How social sector organisations are catching up to innovation

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Something important is happening in New South Wales: social services are changing shape.

Fusion Labs is part of The Reducing Domestic Violence initiative for the NSW government. We’re helping incubate three ideas that use technology to reduce domestic violence re-offending.


Back in 2000, therapist Robin Wileman wrote a powerful article titled “Innovation should not be Treason”. Wileman is a social worker who provides domestic violence services, and his article was the product of years of built up frustration. He argued that social services encouraged conformity and discouraged people coming up with new ideas about how to prevent domestic violence. Wileman thought this conformity was putting his clients at risk, because by “thwart[ing] creativity”, people were discouraged from from finding better ways to help people. His mission was to encourage people in social services to question their assumptions, to experiment with other ways of thinking and to be open to finding new ways to help people.

Fifteen years later, Wileman seems to be getting his wish. The New South Wales government unveiled its plan to fund innovative projects to support prevention of domestic violence. When Natasha Stott Despoja, the Ambassador for Women and Girls, unveiled the initiative, she said: “As much as the double-edged sword of technology is used by perpetrators of violence as a means of additional control, it is also a vital tool for survivors of violence.  [I]nnovation… is occurring in different corners of the globe, but we need to be more diligent about regularly sharing information and ideas. There is no excuse not to be doing this.”

Often, innovation is dismissed as a distraction from the main business of helping people. But in Despoja’s speech she wasn’t asking people to get involved in innovation because it’s a cool thing to do. She was asking the sector to look at innovation – newer, better solutions to old problems – because to do so can minimise risks and find opportunities to help particularly vulnerable men and women, just like Wileman wanted.

So, what’s changing…?

The social sector has accepted innovation as a way to improve services

Social services have been forced to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

In cases of domestic violence, for example, many different technologies can be used as tools of control and abuse, from social media platforms to location services to online banking. Social workers and counsellors concluded that the risks posed by technology are so great that it is unsafe to ignore it.

Meanwhile, many social service organisations are successfully embracing new technologies to help their beneficiaries. 3D printing is now used to quickly provide orthotics to growing kids with disabilities, apps help people with memory loss to cope with day-to-day living, and software delivers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to people suffering from insomnia.

There have, of course, been some high-profile failures in innovations for vulnerable people. However, as these experiments are shared and analysed, social service organisations get the opportunity to learn from others what works and what doesn’t. This, and access to large data sets, means social service organisations have an enormous pool of information to draw on. Innovation is often about making educated guesses about what to try next. Big data and shared learnings are allowing the social sector to make better, safer guesses with the same resources.

Innovative companies care more about social impact than ever before

Despoja and Wileman both note the problems and risks that new technologies create.

Almost expectedly, companies like Google and Facebook have pledged substantial sums of money to advance social causes. They’ve also started (with questionable degrees of success) to engage with the social problems they themselves create.

Other companies, like Atlassian and Salesforce, have focused on social impact from day one, by pledging 1% of their time, equity, product and profit to social causes.

Innovative technology companies now recognise that (especially when it comes to millennials) doing good is good for business. As a result, social service organisations can now access much more help from these companies, including financial and in-kind support to encourage innovation.

Entrepreneurs too have started turning their minds towards positively impacting difficult social issues. Crucially, these projects work best when entrepreneurs work alongside specialists, each bringing their own expertise to develop innovative solutions.

This movement has seen projects that connect techies to refugees and refugee service agencies and startup accelerators that build businesses with and for people with disabilities.

Both sectors have moved to a “human-centred” approach

Independently, innovative companies and social service organisations have both moved towards designing products and services in real, human terms – around their clients, beneficiaries, employees and funders.

Current best practice in health related social service providers, for example, is to provide “patient-centred care” – care that is based on the unique and individual needs of the person accessing the service.

At the same time, techies and innovators settled on the term “human-centred design” to describe the practice of designing and developing new products and services around real human behaviour. Speaking the same language has made it far easier for sectors to collaborate.

Funding has made social innovation less risky

Innovation is risky but (to echo Wileman) ignoring innovation is also a risk.

Providing funding that enables organisations to take risks that do not threaten their day-to-day operations has helped bring innovation into social work.

Organisations that provide both funding and support specifically for innovative ideas, such as Open IDEO, Innovation NSW and Northcott Innovation, have encouraged a plethora of new ideas to spring up, from an audio app for people with visual impairments to software that enables child protection services to safely collaborate with each other.

As innovation experts, we at Fusion Labs are proud to be working with the NSW government, the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, and the startups who are bringing fresh thinking to domestic violence prevention.