If society is to benefit from a new generation of digital innovation, it’s vital we provide a whole new form of tech support scheme. Nominet Trust’s inspiring Digital Enterprise Award seems to fit the bill
Nominet Trust is no stranger to banging the drum for social enterprises and charities. Its most recent initiative, iDEA – the inspiring Digital Enterprise Award designed to champion young people’s use of innovation and entrepreneurial tech skills – is just the latest of its schemes designed to stimulate the growth of social start-ups and bring technological solutions to societal problems. From its Tech for Good collaboration with Big Issue Invest to its Social Tech Seed fund, there are few organisations more effectively placed to communicate how tech doesn’t just build good start-ups; it builds a good society.
Annika Small, the trust’s CEO, has always been interested in how technology can be used to reach people and drive change. “The social application of technology has been my bag for as long as I remember,” she explains. Much of her earlier career was spent working in broadcast journalism and documentary-making and it was this that first seeded the idea of the huge power that connectivity and communication could play in inspiring people.
Given the time she’d spent informing the public, it wasn’t too much of a leap to see the impact this could have in the education sector. “Technology is enabling a blurring of roles, of who’s the teacher and who’s the learner,” Small comments. “You have a lot of young people online who have a real passion for something and they take on that role of expert.”
This meant that teaching by rote and passing down information from the head of the class without a degree of interaction wasn’t an accurate reflection of the way people were learning in the wider world. “I became worried that there was a growing disconnect between how young people were learning outside of school and the ways they were learning inside it,” says Small. And this is what led Small to her role as chief executive at Futurelab, a registered charity dedicated to innovative approaches to education.
But it wasn’t just its power to open up communications in the classroom that Small found so powerful. “Technology can mobilise connections between young people,” she explains. This made her next transition, to working with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the interfaith charitable organisation set up by the former prime minister, a natural step. “Tony Blair was trying to improve understanding of young people who are in conflict zones: young people in Palestine connecting with young people in Israel, India with Pakistan and other parts of the world,” she says. “It seemed like technology could be a great way to enable that.”
It’s easy to forget technology’s power to connect, given how it can be maligned in the media. “Quite rightly, there are a lot of scare stories about technology and the internet,” says Small. “But it’s important to demonstrate that there is also another side to it.”
And when Nominet, the .uk domain registry, first began to look at setting up a charitable fund, this was an obvious area to move into. Small explains: “They very clearly felt that technology is such a force for good that it was important to have a corporate foundation looking at how it can be used to address complex social challenges.”
Since then Nominet Trust has invested more than £30m in a wide variety of initiatives. These range from connecting young people struggling to find employment with SMEs and charities that could benefit from their skills to projects that help individuals to invest a little bit of time back into their local communities. “Technology has, in a sense, transformed how we work, learn, shop, buy, sell,” says Small. “Why can’t it help us transform the way we look at these problems?”
Perhaps one of the areas that is attracting the most attention and investment currently in the tech space is around ensuring young people have the digital skills to code and create new projects and innovations. Nominet Trust certainly isn’t a stranger in this area, with its programme Make Things Do Stuff dedicated to championing these sorts of skills, but they found that whilst there was support for developing these skill sets, there wasn’t much support after this for those who had developed new platforms and ideas.
“We were finding that young people were saying ‘that’s great. I’ve got that base level of skill: now what?’ or ‘I’ve got this great idea for a digital business: what next?’” explains Small. “We just thought it made so much sense to provide the next destination for young people who have gotten excited about the potential of technology and have good business ideas.”
Part of the problem was that Nominet Trust was finding few young people felt comfortable with drawing down huge amounts of debt to get their project started. “There wasn’t anything that provided the support that we were hearing young people wanted,” Small says. “It was the lean, bootstrapping approach they were after.”
(l-r) will.i.am, HRH The Duke of York, Annika Small, CEO of Nominet Trust, and student
Instead the focus for iDEA became much more about providing young people with a framework to learn development models more in keeping with contemporary tech culture. Rather than encouraging young people to embrace debt and restrictive equity models, the scheme helps to stimulate a more iterative, experimental approach to their ideas. Small explains: “It is about working out how to build a bit of a prototype, testing it with your prospective customers, seeing if that works and keeping it quite lean and fast-moving.”
And the sorts of names the scheme has attracted as ambassadors is a reflection of the validity of this approach, with some of the UK’s brightest tech stars giving it their stamp of approval. Its ambassadors include Michael Acton Smith, the entrepreneur behind Mind Candy and Moshi Monsters, and Nick D’Aloisio, the 17-year-old who made headlines when Summly, his bedroom-coded news aggregator, sold for a reported $30 million to Yahoo. Small says: “Those ambassadors endorsing the programme helps show people that there is another approach available.”
Its launch at Buckingham Palace was equally star-studded, with the Duke of York and will.i.am both adding a little more celebrity to the scheme. “In terms of profile it was fantastic,” Small comments. Vindication of how effective this has been in attracting the attention of young people has been in the fact that its first limited run of 1,000 young people has already been swamped with applicants. She explains: “We’re pretty much at capacity already so the response has been phenomenal.”
But Nominet Trust is far from resting on its laurels with iDEA and has its eyes firmly on the future. “What we need to do is ensure we retain the momentum,” says Small. “We just want to deliver a programme that is really going to meet the needs of young people.”