This is a small town in Massachusetts named Monson, population of about 8 thousand people. You probabaly haven’t heard of it, and for good reason. Nothing terribly special about it – an average northeastern, small town.
Except for this: this is what it looked like in 2011 after it was hit by a F3 tornado.
Tornadoes aren’t common in that part of the country; it’d be like a hurricane hitting Germany – it came out of no where. So the damage was severe. Houses leveled, and lives lost. And when a tragedy like that occurs, rapid response is critical, and fortunately, there was an outpouring of support. And this one remarkable young lady who lived there did pretty much what I’d expect any of you to do: she stepped up. Started helping coordinating the response efforts as a volunteers: connecting local resources and volunteers with those who needed them, directing with vanfuls of volunteers, truckloads unsolicited donations, and dozens of displaced families.
What you wouldn’t expect though was that this was in many ways the problem: there were too many resources and needs for one person to coordinate on their iPhone. They were working 15 hour days, showering at a shelter, and things kept slipping through our fingers. It’s like adding chaos to a crisis.
So afterwards, she did what a lot of bright young folks do when faced with a problem: she built an app for that. Along with her city and a small team, they built Recovers.org, a community-powered crisis response tool, knowing that the challenges they faced in their emergency would probably be the same as those in others.
And they were.This is what happened to Forney, Texas, last year. It was another tornado that demolished the town.
But Forney was lucky They faced all the same problems they did in Monson – but now they had the tools. So even though, over 10 thousand affect, trying to coordinate with hundreds of volunteers, dozens shipping containers of donated goods, and one city manager trying to cope with it all… they managed to meet every need posted. Every single need was matched up to resources available, and that meant that people got their homes back faster, their lives back faster. The story of Recovers tells us that Common problems can be met with common tools – and that you can have a big impact with a small app.
But this story doesn’t stop in Forney, Texas. Recovers, a small, 4-person, roughly one year old startup, has taken their show on the road: they already have dozens+ paying clients, covering over 250,000 people in two countries, with dozens more communities on deck.Recovers is showing that it’s possible to improve your communities – even respond in an emergency – all the while being a small, nimble, and for-profit startup. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today.See while I’ve been here in Hong Kong, I’ve kept hearing – and even on this panel – a pronounced and inspired commitment to the notion of “social enterprise” or “social entrepernuership,” and I couldn’t be happier to hear it, and am bring consistently inspired by the stories I hear. But I want to try to convince you to try something else.
But in the interest of “Change the Game” and Making a difference, here’s what I’m going to try to do today: show you that there’s a new phrase you should start thinking about, a phrase I hope you use, like we have started to, instead of social enterprise. And that’s the civic startup.But let’s back up a little first.My name is Abhi Nemani, and I grew up in a small town in the USA not terribly unlike Monson. Eventually I made my way out to California and the Bay Area to work in the tech industry; Google in fact, which had always been a dream.But about three years ago, I quit that job at Google to help build a new non-profit. (And yes, my parents were thrilled about that.)
How did Al come to be soliciting help?A team of fellows was in Boston last February, and they noticed that the city doesn’t dig these out. They’re struggling just to plow the streetsBut one fellow, named EMO noticed SOMETHING else that people were shoveling sidewalks right next to the hydrants
So he did what any good developer would do, he wrote an app.It lets you adopt a hydrant, agree to dig it out, you get to name it, if you don’t someone can steal it from you, got some game dynamics.It’s just as much about fixing citizenship as it is government.
Entrepreneurs may not stand on the shoulders of giants, but markets do.Markets need capital,
That app is simple enough. What’s important about this app isn’t the technology – they built in a couple of months. It’s how it transformed the dynamic. Before the Mayor was frustrated, wanted to help, but unable to know what to do, and the citizens were disappointed, blind to the work and motivations of their servants in city hall.What did technology did, to quote the city’s CIO, Allen Square, was the change the conversation. Or as Fast Company put it, it proposed a new kind of more communication between two key groups in society.
So that’s why I’m making this call for civic startups. As we move into an era where everything is digital, the way in which we connect to each other and to our communities will naturally demand digital tools. And whether it be tools for government, tools for a nonprofit, tools for your community, these tools are emerging as the new scaffolding of public life.And we can wait around for them to come naturally, we can hope that someone else steps up to make them available. Or we, no you, can step up, you can change the game, and you can
Changing the frame: from social innovation to civic startups
“If you want to build a ship,dont drum up people to collect woodand dont assign them tasks and work,but rather teach them to long for theendless immensity of the sea…”- Antoine de Saint Exupéry
The MarketComparatively, thegovernment IT market isthe largest technologymarket• Over 50x bigger than iPhone apps• Over 10x bigger than the video games industryLargely undisrupted, heldby old vendorsGovernments want achange