By Malaika Cheney-Coker
Somewhere in those unseen servers where the neurons of AI hum and purr, is the sound of connections not being made. AI, that genie in a bottle both increasingly omnipotent and omnipresent, when queried, fails to identify one of its greatest areas of potential for the social sector—boosting our ability to create and to speed up the translation of our imaginations into real-life. This is surely because we in the social sector have not yet expressed a vision for how AI can democratize creativity and innovation, not only in our organizations and networks, but in the social and communal spheres we serve.
The first fleet of AI solutions marketed to nonprofits seem unflaggingly to be focused on process optimization, time savings, and efficiency. It is out of this mindset that solutions for more efficiently querying donor databases and segmenting donors come. The more programmatically focused AI solutions may address things like better targeting of food supply to food banks or assessing eligibility for social protection programs. The statements of AI itself (via ChatGPT) on how generative AI could be used to spur creativity in the social sector, are mainly limited to storytelling for fundraising, creating unique artworks that express social themes, and design of logos, marketing collateral and branding materials (with the notable exception of nods to generation of novel ideas and scenario creation).
Cost-saving, hassle-reducing and process optimizing applications are wonderful and much needed. But where are the headlines, how-tos, and use cases of Generative AI, the new AI superpower, being applied within the social sector to turbo-boost our capacities for imagination and ideation? Where is the called-for unleashing of human potential both in the ranks of and with the populations we aim to serve? Generative AI offers a dizzying box of app confections to suit virtually every creative taste. Non developers suddenly have the ability to develop their own apps. Non coders can generate code. Non-artists can visually render their most fantastic imaginings. In theory, those who in the past might have been historically disadvantaged can translate their napkin scribbles to virtual prototypes, games or virtual ecosystems that are a combination of apps no one else has thought to combine. We can and should celebrate this extraordinary democratization of creative ability.
The ethics of AI, from lack of transparency, to data bias, to problematic data sourcing, are admittedly, hugely problematic. To their credit, many voices and organizations in the social sector and in the domain of AI for good, have been leading the way in calling for protections from these rights infringements. Furthermore, AI is an abstraction for the 2.9 billion people without access to the internet, signaling how large the task of finding justice in tech is.
In the meantime, social organizations must lead the way, creating clear visions and strategies for how generative AI can boost the creative capacities of their staff and stakeholders, and designing programs that do just that. This is not to be confused with the vital functions of impact investing or impact entrepreneurship all of which nurture innovation; instead, it is about starting at the point of eureka, with the creative mindset, and the skills for creating.
To be fair, it is not only those of us in the social sector that are grappling with the potential of the new technologies. The latest annual McKinsey global survey on the state of AI in 2023’s points to a possible perception of value gap between companies, with “reduce costs in core business” being a top AI objective for only 19% of AI top performers, versus 33% for everybody else. The top performers were almost twice as likely as everyone else to cite a top objective of “create new business and/or source of revenue.”
However, the social sector’s voice is urgently needed in the current moment – a crucible in which the future of AI will be shaped, and which will shape our futures. We have seen what the implications of silence have been regarding innovation. For example, the sector imbibed the design thinking ethos with mixed results. Perhaps, too late, have we wrestled with what innovation costs us, if it is heavily aligned with technical and mechanistic fixes for complex problems and is often incompatible with principles of environmental sustainability, equity and decolonization.
In addition, if the social sector is to bring a unique angle to the call for generative AI to boost human creativity, it could be to call out and remedy the injustice of who is given latitude to create and who isn’t. Long before the recent AI explosion, FundiBots, a Ugandan nonprofit, taught robotics to schoolchildren who typically wouldn’t have access to fancy STEAM curriculums, enabling them to see their simple creations, made from cardboard boxes, come to life. In Gainesville, Florida, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention helps students of all ages develop “inventive” skills and mindsets, through STEAM projects and imaginative installations. The museum explains that there is urgent need to equip schoolchildren, particularly those who have historically lacked access to innovation pipelines with inventivity™, given the World Economic Forum (WEC) estimate that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. Indeed, WEC cites creativity as the third most important skill of the future, behind complex problem-solving and critical thinking.
Skype, a pioneer of voice over IP in the early 2000’s, had a slogan that said, “The whole world can talk for free.” What would change if the social sector could loudly proclaim “The whole world (read, not just the privileged) can create like never before.”?