Looking forward: reflections on DSI from SIC’s final event
SIC’s final event in Seville last month focused on the past, present and future of social innovation in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the role of digital technologies played a significant role in our discussions: over the past decade, digital technologies have revolutionised the ways we work, consume, eat, relax, connect, socialise, travel, think and know, and over the coming decade the effects of this revolution will only continue to grow.
On the one hand, digital technologies are causing or exacerbating problems including bias, discrimination, precarious work, unemployment, inequality, monopolisation, fake news, disinformation, misinformation, security risks, poor mental health and isolation.
But on the other, digital technologies have also had significant positive effects: providing high-skilled jobs, boosting economic growth, increasing access to knowledge and facilitating better public services.
We’ve also seen how digital technologies can be used to tackle social challenges in fields like education, healthcare, democratic participation, migration, climate change and urban development, a trend we call digital social innovation (DSI). Through SIC, we’ve been connecting different people interested or involved in DSI over the past two years and supporting them to share knowledge and networks.
At our final event a small group of attendees reflected on the future of DSI in a lively, and broad, conversation. We explored how we can grow the positive impacts of digital technologies, and mitigate the negative ones. Here are four key things I took away from the discussion:
We need to focus more on skills. For a long time we have talked about the importance of digital inclusion - but we’re still not doing enough. As digital technologies pervade more and more of our lives, digital inclusion and social inclusion converge: without digital skills, people risk losing access to government services, and have to spend more time and money on offline alternatives. With a significant proportion of the European populace still offline or lacking digital skills, we need to act urgently to ensure everyone stands to benefit. At the same time, not enough has been done for people to use digital technologies, such as social media, critically - a shortcoming that partly accounts for the challenges we face now around fake news, misinformation and disinformation. There are hundreds of organisations working to improve digital skills, particularly with vulnerable populations, but we need more funding and political support for their work.
Good impact measurement for DSI is still lacking. We have no shortage of frameworks and methods for impact measurement in the social impact space, including some which are specific for digital social innovation. But, as we have explored previously, there still isn’t enough rigorous impact measurement within the DSI field. Practitioners need to commit to understanding more about the impact they’re having, but they also need help from their funders and supporters to implement do this. If we begin to measure impact and share what works and what doesn’t, we’ll have more evidence to advocate for DSI and win over decision-makers.
The gaps between different stakeholder groups are still too wide. Practitioners, researchers, the tech community, policymakers and regulators are still too siloed - a problem widespread and well-known across the social innovation community and government. Breaking down these siloes is particularly important for DSI, which sits at the intersection of so many disciplines and areas of practice. Good work is being done to break down these siloes - EU-funded CAPS projects, for example, have to include different stakeholder groups while networks like Code for All chapters and tech for good meetups bring together people from across different fields. We need to continue breaking down these barriers to increase mutual understanding, communication, collaboration and agenda-building.
As we move forward, macro-level issues which threaten our democratic societies will continue to gain attention - areas like our internet infrastructure, cybersecurity, data infrastructure and democracy in a digital age. This is not only justified, but also essential for a more inclusive, more democratic and fairer future. My fear, though, is that some of these discussions and debates will mean less attention is paid to the potential positive impacts of digital technologies. I sometimes worry people will come to fear technology and lose sight of its potential for social impact. It is therefore essential that the DSI community continues to raise awareness of technology’s potential for social impact and demonstrates impact so that decision-makers and the public support it to grow and thrive.