What happened at Social Innovation Camp December 2008

We held our second ever Social Innovation Camp last weekend and it was a whole lot of fun.

From a Friday evening to Sunday afternoon we had over 80 talented developers, designers, social needs experts, mentors, facilitators and those with business, marketing and legal skills to help accelerate seven early-stage ideas for web-based tools to change the world.

We set them the challenge of building seven social start-ups in less than 48 hours and let them loose in the Young Foundation in Bethnal Green, London.

The whole thing kicked off on Friday evening with an informal introduction and drinks: together with some imaginative use of felt-tip pens and sticky labels.
 The real work began bright and – given the night before -perhaps a little too early at 9am on Saturday morning. We had strong coffee and huge croissants to welcome Campers and after a brief introduction to set the challenges for the weekend, they were off dividing themselves into teams around the seven ideas and hunkering down into spaces around the building.

And it all sort of took off from there. Each team had to ‘prove the potential’ their idea had to create real social change and become a fully-fledged social start-up by 2pm on Sunday afternoon. We gave them some things to think about (hacking together some software, deciding how they’d sustain the tool and how they’d get people to use it) but how and what they chose to develop was left to participants to decide.

Everyone attacked their task in a huge variety of ways: we had a crack team of coders sitting in the attic building this; to groups fiercely arguing about taxonomies; to neat divisions of labour into development, design and pitch. We used Twitter to find skills and expertise around the building and had a dedicated handful of people circulating each of the projects offering help and advice on everything from media law to project branding.

Patch leads and extension cords tangled round each other, mixed up amongst pens, paper, glue and cellotape – all put to use showing how ideas could make a difference in reality. One team even headed off to a nearby canal path to ambush Saturday afternoon joggers into signing up to their site. Projects gained new names, the walls became plastered in post-it notes, diagrams, wireframe sketches and designs.

Show and Tell

After a frenzied sprint to the finish, all our participants gathered in the Museum of Childhood at 2pm on Sunday to share what they’d built over the weekend. We invited a whole load of extras along and each of the seven teams pitched what they’d created.

The progress teams of people – most of whom had never met previously – made in less than 48 hours was staggering. The projects kicked off with AccessCity, who built a stunning amount in one weekend – a Ruby on Rails platform with working api and iPhone app as well as a beautifully designed site and presentation. The audience was then treated to two hours of video, clever tech and the appearance of some vegetables at the end. Check out our December ideas page for all the material we’ve collected from the weekend – the Guardian’s Jemima Kiss also wrote a great run down of the teams and projects here.

The judges had the unenviable task of rating each project from one to seven based on some loose criteria: that a project had proved its potential to create real social change by harnessing the power of individuals to do something for themselves and that the technology they’d built wasn’t just for early-adopters, but for anyone to use.

The results were very, very close – the Good Gym scraped in in first place with Useful Visitors a close second, followed by our other five projects in very close succession. You can read more about the judges’ view from Lee Bryant at Headshift.

(UPDATE: Another Social Innovation Camp judge, Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab, also blogged his thoughts here.)

The strange power of people

But this weekend wasn’t supposed to just be about winning or making a back-of-the-envelope idea a reality.

Social Innovation Camp is also about practically demonstrating just what web-enabled people-power can do to change important things: everything from the environment to health care. All of our seven ideas are about building platforms which allow people to organise things better for themselves using digital tools. But Social Innovation Camp participants themselves also showed what happens when you help people to take control.

Something strange happened: 80 individuals gave up their weekend to come and spend two days working with a bunch of people they’d most likely never met before for no real financial gain simply to take part in an unusual hybrid of collaboration and competition, working on things that were often way beyond their normal field of experience and pitching in in every way they could. It was an intense, tough, sometimes stressful, but often passionate, creative, humbling and inspiring two and a half days.

As organizers, all we did was wind things up and let go: we provided a space, set some basic rules and a simple challenge. And then the people who came along stepped up, took over, worked together and achieved an incredible amount in a weekend. Social Innovation Camp itself showed what can happen when you give people a platform to do stuff for themselves.

So what’s next?

For all seven of our Social Innovation Camp projects, it’s now up to the teams to decide if they’d like to take their ideas forward. We’ll be giving little bit of support where we can to all the projects – not just the prize winners – by giving them suggestions, contacts or mentors to take their ideas forward. And if you think you can help them, please do let us know and we’ll put you in touch. We’ll be recording their progress on this site here.

But if all you got our of last weekend was some new friends, new ideas, a good time and a bit of inspiration then we’re happy.

As for Social Innovation Camp, we’re plotting the date of our next call for ideas and hope to be able to announce when this will be in the New Year. In the meantime, you can sign up to our Meetups, where we’ll be doing a little bit of what we do at Social Innovation Camp every month – our next one is Wednesday 14th January.

Thanks to everyone who gave their time and energy this weekend. We’re already looking forward to the next one. Keep watching this space!

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