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What's Impacting Social Impact?

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear,” - or is it? (For those of you too young to remember these lyrics from a classic rock tune by Buffalo Springfield, click the link and enjoy.)

The lyrics communicate a time of groundswell social change, reminiscent of the ‘60s, but relevant to social impact today as well.  FSG has been purporting new approaches to social impact.  From our thought leadership in Creating Shared Value and Collective Impact, to the case studies in our just published book, aptly titled “Do More Than Give,” there is  change underfoot. There is a new focus on being collaborative, innovative and taking a systems approach to the definition, strategy and delivery of social change.

One cannot help but recognize that the face of technology is also changing in this same direction. The advent of Web 2.0 and  Enterprise 2.0 circa 2005 heralded computing platforms that  facilitate collaboration, simplify and expedite the identification of and access  to “relevant” people and content, and the delivery of lean and nimble systems.

I do not believe that it is coincidental that at the same time, government and private industry are moving in a similar direction.  Whether guided, supported or instigated by technology, social computing technology is clearly having an impact on social impact.

A recent article in the Harvard Gazette provides timely example of this idea. The article is titled “Tapping the Information Fire Hose,”an interesting throw back to an earlier Enterprise Content Management (ECM) metaphor. Several years ago the business world realized that the issue was not one of not enough information – but “too much” information – culminating with the rapid growth of the internet. The challenge morphed from getting access to content, to one of how to effectively tap into the gluttony of resources so as to maximize the value received. Years later Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 emerge as ways to make this information available in a personalized, in context manner, as part of a collaborative work environment.

The Harvard article highlights a case study in which a community of volunteers, using tools such as wikis, mashups, social network analysis, and mobile computing, deftly bring aid to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

Though perhaps cutting edge, this is not new. Their efforts and experience are not that unlike those of a group of volunteers that stepped up, and leveraged Web 2.0 technologies back in 1997, in an effort to help locate Steve Fossett, the millionaire who disappeared while piloting his own plane.  The technology and coordination behind the effort is worth reading about.

The article also mentions a newly published report, commissioned by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Foundation, and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, appropriately titled, Disaster Relief 2.0, that examines both the current and potential future impact of Web 2.0 technology on humanitarian disaster response.

The world around us is changing in many ways, the least of which is not technology. The internet ushered in an era of unprecedented abilities to create and share information. More recently, Web 2.0 provided new ways to access and repurpose all of this information – and additionally ushered in new ways for people and content itself to collaborate. These new capabilities pose opportunity and challenge to virtually every type organization and community. From government to private sector, business models are being redefined by the inclusion of social computing.

In the world of social impact, the opportunity and the challenge lie determining how best to leverage social computing for the greater social good. As one of the authors of the aforementioned  report, John Crowley, research coordinator for crisis dynamics for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative stated, “We have the opportunity here to take advantage of the situation [new social computing tools]… If we do it, we can adapt faster, respond faster, and respond more efficiently.”  

Something is happening here, what it is, is becoming clear.