Want to tackle a big challenge through technology? Here are Bethnal Green Ventures' seven top tips on how to start...

It’s never been easier to use digital technology to change the world for the better. More and more people are starting to rethink, redesign and rebuild the way we educate our children, provide healthcare and live sustainably on a planet of limited resources.

That’s why we started Bethnal Green Ventures. Through our programme of investment and support, we want to build a community of people who are changing the world using technology.

To date, we have invested in 42 teams on ventures ranging from more ethical mobile phones and 3D printed orthotics, to smart NHS booking systems and mobile games for people suffering from panic attacks.

So if you’re entrepreneurially minded, and tempted to tackle a big challenge through technology, where do you start? Here are our top tips...

ONE: Take on the big problems

Over the last few years, most of the technology we’ve seen has been produced by a small group: largely wealthy, male, and living in a small number of big cities. Naturally, they have been building solutions to the problems that they face on a daily basis: “Where can I find the perfect cup of coffee quickly?”, “How can I share my photos with my friends the moment I’ve taken them?”, “How can I publish my thoughts on a minute by minute basis?

And the solutions they’ve developed have been lovely. But what about problems like: how do we provide for a rapidly ageing and increasingly isolated population? How do we support the one in 10 of us who will suffer from mental health issues? How can we give everyone equal opportunities to education and employment? If just some of the brilliant people building technology right now turned their minds to these problems we might have some slightly more impressive technological advances than the Yo App.

TWO: Accept that social problems are wicked problems

Wikipedia describes a wicked problem as: "A problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. The term "wicked" is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems."

Social problems, such as educational inequality or mental wellbeing, are actually a collection of smaller (but still massive) problems, and you’ll often need to tackle several of them before you can get to the one you were actually interested in. This can be disheartening, especially because people in technology are used to problems that can be solved intellectually. But, social problems often involve negotiations, bureaucracy and community building, and even then they may not work because too many obstacles remain. But this doesn’t mean you should lose hope! The trick is...

THREE: Be focused  

If you set out to solve world hunger, you’ll probably fail. Hunger is much bigger than technology – it concerns politics, economics, capitalism, corruption and all sorts of other factors over which you have no control. But sometimes you can create real world impact by solving a smaller problem.

For example, DrDoctor, which is one of the ventures we support, set out to transform access to healthcare, a huge problem. But they decided to start by rebuilding Hospital Appointment booking systems. Through working with hospitals to improve the way they booked outpatient appointments they learnt a huge amount about how to work with the NHS’s existing technology, how their security protocols worked, and identified the individuals who were interested in new ways of doing things. So when they tackle the next challenge in transforming access to healthcare, they start from a better place.

FOUR: Solve problems you really understand

Playlab’s founder suffered from severe panic attacks so he built a mobile game that would help people manage the effects of panic and anxiety in their lives. The founders of Andiamo are a husband and wife team whose child needed orthotics. After the harrowing experience of trying to get ones that actually fitted, they realised that orthotics could be made far more accurately and faster by using 3D printing and scanning technologies. By using your unique insights you can make technology that could really change things for the better.

FIVE: Prove it’s possible

When Fairphone approached us two years ago they were a campaigning organisation trying to persuade big phone manufacturers to stop using conflict minerals and child labour. They weren’t really getting anywhere; everyone they talked to said, “This is simply the way it’s done, there is no alternative.”

So they went ahead and designed, manufactured and sold a smartphone from fair trade minerals, put together in cooperative factories, and that could be completely recycled at the end of its lifecycle. They’ve sold almost 50,000 of them, and now the big phone companies are paying attention.

SIX: Don’t just put existing services online

One mistake people often make when building digital services is just putting the existing system online, where all the old problems are simply replicated. But because the web enables new ways of working and thinking these services can be completely rethought. Our alumni Open Utility are re-imagining the way that people can buy energy, and supporting small-scale energy generation.

SEVEN: Ask for help!

Finally, always make sure you talk to people about what you are doing, and ask them for help. Our programme is hugely enriched not just by the experience and knowledge of our mentors, but the peer-to-peer learning between teams and alumni. You never know when that casual conversation might result in the introduction to THE person who will get your idea of the ground, or will trigger THE idea that makes it work.


- Lily Ash Sakula is a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, an accelerator programme that helps people use technology to change the world. As this is a guest blog, it may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.