New Technologies for Social Impact & Innovation in Government: a conversation with Sonal Shah



During a recent Keep-up by C Minds international knowledge-sharing session, we had the opportunity to host Sonal Shah, Beeck Center Director and founder of the White House Office for Civic Participation and Innovation under former President Barack Obama.

Sonal shared her insights with more than 50 key actors across sectors from the Mexican tech ecosystem on two main themes: how new technologies can be used to create public good and how government can embed innovation in its architecture to become part of its daily operations and as a means to a better citizen-centered service delivery. The lively exchange with the audience included questions on how to bring together academia, private, and public sectors to collaborate; the future of blockchain for social impact, her thoughts on considering technology as a tool and not as an end by itself, and how to ensure both technologists and policymakers have a seat at the table.


Below we share some of the main lessons from our conversation.

New technologies for social impact

As the former head of Google.org and within her other professional endeavors, Sonal came to realize that organizations often seek to address abstract problems (e.g. poverty or inequality) without identifying concrete desired outcomes. She suggests following a series of steps to maximize the impact that new technologies can have in adding public value:

  1. Begin by asking your teams what are they trying to solve; understanding the problem and community being served.

  2. Discuss the role that technology plays as a tool to solve that problem.

  3. Give time for technology to develop. Build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and leave room for learning and adaptation before thinking of scale.

Moreover, as the conditions to use certain types of technologies vary from city to city, she recommends bringing restrictions upfront and seeking to innovate within your bandwidth, taking into account relevant regulations and the role that institutions play in the context of the problem being addressed. Sharing experiences and recognizing differences between relevant stakeholders is key, as usually private and public sectors pursue different outcomes and often move at a different pace.


As a rule, try to keep your solutions simple. Sometimes the simplest technology solutions are the ones that work best, as was the case with M- Pesa in Kenya, mobile money transfers based on SMS which, as of March 2018, had over 20 million monthly active users. Another piece of advice is to keep in mind the challenges of scaling impact; Digital India provides relevant insights on how to promote the digital empowerment of millions of people.


Academia-Government collaboration

Although there are different models being tested by universities and federal and local governments, some of the common approaches include creating partnerships to share government data for long-term research and/or setting up a Policy Innovation Lab, where governments and academia can collaborate in developing research questions that solve specific problems.


Financing Civic Technology

Also known as civic tech, the sector has faced financial challenges over time and a lack of innovative business models. Sonal recommends shifting mindsets to seek long-term investments, as technology solutions for social good require time and several iterations before becoming profitable and having impact. Although not considered civic technology, the example of Amazon illustrates the point. The company was created in 1994 and did not turn a profit until 2001. owever, to date it has reported a profit with earnings of $2.5 billion in the most recent quarter.


Blockchain use cases

Given its features and infrastructure, DLTs have the potential to become a key tool in several government applications, such as the fight against corruption, to promote transparency, to keep land, healthcare, and student records, among many other examples. For instance, the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP) has been sending more than 10,000 cryptocurrency-based vouchers for Syrian refugees to purchase food. At a country level, Estonia has been using blockchain since 2012 to protect national data, e-services and smart devices in both the public and private sectors. As much enthusiasm as there is for blockchain, Sonal recommends being cautious and paying attention to potential ethical implications of the use of DLTs, as well as having conversations on whether these technologies are the best tools to address certain problems (remember, try to keep your solutions simple!).


Innovation in government

During the second part of the videoconference, Sonal shared insights on her experience working at the White House. During President Obama administration, the government had a methodological approach to innovation:

  1. Adding value to government data. How to understand data as a public good and promote its smart use by citizens and private sector.

  2. Financing for innovation differently. As government is the largest single spender on social impact, there is a need for new financing models.

  3. Using technology within government effectively. Sitting technologists and policymakers at the table to discuss how to deliver better services, what are the policies needed, and what kind of technologies can support the associated goals. The Healtcare.gov debacle served as an example of the disassociation between the policy wonks and techies.

Government procurement processes also play a key role in technology innovation, since bids usually consist in multimillion dollar contracts to be implemented within five-year horizons, which by the time of implementation are already obsolete (both from a technology and needs perspective). As procurement processes are challenging for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), it is necessary for governments to find new mechanisms, such as holding smaller amounts of money to test new technologies and ideas through “challenges”, or contracting smaller companies and help them build credibility over time. Legislation is also critical to tech innovation and new procurement models.


Even though there can be several innovation agencies within government, there is a need for political champions to push new ideas forward, as well as expertise from talented technologists to take a citizen/user-centric approach. The Presidential Innovation Fellows strive to harness new ideas and technology to remake the U.S. government.


Sonal closed the conversation reminding the audience that innovation in government can solve social problems such as housing, foster care, and water management, among other applications. So, ask yourselves, where do you fit in the innovation pipeline? What are you innovating for? Where does scale happen?


Consider this Keep-Up by C Minds session a conversation starter! We will continue exploring how new technologies and innovation can be harnessed for social good in upcoming discussions.


Watch the full conversation with Sonal


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