Social impact in the spotlight: Why the public sector must embrace collaborative platforms

Public services are in for a tough decade, facing constrained budgets and political upheaval. But Nesta’s Matt Stokes argues that governments must take advantage of the collaborative economy to change the way they tackle social challenges.

Nesta held a one-day event, ShareLab, on 1 November​ – Photo credit: Nesta

The sharing economy, collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer: whatever we call it, digital technologies are changing the way we access and use goods and services.

It’s well-known that the world’s biggest hotel chain – Airbnb – owns no rooms and that the world’s biggest taxi company – Uber – owns no cars.

The titans of the collaborative economy have had billions of dollars ploughed into them, and there’s no sign of shrinking appetite: weekly, it seems, a new platform promises to revolutionise how we access everything from luxury yachts to chauffeurs, from parachutes to golf courses.

And the UK is a hotbed for this growth, with London recently ranked the best city in Europe for supporting digital entrepreneurs, according to the second European Digital City Index, compiled by innovation foundation Nesta and the European Digital Forum, and five other British also cities featuring in the top 20.

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Until now, time and money has been most liberally showered on commercial peer-to-peer ventures that provide non-essential goods and services for users and that deliver a healthy profit for entrepreneurs and investors.

More often than not, they focus on how the “haves” can access non-essential goods and services more cheaply and conveniently, rather than on how the “have-nots” can access them at all.

What hasn’t received so much time or money is how collaborative models can be used to answer some of our biggest social challenges. How it can be used to create a more inclusive, fair economy or to support stretched public services at a time of budget cuts and increasing demand. And how it can bring together communities across age, class and ethnic boundaries, and help us preserve rather than damage our planet.

But there are inspiring examples of collaborative models tackling these challenges. Take Peerby, which helps neighbours borrow household goods, or the Smart Citizen Kit, which empowers citizens to collect hyper-local data about noise and pollution and aggregates this data to tackle environmental problems and has been trialled in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Manchester.

Even more encouragingly, there is a growing awareness in the public sector that collaborative models can provide new ways to deliver public services better, cheaper and more sustainably.

A number of government bodies and grant foundations, for example, are now using matched crowdfunding to boost citizen-led projects. Leading the way is the Mayor of London, who has pledged almost £2 million towards community projects through the crowdfunding website Spacehive.

Supporting services

In the field of health, collaborative platforms can also supplement and improve existing services. One example of this GoodSAM, a digital app that alerts medically-trained first responders to nearby life-threatening emergencies like cardiac arrests – these people will often be able to get to them faster than ambulances and can offer immediate help.

GoodSAM is now fully integrated with the London Ambulance Service, so that a 999 call simultaneously alerts professionals and three nearby citizens to an emergency.

A similar system exists in Singapore, and both have helped save lives as a direct result.

Meanwhile, some European governments are using collaborative platforms to re-engage citizens in democratic processes and empower them to shape the societies they live in.

In Iceland, almost 60% of residents have used the online Betri Reykjavik platform, which allows them to put forward policy ideas that the city government is then committed to discussing.

And in the UK, almost all councils now use the hugely successful FixMyStreet, which allows people to quickly report problems in their communities to authorities.

Some councils are even taking on the role of entrepreneur. With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, Kirklees Council in Yorkshire has built Comoodle to enable sharing of assets, spaces and skills between residents.

Comoodle aims to enact a cultural shift across Kirklees, bringing in the full spectrum of the community, and focuses on how sharing can help people in need and community organisations.

Collaboration and communication

But we still have a long way to go.

First, we must raise awareness in the public sector – among elected representatives, civil servants and frontline staff – about how these models can complement service delivery. Nesta’s directory of digital social innovation profiles many examples of socially-oriented collaborative platforms.

Second, entrepreneurs and public servants with ideas must be able to access funding and support. Nesta’s ShareLab Fund is providing between £10,000 and £40,000, along with non-financial support, to people with exciting ideas in the field. But more remains to be done by foundations and the public sector.

Third, proponents of collaborative platforms – whether inside or outside the public sector – must communicate their impact. Compelling stories are an essential part of this: the heart attack victim who survived thanks to GoodSAM, or the children’s playground that was built thanks to matched crowdfunding.

But platforms must also be able to show in real, hard terms that they deliver better, cheaper and more sustainable services.

Finally, public organisations must develop partnerships with collaborative platforms, commit to implementing innovative models to complement existing delivery, and develop more effective ways of sharing and learning from each other.

The coming decade will be tough for public services. Ten years seems like a long time, but remember that in 2006 we’d never heard of Uber, Airbnb or even the “collaborative economy”.

That’s why we hope the public sector will embrace collaborative platforms as a complement and support to future public services.

By putting social impact in the spotlight, and with political and institutional backing, there’s no reason why responsible collaborative models shouldn’t change how we tackle social challenges in the way that Airbnb has changed how we book our holidays.


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