Nominet and the Big Issue offer hope to the hopeless

Have you invented an app that hasn’t quite taken off? If you can tweak it and apply it for some kind of socially useful purpose, you could get a massive helping hand. Nick Booth investigates

Have you invented an app that hasn’t quite taken off? If you can tweak it and apply it for some kind socially useful purpose, you could get a massive helping hand from some of the biggest movers and shakers in business.

Nominet Trust and The Big Issue are putting up half a million quid that could encourage technology start-ups to use their technology to benefit society.  

Don’t worry, you don’t need to invent anything new!

Many of today’s most successful applications were accidental hits. The technology caught the public’s imagination in the way the original inventors hadn’t envisaged. The internet, for example.

Or look at text messaging. The Short Message Service was the fruit of a Franco-German GSM collaboration so people could send messages when there was no connection. (Talk about preparing to fail!). Now it’s the revenue drip feed that has kept many comatose telcos from slipping away altogether.

If you pitched SMS as a concept to many of the creative strategists of the day in 1984, they’d have laughed you out of the room. But only if the ‘thought leader’ with the purple-est bottom was leading the whooping.

The irony of the IT industry is that everyone talks about being different, but anyone who actually is slightly unusual risks a metaphorical stoning. There’s even a uniform for mavericks. Unconventional people all seem to dress the same. But I digress.

There are thousands of successful companies that unwittingly solved problems they weren’t even aware of.  We’ve already got enough technology. What we need now is some imagination.

One of the most soul-destroying aspects of the tech crowd is the lack of creative application of their inventions. If a social media platform isn’t about conning people out of every detail of their private lives, so that information can be sold to advertisers, it’s about Big Data. In other words, creating big machines to ruthlessly exploit all the information that’s been harvested from gullible simpletons.  What a depressing way to use technology. It’s beyond Big Brother. It’s Big Browser.

And yet, and yet. Technology can be used for good, as well as evil.

The Big Issue’s technology investment arm (nope, me neither) and Nominet have got together to fund a competition to encourage people to invent technology with social merit. They’re awarding grants of £50,000 to 10 companies and – this might be even more valuable – each winner will be offered mentoring by consultants like Deloitte.

Here’s the good news for our readers. The Tech for Good Challenge, though open to everyone, is heavily skewed in favour of the professionals. For starters, it’s only open to ‘early stage ventures’, so that excludes the majority of well-intentioned students, maverick inventors and philanthropists. Launched on 28 February and with a deadline for submission on 12 April, entry seems impossible for a good proportion of the population.

Part of the application for the competition involves preparing a three minute video pitch. That alone will be enough to exclude the majority of competitors. Though IT is ostensibly about reacting quickly and being agile and creative – according to all the marketing – that’s not my experience. If you ask an IT marketing manager in the UK what time it is, he’s likely to make you wait until the afternoon when he’s cleared it with the head office in California.

In other words, the field is open to any technology company that’s already invented something. All you need to do now is work out how to make it more socially useful, which in this context means helping young people in some way.

Come on, you are solution providers. The problem is youth unemployment and lack of IT skills. How can your invention solve it? No, no! You don’t need to run it past  the compliance boys or check with Cynthia in Palo Alto. Just do it!

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