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"Digital social innovation is intimately related to all other areas of social innovation": an interview with our DSI network facilitator

SIC's Digital Social Innovation network facilitator Matt Stokes (Nesta) gives his insights into the importance of DSI in today's society.

1. What do you mean by DSI, what are your favourite examples?

Digital social innovation (DSI) shares the principles and aims of social innovation, but capitalises  upon the potential of digital technologies to spread those principles and achieve those aims more quickly.

Formally, we define DSI as “a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale and speed that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet.”

This isn’t the most immediately understandable definition, though! So I like to think of it more simply - to me, DSI is simply about using open and collaborative technologies to tackle social challenges and change people’s lives.

The term DSI overlaps a lot with other terms like “tech for good”, “civic tech” and “social tech”, and we try to avoid getting into debates about terminology. What’s more important to me is that we’re all heading in the same direction and share similar aims: to reorient technology to social ends, and to harness it to improve lives and benefit the many rather than the few; to empower citizens to take more control over their lives, and to use their collective knowledge and skills to positive effect; to make government more accountable and transparent; to foster and promote alternatives to the dominant technological and business models — alternatives which are open and collaborative rather than closed and competitive; and to use technology to create a more environmentally sustainable society.

DSI has grown massively over the past few years, and there are now hundreds of projects and organisations working in the field across and beyond Europe. DSI uses a huge range of technologies - open hardware, peer-to-peer platforms, citizen sensing and internet of things, crowdsourcing, apps, open data, social networks and digital fabrication to name a few. And it is being used to tackle challenges in almost all areas, including education, healthcare, democracy, transparency and accountability, environment and migration, as well as inequality, poverty, justice, housing and many others.

It’s difficult to pick a few favourite examples! There are so many inspiring things going on - every day I come across new ideas, organisations and projects led by committed people, delivering real social impact.

Off the top of my head, a few favourites include Citizen Lab, a civic engagement platform which enables citizens to engage more closely in governance; Making Sense, an EU-funded project which used citizen sensing to empower people to understand more about their environment and campaign for positive change; mySociety, a pioneering civic tech organisation which has spent a decade making governments across the world more transparent and accountable; ProZorro, a volunteer-led organisation fighting for more transparent procurement in Ukraine which has rapidly achieved truly systemic change; the Fab City project, which aims to use digital tools to help cities become 50% self-sustaining by 2054; and WheelMap, which crowdsources information about accessibility of locations for wheelchair users.

I feel bad picking out only a few when there are truly so many things going on, so I’d encourage readers to check out the links above to specific social areas where DSI is particularly active, and to look at the blogs and case studies on the dedicated platform.

2. Why is DSI so important in today's society, what should people know?

While I don’t think the present day is uniquely different from any time in the past, as is often said, I do think we face a number of vast challenges including a broken economic model, gross inequality which is only getting worse due to things like automation and centralisation of money and power in tech platforms, climate change and a crisis in democracy.

We believe that  DSI is one method which has a transformative potential in a lot of these areas, although it’s of course by no means a panacea.

The digital aspect of DSI allows us to tackle social challenges in new ways at a much greater scale and speed than was possible before the rise of the internet; it allows citizens to take more control and to demand more transparency; it provides the opportunity for civic renewal and forms of citizen collaboration fit for the twenty-first century.

At the same time, the “dark side of technology” is rapidly coming to light among governments and the public, and DSI offers an alternative to the dominant tech models, as it attempts to use technology as a force for good.

For DSI to thrive, though, citizens need to be engaged. Our research has shown that engagement is one of the big challenges facing DSI projects and organisations. It can be difficult to convince people of the worth of DSI initiatives - not to mention that we often simply don’t have the time or resources to contribute as much as we’d like to civic society. It’s difficult to come home and spend an hour on a citizen science or civic engagement platform after a long day in the office or after putting the kids to bed!

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of activism and engagement facilitated by digital tools, from the #MeToo movement to Wikipedia. The potential is there - and as that potential becomes clearer and clearer, we hope people will be excited to get involved.

3. Why is it important that DSI practitioners are part of a wider network?

I like to think of DSI as a “method” of social innovation - it spans across social areas, and has close links to many other areas of social innovation research and practice. For example, to take the networks within the Social Innovation Community project, DSI overlaps very closely with collaborative economy, with community-led innovation, with public sector innovation, with innovation in cities and with social economy. It’s important that, rather than separating ourselves into siloes of social innovation, we work together to create maximum impact.

In the case of DSI, that means seeing digital technologies as a tool, rather than an end in itself. Technologists are often guilty of techno-utopianism, and of looking for problems which technology is the answer to. We take a different view: digital technology is just a means of tackling pressing social challenges, and we need to start with problems. Indeed, sometimes digital approaches might not be the right ones! For that reason, it’s important that DSI is seen as something intimately related to all other areas of social innovation.

It’s also important to note that DSI works best when it brings together specialists in different fields, and that for DSI to grow to scale it’s essential to bring in a wide range of stakeholders. The most successful examples of DSI are when policymakers, public servants, end users and beneficiaries, technologists, social scientists and civil society organisations all come together. Alone, none of these groups can succeed, and that’s why networked approaches are so important.

4. What is your hope for the future of DSI in Europe?

As I mentioned, DSI has grown massively over the past few years. We’ve seen a big growth in the amount of DSI going on - and that is to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, though, relatively few examples of DSI have managed to grow and scale, and DSI is still far from entering the mainstream in terms of public awareness, governance, public services and civil society. We have a long way to go, and our work on Social Innovation Community - as well as closely-related projects like DSI4EU - aims to help DSI grow and scale.

Challenges facing DSI include encouraging the public sector and civil society to understand and use DSI (and to equip them with the skills to do so); to increase the amount of funding and availability of skills; to connect different stakeholders to each other to increase impact and reduce duplication of efforts; and to find sustainable models of growth and sustainability for DSI initiatives.

Within the next few years, I would like to see a number of DSI initiatives in different social areas scale their impact and enter the mainstream of public services and civil society. This will necessarily entail consolidation, and some initiatives will fold - but this is not a bad thing. What’s important is that we learn from what works and what doesn’t, and prioritise tackling social challenges over personal or organisational success.

I’d like to see more examples of sustainable DSI initiatives which can grow without sacrificing their values. I’d like to see politicians and public figures championing DSI. And I’d like to see all Europe’s citizens gain the digital skills, and access to technology, which they need to make the most of DSI.

There is a lot of work to do, but we have made great strides. We need to keep up this momentum, and I look forward to seeing how DSI develops at this crucial time for our societies.


To find out more about DSI and become part of the network, email