A growing movement of innovators in civil society, tech and social entrepreneurs are now developing inspiring digital solutions for a variety of social issues. The European Commission and other public institutions should invest more resources and formulate better policies focused on the emerging field of Digital Social Innovation.
Digital Social Innovation, a relatively new concept
Digital Social Innovation (DSI) is an emerging field, with little existing knowledge on who the digital social innovators are, which organizations, and activities support them and how they use digital tools for social change.
The development of open data infrastructures, knowledge co-creation platforms, wireless sensor networks, decentralized social networking, free software and open hardware, can potentially create the condition to raise awareness and spur collective actions.
A growing movement of innovators in civil society, tech and social entrepreneurs are now developing inspiring digital solutions for a variety of social issues in areas such as health, democracy, consumption, money, transparency, and education. We call this Digital Social Innovation.
However, today it still fails to deliver anticipated solutions to tackle large-scale problems, and the growth of digital services has resulted in an imbalance between the dramatic scale and reach of commercial Internet models and the relative weakness of alternatives, mainly filling marginal niches and unable to gather a critical mass of users that can adopt the services.
The main question is whether digital social innovation can provide fundamentally new forms of power that are capable of tackling large-scale social, and even global crises, while empowering citizens and allowing democratic participation.
DSI organizations and initiatives all over Europe
One of the main results of our just published DSI final report is the identification of more than 1,000 rising examples of digital social innovation all over Europe, and the hidden links among them.
The most promising DSI projects are the ones combining novel technology trends such as open data, open hardware, open networks, and open knowledge in new ways to achieve social impact.
We also have identified key socio-economic trends that we believe will have a bigger impact such as “open democracy”, which means a wider citizen participation in policy making; the “collaborative economy” that is the emergence of new economic models based on knowledge commons and sharing platforms or digital currencies; and “new ways of making” based the open hardware and open manufacturing revolution.
Some exiting DSI projects are collaborative online platforms for network democracy, such as Open Ministry and Your Priorities, part of the European D-CENT project funded within the EU CAPS initiative; Open spending that uses open data to create more transparency about public spending; social networks for those living with chronic health conditions such as Patients like me, or Safecast that has made possible large-scale crowdfunding of environmental sensor data.
These examples show how communities can mobilize collective intelligence, create awareness, promote collective action, and then contribute to meaningful social change.
To make a real difference DSI should be fostered and scaled at EC level, through targeted policies, investments in infrastructures and new financial models for bottom-up innovation.
What are the challenges in the EU for the DSI?
There are many challenges with regard to its governance, technological options, societal impacts including ethical aspects and ownership of data and infrastructure.
The World Wide Web became successful because it was built on a set of royalty-free open standards decided through an inclusive and transparent process. But, despite the founding ethos of technologies like the World Wide Web being aligned to social good, the last 20 years or so have seen the commercialisation of the Internet taking precedence.
A major risk for the Future Internet is the realisation of the “Big Brother” scenario, with increasing concentration of power. Few big industrial players could reinforce their dominant position by implementing platform lock-in strategies, enforcing extensions of copyright and patents, appropriating users data, discriminating network traffic, and carrying out even more pervasive surveillance.
Today Europe risks losing competitiveness in the digital economy and its technological sovereignty, since the main players determining future standards, business models and critical applications in fields such as the Internet of Things or Smart Cities are mainly based outside Europe.
One challenge for Europe is how it might acquire a competitive advantage in digital innovation by developing open, public and distributed infrastructures and experimenting with new economic models that are inclusive and sustainable, based on solidarity and the common good rather than winner-take-all marketplaces whose dominant players set the terms of innovation and competition.
The alternative is to accelerate innovations that align the capacities of the Internet better to social needs, and that decentralise power to citizens and communities.
Distributed and citizen-centric innovation should play a central role in the development of the Future Internet. Furthermore, privacy-aware solutions and encryption should be used by all citizens to regain control over their data, enhance their privacy and digital rights.
What policymakers should do to lend more support to DSI in Europe
DSI has been mainly driven by grassroots social movements, hackers, civil society groups, and social entrepreneurs. Huge sums of public money have supported digital innovation in business, as well as in fields ranging from the military to espionage. But there has been far less systematic support for innovations that use digital technology to address social challenges.
We think there should be a better balance between top down and bottom in the digital transition. The EC and other public institutions should invest more resources and formulate better policies focused on this emerging field. We can suggest 4 main actions for policy makers:
1. Invest in digital technologies for the social good, and promote specific regulatory and funding measures that support non-institutional actors driving innovation in areas such as the collaborative economy, cities and public services; and direct democracy.
2. Make it easier to grow and spread DSI through public procurement, providing support for evidence generation, common standards and integration with public services.
3. Expand the European DSI network and invest in training and skills development
4. Promote open standards, open technology, common frameworks and distributed architectures together with strong digital rights and data protection. This can support the development of an underlying platform with European values and ethics on top of which a digital social innovation ecosystem with applications for the common good could flourish.