforge thinks so. The Manchester-based enterprise accelerator runs Impact, the north’s only business development programme for “socially motivated” tech entrepreneurs.
It has helped 24 fledgling businesses since setting up in 2014, including Mobile Power (mobile-power.co.uk), which brings safe and affordable mobile phone power to off-grid locations in Africa, and Deliverd (deliverd.com), a meal delivery app linking local restaurants and delivery drivers with hungry office staff while providing a path for vulnerable people into permanent employment.
It has also championed Street Support (streetsupport.net), an online platform signposting homeless people in Manchester to relevant services and making it easier for volunteers and donors to offer their time and resources.
Programme director Vimla Appadoo says what unites these disparate enterprises is a commitment to making tech work for good. “They all have a social mission written into their business model – it’s not just an after-thought. These aren’t charities or community interest companies; they’re businesses that are commercially driven but have a social aim at their core.”
Social tech start-ups, she says, face the same challenges as all new digital enterprises. To help overcome them, Dotforge’s 13-week programme takes candidates through an intensive series of workshops and mentoring on the business fundamentals, such as business model canvassing and how to be investor ready.
Supported by the Cabinet Office, Key Fund, Big Lottery and the Royal Society of Arts, the programme offers successful applicants £30,000 in start-up funding, in return for a small stake in the business, as well as the potential to access second-round investment worth £500,000.
But social tech companies have an extra obligation – to demonstrate their social impact. Dotforge uses the Key Fund’s social impact tool to understand and measure this. But, with almost half of all jobs predicted to be automated out of existence within the next 20 years, how can it stop new apps from “doing an Uber” and putting livelihoods at risk?
Appadoo says: “Job creation is a big motivator for us – it’s one of the things our funders are looking for. We’re looking to double the Dotforge team itself over the next three years and looking at [entrepreneurs’] impact on job creation.
“The programme encourages them not just to think about the social problem being solved but the wider impacts of their technology – positive and negative.”
She cites Litmus (projectlitmus.com), an artificial intelligence maths tutoring app, as an example of a start-up that has adapted its business model after being encouraged to see the bigger picture.
“In breaking down costs and helping parents find an affordable solution [for their children’s] maths education they were essentially taking jobs away from tutors,” she says. “To mitigate this, they have built an additional product using the data collected from the app to help tutors distribute effective homework and management tools.”
Vimla names the major areas currently trending in social tech as logistics, supply chains and the internet of things – the network of physical objects, from vending machines to buildings, that can now be used to collect and exchange data.
Healthcare data is another big growth area and Dotforge will shortly launch its first cohort of apps for patients, clinicians, GPs and health workers, following an accelerator programme specifically aimed at the healthcare market.
But often the most effective solutions use the simplest technology. Dotforge alumnus Zazu (zazuafrica.com) connects farmers and marketplaces in Zimbabwe. Providing crop data to supermarkets ensures retailers only get the produce they need while farmers get a fair price for their food and wastage is minimised.
The medium for this groundbreaking service is SMS – aka the humble text message. Evangelists might call it disruption. Others probably see it for what it is: appropriate technology used to do some good in the world.
In the Dotforge pipeline
Kuorum (kuorum.org) is a Spain and UK-based online political database aiming to bridge the gap between politicians and their voters. Styling itself as the “people’s lobbyist”, the platform claims to offer professional-level insights into political representatives and the issues they stand for. The company says it is currently working with NGOs in a number of European cities to engage excluded communities, including homeless people, with local politics.
Ample (ample.is) is a “mindful money manager” that promises to de-clutter your financial life. By combining the data and control aspects of banking with the personal service of a financial adviser, it aims to help users to focus more on what really matters in life. Don’t equate money to happiness, it says, promising to cut out spending that makes you unhappy. Save towards a specific goal or give to a charity that means something to you.
Open Cinema (opencinema.net) bypasses traditional film distribution networks to enable any community space to be turned into a fully licensed cinema. With its origins in a Soho homeless shelter, it now supports a nationwide network of film clubs programmed by and for excluded or marginalised people. Participants can also work with professional film-makers to create films of their own.
Textocracy (textocracy.org) believes everyone has the right to be heard – whether as a council tax payer, an NHS service user or a customer paying for a service or product. Using SMS, it aims to become the go-to platform for public services, the hospitality industry and other businesses to receive real-time feedback from their customers.
Photo: a buyer uses mobile phone technology to compare prices at markets in Burkina Faso (Jake Lyell/Alamy Stock)