This feature is a part of our #TechforGood series, in collaboration with Tech for Good TV. The series tries to discover and spotlight the ways that people are using and building technology to power social change.
For our latest, we interviewed Christian Kreutz, the founder of Crisscrossed and creator of WE THINQ. An open knowledge advocate and adviser on new forms of online innovation based in Germany, Christian is on a journey to find the right approaches to tech for good and social innovation having worked at International Development Aid in Egypt among other countries. WE THINQ is a social innovation platform helping businesses and corporations by providing services with ‘bottom up’ processes.
How would you describe the “tech for good” field in Germany, including civic and social tech and digital social innovation?
Personally I’m cross-pollinating between the communities because I see that they are separated. I work internationally so I see social innovation as an interesting area as it is exactly that, social. Open innovation is very much a corporate sector. I realised that civic tech and civic engagement work very well for hashtags because you can see different communities behind them. With open government you have this very interesting link between civic society and government with new approaches where you can incorporate citizens into the larger process. And then there is IT for the government, which is quite large and quite old, and that is in general technology applications with the potential for health and other kinds of topics.
But under the overall umbrella of all of that are new and different approaches about new models on how to run social business organisations and collaboration forms, which is really interesting. There are new finance models and new ways of interacting and engaging in networks and communities and perhaps how to change politics or how to make things more transparent. So I think we are on a different level working on very fascinating new models, but everything is very much at an experimentation mode and still young.
I think Germany for the past ten years has always been a step behind. For me from observing it, I think the UK and other countries like Holland have always had what Germany has lacked. Here there has always been a discussion about ‘why do we need the internet?' Rather than 'what are we going to do with the potential?’ That was so deeply rooted by journalists, the media and institutions that it was absolutely tiring. The privacy scene in German politics is very strong. In social innovation I think we are lagging behind. The models, methodologies and infractures has developed later here.
I’m sitting in the Social Impact Lab in Frankfurt which is something really new and special. But in the UK you would probably say “we’ve had that for years.” And if you look specifically at civic tech projects everything had developed too on a later stage.
What kinds of challenges is it being used to address?
For instance at Corporate Germany Project, which my colleagues are working on, there is a lot of pioneering work at the moment. Many small initiatives come to civic tech, mostly individuals and small groups. They are not necessarily co-ordinated or formed to any network but they have really brought people together for the feeling of being part of a community, which is super important for lessons learned in exchange. And the next step would be that they look at real problems.
We have a strong techie community but only a tiny proportion is interested in civic tech. There are many steps still to take with real social issues and looking at the problem first and thinking about how it can be technically solved. There are some nice seeds planted and for the first time it appears more consistent in the [civic tech] movement, but there are not enough organisations.
Who are some notable organisations that we should look out for?
Open Knowledge Foundation is doing a lot, especially their Code for Germany project. Betterlab has a huge donation platform. They are doing a lot of pioneering and research work especially and donation funding, peer-to-peer feedback systems. Abgeordnetenwatch which is like parliamentarian watch in Hamburg are doing very important groundwork. There is also a new start up for investigative journalism called CORRECT!V which works on freedom of information requests.
You have more on the other side a stream of social entrepreneurship, which is getting very popular. Change.org is here and becoming very popular. The Changer is doing some community work of connecting tech for good with social innovation. For me the first important signs are the dots being joined, but it’s still not a critical mass of people. In my opinion the UK not only has more people but more momentum and speed been put into it.
What might help to build up the the density in that community?
I think you want reach the mainstream public but I think funding is a major issue. There is very little for such work of changing and community building. There is the social impact labs but the internet is seen as just a need to do something else. They have large funding from foundations but if you really want to have impact in this area in projects it is very difficult to get funding. In the Open Knowledge Foundation I really got some insights into how difficult it is.
You have the problem of critical mass because the people who come to you, yes it is great, but there are so few of them. How do you get more people? There are tech for good solutions but we don’t address it and don’t have marketing to attract people. So you get a very low target group who know that the projects exist and really want to work on them. The awareness is very important there too. I find in the tech sector that people become way too techie and few become interested in such tech for good projects, which I don’t understand why to be honest.
What kinds of impact do you see them creating?
There is more social innovation and design thinking in areas like e-democracy and parliamentarian work and they are coming altogether more and more. What I like more in Germany, which you see a lot of in the UK, is people being more problem solving-focused, doing more developing and writing code. I see it in the labs here that it’s becoming mainstream and thinking first of the problem and then the solution. I think there is a lot of excitement here about it.
In terms of direct impact it’s still early days. The long running projects are the most successful ones, like the parliamentarian watch which has a question and answer system to find information from parliamentarians. It has reached a lot of people to allow them to ask questions. Another is Fragdenstaat (Ask the State) which is freedom of information requests easily made on the site. That has become very powerful with over two-third of requests in Germany being made on the platform. Germany, compared to other western countries, is less transparent so these two are helpful to citizens.
There a lots of smaller, local projects and hyper local platforms which have a lot of potential but they have not scaled as there is no finance model behind them.
Has Germany followed the same route as the UK in regard to the digital revolution within Government shifting cultures, as seen with Government Digital Service for example?
Not at all. All institutions from local to professional level are hiring agencies who are very much technical focused. They are maybe into user-ability, but they have nothing like what the UK Government is doing. The one thing we are now doing in Germany is inviting the civic society into the consultation process and that is new.