‘Digital Social Innovation’ (DSI) provides novel solutions and uses new technologies to enable communities to collectively address societal challenges, at a previously inconceivable scale.

Last month in Brussels saw the launch of a study into the emerging Digital Social Innovation ecosystem. The study was commissioned by the European Commission, and was coordinated by NESTA, together with a number of partner organisations. The launch was well attended by practitioner and policy makers, leading to a rich dialogue between the community of digital social innovators and the policy perspective.

Hexegan schematic of the 6 areas of DSI

Hexegan schematic of the 6 areas of DSI. Credit: © European Union, 2015 CC-BY-NC-SA

A work in progress

The paradigm-shifting properties of digital technologies for the nature of science is something that the Royal Society explored in its 2012 report ‘Science as an Open Enterprise’ as well as something the Society addressed more recently. DSI uses new technology to tackle a broad set of issues including health, environment, education and political engagement.

As a relatively new phenomena it feels full of potential, while still struggling to define itself more clearly. The Brussels launch provided plenty of opportunities to explore both internal tension within the community, and how to best relate to established institutions and embedded ways of thinking.

Go big or go home?

As the new kid on the block, the DSI community faces a range of challenges. Access to funding can be a problem, with European funding typically directed more towards centralised top-down projects rather than grassroots projects. Support, overall, is ad hoc for DSI initiatives and few companies are able to scale.

However, the view from some of the practitioners was that bigger does not always mean better.

David Cuartielles, co-founder of the open-source electronics platform Arduino encouraged the audience to ‘let small be small’. Tomas Diez from the Fab Foundation painted a picture of high-tech medieval cities where production is reclaimed by cities producing what they need while still being connected with other cities in a global knowledge network.

Joining these views was the suggestion that perhaps scaling should not always be thought of in terms of companies but in terms of models.

There is a risk that Europe will lose out as funding might be easier to access overseas. Tom Steinberg – founder of mySociety, responsible for a number of civic engagement tools such as TheyWorkForYouhighlighted the risk that some of our innovators might look to the US.  America provides plentiful opportunities for funding both through business investments and through philanthropic funding. The community needs to ask itself what the gaps for public services in Europe are, and how DSI can help fill them.

Getting governance right

The main concern expressed during the day was how monopolies risk crowding out smaller and more innovative companies. Is innovation stifled if questions about governance remain unresolved?

Large companies, often from outside of Europe, are able to efficiently and cheaply provide a host of public services. There was a worry that governmental organisations are not incentivised or equipped to challenge this balance. With rapid technological changes, it is no surprise that policy and regulation lag behind.

There was a call to address this gap by linking it closer to the skills agenda by ensuring that capacity-building starts in Higher Education.

An important facet to this debate is about access ownership and use of data. With mass production of data as the 21st century commodity, current knowledge, debate and capabilities might not be enough to deal with associated technical and ethical challenges.

There seemed to be a collective desire for the European Commission to engage better with some of these concepts.

In his closing address, Mario Campolargo (Director of Net futures with DG Connect), committed to rework the concepts on privacy and data ownership in the work programme in 2015/16 and ensure that they are more visible. 

Are we there yet?

The study has started to map the emerging ecosystem of DSI in Europe and provide a better understanding of its characteristics. However, there is still a long way to go to before it is part of the broader landscape.

Robert Madelin (Director General of DG Connect) saw DSI doing better under H2020 than it has done under previous funding programmes.

But if DSI wants support to grow, Mr Madelin emphasised that need for the community to create and communicate a clear image of DSI to become part of common discourse.