Vignette 6 | Social engagement to realise the full potential of technological innovation

Rebecca Freeth and Andrew Akpan

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PSET CLOUD is a technological innovation that pursues the reclaiming of data self-sovereignty. However, as is evident throughout this paper, technological innovation on its own cannot ‘fix’ the many social and political obstacles to realising self-sovereignty. In the case of PSET CLOUD, social engagement is a valuable complement to technological innovation. Social engagement stimulates dialogue and collaboration between stakeholders who may hold very different positions, hopes and concerns in relation to issues of self-sovereignty and whose active support of PSET CLOUD is vital for its successful design and adoption. Below we share some insights from the social engagements that have been conducted in parallel to the technological innovation process.

JET and merSETA, with support from Reos Partners, have followed a process of social engagement that comprised inquiring, convening, inspiring, co-creating, collective strategising, and collaborating to strengthen the PSET CLOUD innovation. Each of these steps is briefly elaborated below.

Social engagement began with inquiry. JET and merSETA were starting to embark on technological innovation which held potential to re-align the PSET system to the supply and demand needs of the labour market. It was an ideal time to learn more about how key PSET stakeholders perceived the current situation of supply and demand, and to hear their uncertainties and concerns about how this situation might play out into the future. A widely held perception was that ‘Overall, the current skills planning, and provisioning system seems to create a lot of frustration … it’s not working as it should.’ When we asked about the constraints producing this situation, many responses referred to historical legacies and the pace of change on the skills supply side severely lagging behind that on the demand side. A persistent theme was also lack of coordination within the sector. We heard comments such as:

  • ‘A key constraint is the silo nature of the PSET system. It has historically been disjointed.’

  • ‘We do not have coordination and collaboration among stakeholders.’

  • ‘...due to the lack of data integration we’re trying to solve the same problem in a piecemeal way.’

  • ‘There is a proliferation of interventions ... We have an enormous number of organisations working on these problems but each approaches it from a slightly different angle. There is no central coordinating body.’

The inquiry process opened the door to more structured engagement across the sector. Once that door was open, JET and merSETA invited key stakeholders to walk through it, into a carefully designed engagement process. Generally, convening stakeholders has the aim of bringing together a group of those who collectively hold a diversity of roles and positions and have influence in the wider PSET system. While convening is an ongoing process, it was important to pay due attention at the early phase of the stakeholder engagement. The convening exercise started by bringing a small group of 25 stakeholders into an intensive scenarios exercise aimed at ‘scaling deep’. Over time, the convening exercise drew more people in, including larger groups of people from each of the stakeholder organisations – ‘scaling out’ – with the intention that ultimately, their combined input would enable the envisaged technological innovation to meet the needs of the sector and have significant uptake – ‘scaling up’ (Moore, Riddell & Vocisano, 2015).

The third step was to inspire the stakeholders to imagine what the PSET CLOUD system could achieve if successful. The theory of change expresses a compelling statement of intended impact – that South African citizens make informed labour market decisions that lead to increased employment in line with NDP targets. This statement had to be broad enough to supersede individual stakeholders’ interests, yet targeted enough that stakeholders could coalesce around it. This provoked stakeholders’ imaginations of what the technological innovation of PSET CLOUD could ultimately realise. An early wireframe model of the minimum viable product (MVP) of PSET CLOUD was shared as further inspiration of what was possible.

This set the stage for the group of 25 convened stakeholders to co-create a set of scenarios. As individuals from statutory bodies, government departments, business, academia and civil society in the PSET sector, they had a wide range of interests in PSET and held very divergent perspectives on the reasons for misaligned skills supply and demand. However, over the course of three months, they were able to co-create and adopt four scenarios. These scenarios represented a response to the most troubling uncertainties about the future that had been voiced in the inquiry process. Having a shared set of scenarios, which expressed carefully constructed narratives about what could happen in the next ten years until 2030, triggered a sense of shared urgency for making PSET CLOUD a success.

After the scenarios exercise, the wider group of stakeholders was invited to consider the strategic implications of these scenarios in a collective strategising exercise. The scenarios proved useful in starting conversations across the PSET sector about some of the social and political challenges to be addressed in order to realise the technological potential of interoperable data platforms. These included questions related to self-sovereignty. How would such platforms be governed and owned? How to take a decentralised approach rather than a command and control approach to data platforms? Individuals from different stakeholder organisations in PSET engaged on these questions to strategise a way forward together.

A growing number of stakeholders have expressed commitment to collaborate towards the realisation of the PSET CLOUD system. This commitment is the product of the many engagements through which JET and merSETA demonstrated not only how the PSET CLOUD could benefit the entire ecosystem but also how it could support individual organisation mandates and strategies. The realisation of PSET CLOUD hinges on the willingness of stakeholders to collaborate towards its success.

Our observations thus far are that social engagement has supported JET and merSETA, as initiators of technological innovation, to:

  • Communicate early about a new innovation with key stakeholders in a way that draws them into the innovation process while there is still time to influence it;

  • Establish shared accountability for advancing principles such as self-sovereignty;

  • Innovate in a way that draws on the experience, insights and knowledge of multiple stakeholders;

  • Build a more collective sense of ownership of PSET CLOUD as an innovation;

  • Identify future uncertainties that could jeopardise innovation, and unlock collective action (rather than collective paralysis) in response to these uncertainties;

  • Jointly address dilemmas faced in the technological innovation, for example about data privacy;

  • Foster collaboration in the ultimate application and roll-out of PSET CLOUD, thus broadening take-up and scaling.

In conclusion, while technology may enable principles of openness, fairness and self-sovereignty in relation to data, this is not only a technological endeavour. In the context of myriad stakeholders, it is also a profoundly social exercise. It requires dialogue and collaboration between many different people who have a stake in these issues. What is fair for one may not be fair for another; they need to be able to articulate what they see from their perspective, listen to the perspectives of others, and discover, together, how to realise the significant potential of an innovation such as PSET CLOUD.

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