Social Tech Trust (STT) is a charity that supports tech projects that push for social good in the UK. Founded in 2008 as the Corporate Foundation of Nominet, the Trust became independent and partnered with Social Investment Business in 2018. Current CEO, Ed Evans has worked at the charity since 2016.
He first heard about STT around 10 years ago when he himself received a grant for a civic engagement platform he was working on. “Since then, the trust has invested over £30 million pounds in supporting more than 750 social tech ventures,” he states.
Some of the projects STT has supported in recent years include helping older people unlock their creative potential, to supporting Bristol-based Open Bionics on developing 3D printed bionic hands, and helping people to transform their neighbourhoods.
“This organisation has got a very clear vision: a world where social transformation is the driving force behind tech,” says Evans. In practice, he says, this relates to the rapid pace of technological change. “The way that that’s often spoken about is tech accelerating away from us and being passive recipients of technological change in society, whereas we feel that that’s not the case.
“We don’t have to be passive. We see the people as the designers, the creators, the users of technology, and what that means is that we can ask what we want tech to do for us, and also we’ve got a role to play in making that happen.”
He says over the past several years the Trust’s approach has been to support social tech ventures at the early, startup, stage, but this may be changing slightly. “If we are really going to shift the dial on social issues, we need to be looking at deeper collaboration, and that means collaboration across the public, private and social sector,” says Evans. At the moment this has translated into partnerships with bigger companies like Vodafone on the launch of a new Techstarter Social Innovation award, and Microsoft on a programme of AI workshops for charities.
Community, health, wealth
In the past, STT has invested broadly over a range of sectors, however a recent strategy review has fine tuned this approach, with three sectors selected for particular attention: communities, health and wealth.
Evans spoke a little about what the charity’s efforts in each of these categories will entail: “Within communities, we’re looking at how we can support a more connected community: getting people to come together, addressing issues we have around isolation and using that as a means to break cycles of disadvantage and increase inclusivity.” He says the goal is giving communities more decision-making clout, to make them feel empowered.
To do so initially, they’ll be working with an organisation called Radius, a platform for community reporting. This means anyone with a device can contribute reports on their neighbourhood.
“What they do is collate all of that data and present it back in ways which can give a voice to quite often disparate views and views which aren’t necessarily represented through mainstream press or research,” explains Evans. The platform was successfully used as a reporting tool during the Ebola crisis and STT is now examining how similar principles can be applied in the UK.
In terms of health, the group has decided that at present, social tech can have the greatest application in the area of preventative health. Evans says this will be focused on taking a more integrated approach to health rather than looking at specific illnesses.
“There’s often quite siloed thinking,” he says, adding that instead they hope to examine holistically all the different features of an individual’s physical or mental health and take a proactive – rather than passive – approach. “Looking at how individuals can take more ownership and control over their health,” he continues.
To this end, they’ve begun working with Feebris, a company that allows populations, through sensors, to measure different health indicators before submitting them to a platform where machine learning and analyses it on a vast scale in order to increase understanding of the different risk factors for various illnesses and which populations are most affected.
The tool is currently being used in Mumbai, within a group of 10,000 children suffering from respiratory illnesses. The Trust is examining how it might be adapted for UK populations.
Finally, wealth: “We’re looking at how you switch from just being productive to being purposeful. Why do we produce everything that we produce, how do we improve equity in the way that things are created and owned, and how do we create an environment that’s more sustainable?”
One of the companies they’re working with is Piclo, which “simply enables local energy to be matched to local demand”.
This platform works within the current system. “But ultimately it’s aiming to make the energy system more transparent and sustainable, and create a more transformative change,” says Evans.
But how do they select which projects and companies to support? He says early-stage organisations are often selected as this is where they feel they can have the most impact. “What we’re really driving for is transformative change in line with our social mission. What that means is that we’re looking at the kind of change which challenges and creates new systems and ways of doing things,” he elaborates.
The Tech to Unite Us funding round which the charity carried out recently, was “really looking at balance of power between people in communities, how they access opportunities, causes, health outcomes, community engagement, to apply those key lenses across that area,” according to Evans.
He says that the UK obviously boasts a vibrant and flourishing tech scene. “I think there was 6.8 billion invested in the UK tech industry in 2016, but far, far less of that is actually going into social tech,” Evans points out, “so our feeling is that there’s massive potential for social tech to be larger, but that currently that’s unfulfilled.”
Evans adds that there is a lot of infrastructure developed around the tech sector but that it isn’t always available to social tech endeavours.
He predicts that social tech will have to become more mainstream before being able to reap all of the benefits of the UK tech ecosystem.
STT is championing tech for social good at a time when the tech industry as a whole is facing increased levels of scrutiny.
“That scrutiny is healthy scrutiny,” says Evans. “We should be asking these questions around technology and we should be asking how technology is being developed, how it’s being used, where our data is going, who it’s being used by.”
He says that this interrogation has also opened up room for alternative approaches: “That’s where we think the social tech has a real role to play, and that ultimately the focus and the attention may die down to some degree, but the issues will remain unless we do things differently.”
But these questions are not answerable by the tech industry alone, and must involve other groups in society. “The private sector, social sector, the public sector, but also its users, its citizens, should be thinking about those questions,” he says. “We don’t see social tech as just being something for small organisations and startups.
“We very much see that organisations, large organisations as well, should be taking this approach, should be looking at and thinking about the social implications of what they do from the outset.”