Tackling human crises with digital solutions

 digital solutions
© Andrii Yalanskyi

From the cost-of-living crisis to climate change, COVID, and war in Ukraine, communities have rallied together through recent emergencies – and proved the value of social action

Helen Goulden calls for creative thinking and a new national ‘civic digital infrastructure’ to support those in need.

As the white heat of the pandemic looked set to cool last year, the words ‘covid recovery’ and ‘building back better’ started to gain currency. Then came Omicron, with stuttering stop-start lockdowns, the rolling impacts of the cost of leaving the EU, a deep hole in our public finances, and a cost-of-living crisis. The next horseman appeared as the war in Europe, killing tens of thousands, with millions seeking refuge, and heightened instability in geopolitical relations. We have seen both the United Nations and the Governor of the Bank of England talk of global food shortages and famine in apocalyptic terms. And our changing climate lurks forever in plain sight.

Grassroots responses and digital solutions

While we must hope for and work towards better times, we know we will continue to face further, perhaps even existential, crises as the months and years roll on – and such crises require action at different levels. Increasingly, we are recognising the critical value of grassroots responses to national or global challenges. Whether it’s the swift deployment of tutors for kids missing out on education, providing homes for refugees, supporting vulnerable people during Covid, or helping those whose homes have been flooded; coordinated social action at a local level is a necessary part of a functioning 21st-century society.

Could it work better? If Airbnb can rapidly expand the global accommodation inventory and broker 356 million nights of accommodation securely via a relatively frictionless experience, why can’t we exercise similar levels of social imagination and digital solutions and innovation in meeting critical civic needs, increasing and better co-ordinating individual and organisational responses through technology? We see nothing on this in the Michael Gove’s Levelling Up proposal.

Critical infrastructure

When governments do demonstrate their interest in IT, solutions are designed to connect citizens to government, not citizens to what they need. These are not always the same thing at all.

Let’s take the example of the pandemic. Days before local authorities were coordinating action, and months before the central NHS Responder app was available, local people were self-organising through existing community groups and setting up new mutual aid groups. Many of those were organised through WhatsApp. This was a ‘good-enough’ platform, available to anyone with a smartphone, that proved an enabling force. It was critical infrastructure for hyper-local organising; chaotically at first, and increasingly marshalled by emerging community leaders. When it landed, the NHS Responder app was useful for sure, but it lagged significantly behind – and was, I suspect, less responsive and effective.

In another example, earlier this year, we saw the unceremonious and public sacking of Randstad as the £32m contract-holder of the National Tutoring Programme, responsible for brokering access to tutors for kids who had fallen behind in their education as a result of the pandemic. The Education Secretary chose instead to direct funding directly into schools. But if there had also been a platform to assess providers, their locality, capacity, impact and so on, could that have helped teachers coordinate supply and demand?

Then there are the Homes for Ukraine scheme, where households and organisations can offer a medium-term home to refugees. Sensitive and safe matching is a difficult task, but for those registering their interest, there is no current way of being connected to a local organisation that is looking for hosts, or resources to assess your suitability. We now have a situation where people are finding each other through Facebook – with local government and other agencies coordinating hosting, inspections and safeguarding in patchworked ways. Our systems are pitifully out of date for making that work effectively.

Plotting a better path

The problems of co-ordinating what people need with people and places who can meet those needs are not always easy to solve. But, taken together, these schemes show us both that people and organisations are ready to participate in civic schemes that require a hyper-local effort but have a national collective impact, and also that, while such schemes are distinct and specific to a challenge, fundamentally they all seek to match resources, skills and capacity to where it is most needed – usually quickly. Finally, they prove that, where governments need help from people and providers to tackle a serious, pressing challenge, the funding to build the necessary infrastructure is found. Yet each is commissioned independently, separately, too late, in a bespoke fashion and – although I’m happy to be proved wrong – offering little residual infrastructure for use after the period of commissioning is over.

We need creative, digital infrastructure solutions that lean into the strengths of a central government, but where the government takes a different role in its execution. HMG’s ‘Government as a Platform’ infrastructure of shared digital systems makes it easy (or easier) to develop user-centric government services. We now need a public service system in which communities and civil society are a fundamental, core part; we need to re-conceptualise how we think about infrastructure, innovation, investment and immediacy.

A fairer (digital) future

Through the Levelling Up agenda, there is a rightful focus on the physical, social and civic infrastructure in the places we live, reviving libraries, youth and community centres, parks et al; which have hollowed out over the last decade. And we are starting to see a stronger focus on rebuilding this infrastructure with communities, looking at asset transfer, advocating for a Community Power Act, supporting community businesses, and building greater evidence for the social and economic value of doing so – all championed by The Young Foundation among others.

In contrast, when we think of digital infrastructure, our imagination usually extends only to 5G, or universal broadband connectivity across the UK. We don’t think of what a civic digital infrastructure could or should be. How much more physical civic space might be unlocked, for example, if there were a national platform, where anyone could book anything from a community centre to an empty retail unit for an afternoon? How much more social action might we see if there were genuine, collective visibility of unmet needs and unused assets in a community? How could we connect providers of voluntary and social enterprise services for acute needs (such as debt advice) to bring them closer, more quickly, to those who need them?

But investors, governments and philanthropists have spent years tinkering around the edges of these ideas. Now is the time to explore investment in a ‘platform’ for connecting and scaling initiatives – because what previous, great initiatives lacked was any serious investment or revenue stream. Think of Streetbank (lending things to neighbours), StreetClub (B&Q’s neighbour platform to encourage sustainability through DIY), FloodVolunteers (matching skills, household goods and homes for those affected by flooding in the Somerset Levels); Echo (brokering peer learning and skills exchange between SME’s in a local area) – the list goes on and on. Innovative ideas, such as these, can expose and grow community capacity, building social local capital and connectedness.

Equally, person-to-person (or peer-to-peer) support may not just be confined to skills or stuff – but also include money. While we’ve seen a drop in the number of people giving to charity since the start of the pandemic, those who are giving are giving more. It may well be that the wealthiest in our society – those who may not be millionaires but who earn significantly higher than the average income – will feel increasing discomfort as they watch an ever-larger number of people dipping below the bread line. The ancient act of ‘tithing’ – or giving a monthly or annual donation – may see a secular resurgence. And as sites such as gofundme have shown, there are already ways of funding people directly for medical bills, education and so on. An anonymous way of gifting a monthly sum to an anonymous recipient on a very low income may not sound as outlandish next year as it may today.

We can grow, change, and do things differently. Let’s embrace the idea of national, civic, digital solutions and infrastructure that delivers greater, faster, more relevant and impactful support. That nurtures a sense of belonging; of feeling useful and needed in the place you live. And that supports mutual, reciprocal support, particularly in times of crisis.

This information was provided by Helen Goulden, Chief Executive at The Young Foundation.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here