Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment

Three hundred years ago, the spread of science and liberal revolution inspired thinkers to claim that society was on the brink of an enlightened era. Today, as new data-driven technologies exponentially increase our ability to understand social problems, new strategies engaging the heart and the head boost the impact of social change programs, and tested techniques for evaluating impact reduce the cost of programs and ensure that funding flows in the right directions, there is reason to believe that we are nearing a new socio-technical threshold.

As David Bornstein claims, we are riding the verge of a social change enlightenment.

We can see it in the way that we are tackling social problems. For decades, social reformers labored under a vision of human beings as self-maximizing rational agents, a vision developed in the first enlightenment and perpetuated in the field of economics. Today, as Bornstein claims, we’re seeing the death of ‘homo economicus’. New research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology is showing that we’re not as rational as we thought. We certainly don’t respond rationally to social problems. Today’s generation of changemakers are taking this lesson to heart. Successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships.

  • In back-to-work programs, trainers are focussing on teaching ‘soft’ relational skills rather than just the ‘hard’ vocational skills that were a mainstay of previous programs
  • Initiatives like Playworks are improving recess activities to reduce bullying in schools, using smart games to instill social skills where traditional methods have failed
  • Environmental campaigns like have abandoned the attempt to scare people into changing by confronting them with facts. 350s global ‘art events’ enable people from all over the world to creatively express their desire for climate action through social initiatives that give them the sense of belonging to a global movement for change

Further evidence of enlightenment can be seen in the way that we are strategizing social change. Change starts with individuals, it’s true. But social problems have multiple contributing factors, and strategies that target single factors simply move the problems around. Increasingly, we are taking a systems approach to social problems. We’re mapping out the dynamic relationships that pertain between the different factors involved in these problems, treating the problems themselves as complex systems that can nudged and steered in positive directions.

  • Bornstein cites the 100,000 Homes campaign as an example. This national movement of communities engages an array of stakeholders united about the shared goal of reducing homelessness in particular geographic areas. Their strategy focuses on developing a ‘Vulnerability Index’ of local people in need. This data feeds into negotiations about housing and support resources. It puts the homeless problem ‘on the map’, creating a data profile and a social presence for society’s invisible citizens
  • Another example is the Strive Together campaign, which assembles ‘early childhood educators, school superintendents, college presidents, business leaders, foundation directors and a range of civil society executives’ to work together on helping children succeed at school from ‘cradle to career’. In addition to working on shared issues, the partnerships share measurements and results, enabling them to identify and disseminate strategies that work.

Systems change requires social innovation and smart data. Like 100,000 Homes, Strive Together succeeds because it focusses on both.

Here is where the social change enlightenment stands to take off. The marriage of social innovation and smart data is opening up a vast field of opportunities that will rapidly transform the social change sector and the world. Smart data is revolutionizing our traffic systems, food systems, healthcare systems, and security systems. The next generation of changemakers will make smart data an integral part of their social change strategies. Smart data is the key to turning the social change enlightenment into a social change revolution.

Smart data can feed into social change in three main ways:

1. Data visualization. Visualizing problems makes it easier to respond to them. We see this in the world of crisis mapping. In the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Ushahidi’s crisis mapping tools were hailed as a breakthrough innovation. Two years later, Google’s crisis map helped citizens of the US Eastern Seaboard cope with the Hurricane Sandy. Right now, there is immense untapped potential for data mapping technology in the social change sector. Only a minimal level of design skills and funding prevent social entrepreneurs from radically revamping the sector through a new generation of data visualization tools. Imagine open access maps featuring graphic representations of real-time, user generated, data on homelessness, poverty, climate impacts and carbon emissions. Just as the first maps gave early navigators the knowledge they needed to explore the world, the next generation of data maps will put social campaigners on course to change the world.

2. ‘Socialize’ the process of systems change with smart interactive campaigns. Smart data doesn’t just enable us to visualize problems, it opens up new ways of mobilizing crowds to engage with them too. We can take inspiration here from flashmob culture and groups like ImprovEverywhere, who seek to create ‘scenes of chaos and joy in public places’. Future social change initiatives will take a similar approach to catalyzing systems change in communities. Imagine free smartphones for kids in poor neighborhoods with apps that gamify education, healthcare, and public safety 101. Web campaigns that aggregate community stakeholders into value networks focussed on creating collective systems-level impacts. 350-style global campaigns that empower distributed crowds to create live data-maps of change in action.

The social change enlightenment will break down the division between online and offline activity. When we socialize change through smart interactive campaigns, we put a common digital brain in the bodies of engaged citizens. The swarm lives!

3. Empower entrepreneurs to engage with social change initiatives. The most talented people in the world are not necessarily working for social change organizations. This doesn’t mean that they are not willing to pitch in and get involved. This is a third area where smart data can drastically improve the fortunes of the social change sector. The social change enlightenment needs a next generation social network to draw top talent from about the world and help them interface and engage with problems and solutions. Since talented people are inspired by innovation, this network needs to showcase the smart data and social innovation strategies outlined above, and enable users to employ these tools and strategies in their own initiatives. Crucially, it should enable social entrepreneurs to promote the successes that they are having in their campaigns, and to promote themselves as leading edge changemakers too.

Exponents of the historical enlightenment didn’t advance their cause by hiding in silos. They joined communities, like the Royal Society, and published their results in public journals. The social change enlightenment will use the power of the internet, history’s greatest public resource, to aggregate new communities of activists and entrepreneurs to tackle the challenges of the future. These challenges are vast and our success is not guaranteed. But the opportunity we have today to rapidly accelerate our impact is cause for hope. Samuel Smiles once said: ‘Hope is the companion of power, and mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles’.

Our collective capacity today is truly miraculous. We need tools to transform this capacity into millions of enlightened actions.

These tools are coming. Vive la revolution!


  1. With a bit of network thinking and mapping, it can indeed be powerful:

  2. Reblogged this on Sabine K McNeill and commented:
    On the same wave length as myself as Renaissance Woman!
    18 slides on

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