Social networks could help embed reciprocity says NESTA CEO Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan’s recent Edith Kahn Memorial lecture included some themes very relevant to the idea of People Powered Change, particularly ways in which the golden rule of “doing unto others as you would have done unto you” could be practically applied across society – whether amongst politicians, banks, commercial situations or daily life.

Geoff emphasised the potential for an explosion of innovation around platforms for giving – making social networks truly social:

So far social networks have generated vast wealth for a few, and have changed much about our daily lives. But they have done surprisingly little to change how social needs are dealt with. Quite what shape the new social networks will take remains unclear – but they have the potential to transform the giving of time every bit as much as networks have transformed retailing and so many other fields over the last decade.

Geoff is the chief executive of NESTA, one of the partners in ppchange. He was giving the lecture at the House of Commons for the UK volunteering and training charity, CSV.

After talking about choice architecture, and the way that commercial pressures shape the options we are given (citing bottled water for sale at airports and stations instead of public drinking fountains), Geoff went on to suggest that we need to embed reciprocity in our institutions and daily lives:

What if we paid the same attention to choice architectures for mobilising time as we do for consumption? What if we paid as much attention to choice architectures that reinforce the golden rule as we do for buying bottles?

What kinds of pattern would we see? I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine some very different patterns.

Imagine as much advertising and communication about how we might share our time as there is about goods.

Imagine that timebanks and carebanks became as visible as monetary banks, perhaps embedded in daily institutions – as the organisation Spice is doing with schools and housing – and imagine if they offered different kinds of accounts, where time given now might get you credits in the future.

Imagine far more networks like the Canadian model Tyze that surrounds a vulnerable older people with an online circle of support, informal and formal, friends and family plus doctor, to coordinate support.

Imagine more ubiquitous prompting to give – we’ve now followed countries like Spain in prompting charitable giving at ATMs and on tax forms, and there are many other places where similar prompts could be made automatic.

Imagine if every station had a digital notice board listing what community activities are happening that day or that week.

Imagine if instead of annoying cold callers selling insurance, once a week you were asked by email to take part in crowd-funding for new projects in the community.

Imagine the many tools now mainstream in business – like recommendation engines; tripadviser type sites – being mobilised for giving.

Imagine if all of the main creative industries – like computer games – found ways to integrate giving and sharing into fun.

Or a world where every employer at appraisal times asked – have you thought of using your skill for a voluntary purpose beyond work?

And imagine an honours system that was as local as national, with much more recognition for the people who give and share their time selflessly.

None of this is far-fetched and elements of all of these examples already exist.

Some – but not all – make use of new technologies that make it far easier to orchestrate giving and sharing. And there are now many examples worldwide of social network technologies being adapted to social needs – like Ushahidi in disaster relief, Kiva in loans, the collaborative consumption platforms like Couchsurfing, Freecycle or Buzzcar.

These are of great interest to me at the moment because NESTA is managing, for the Cabinet Office, the ‘Innovation in Giving’ Fund which will support creative ideas to take platforms for giving and sharing to a higher level.

We’ve received over 400 applications in our first round – all of whose video pitches can be seen online – and the sheer range and quality of imagination is breathtaking.

They are all confirmation that the internet has a great untapped potential to shift choice architectures in this way.

Social networks really are beginning to become more social.

And their promise is to embed different kinds of behaviour in daily life.

NESTA will be contributing more to this blog, particularly around their work on Neighbourhood Challenge.

2 Comments.

  1. Thanks David. Interesting to see some inspiring words here on the future of using the social web to encourage reciprocity and giving.

    I particularly like the concept of digital noticeboards in stations, running live feedback on community-based activity and how to get involved. As you know, this is an idea I’ve been recently trying to recommend for Lottery ticket distribution outlets and in shopping centres! We’ll get there.

  2. Thanks Nick – Big Lottery Fund are reflecting on ideas generated through our explorations over the past few months, so it’s a good one to repitch!