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Three things we learned at the DSI Fair in Rome

By Matt Stokes, Network Facilitator for DSI and Collaborative Economy. 

Last month we attended the DSI Fair in Rome, one of the largest conferences dedicated to the topic of digital social innovation (DSI) in Europe. Organised for the second year by CAPSSI at the extraordinary Campidoglio, the home of Rome’s city government, it brought together practitioners, researchers, policymakers and other people interested and involved in DSI.

DSI4EU and SIC co-organised an interactive policy workshop on the second day of the DSI Fair, where we led around 30 participants through a hands-on journey co-designing policy to better support DSI. Based upon a workshop organised by SIC’s policy leads, Madeleine Gabriel and Sophie Reynolds, our participants began by thinking really big about the challenges facing the growth of DSI, before moving on to brainstorm possible solutions which policymakers could implement, and finally refining concrete policy ideas. We’ll be developing some of these further over the coming months - keep your eyes peeled for more information and to get involved. You can download the canvases we used at the workshop, as well as the instructions participants used, here.

Alongside our policy workshop we attended a range of discussions and talks, and here I share three lessons which stuck with me. None of these arguments are new, and I haven’t gone into much depth, but I hope they spark new conversations. We’re always keen to hear your feedback, ideas, challenges and opinions!

We must not conflate DSI with NGI (next generation internet)

Digital social innovation, tech for good and civic tech are now becoming more established and widely-known terms, and people from different sectors are starting to appreciate the potential of collaborative technologies to tackle social challenges. Undoubtedly, we still have a long way to go - and our work within SIC and DSI4EU tries to address some of these challenges.

At the same time, though, pressing issues have come to the forefront of the very foundations of the internet: concentration of power and money in the hands of a small number of tech giants, threats to net neutrality (particularly in the US), censorship, surveillance, big data and artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and the nebulous spectre of “fake news”.

As these have risen up the agenda of our social, political, cultural and economic systems, questions are being asked about the very infrastructure of the internet, the technologies upon which it is built, and the ways in which it is affecting - and will continue to affect - our societies for better and for worse. Partly as a result of this, the European Commission’s new programme on the Next Generation Internet is a vocal and bold commitment to tackling these challenges and ought to be applauded.

Nevertheless, the two fields are too often conflated with each other, when they are in fact in many ways quite different. At the EU level, NGI is seen as the “successor” to DSI programmes like CAPS (Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability), and indeed the two fields share many characteristics and values. Both are committed to openness, transparency, decentralisation, inclusion and fairness.

But they also have important differences. To me, DSI is focused on how technologies can be used to deliver social impact. This often takes place at a very local level, in a very specific field, tackling a very specific issue or target group. It sees technology as a tool, harnessed to deliver social impact; the internet is the infrastructure which enables social impact. NGI, on the other hand, is focused on rethinking the infrastructure itself, exploring what the future systems of our digital society should look like and helping to build them.

Of course, the two are intimately related. If the infrastructure changes for the better, what we can build upon it will also change for the better. Equally, the vision for the change we want to see should influence what the infrastructure looks like.

If we don’t delineate their boundaries while also exploiting their links, shared values and shared aims, we risk confusing conversations, losing sight of our aims, engaging the wrong people, and getting different timeframes of action mixed up.

I hope that as we move forward we can delve further into the similarities and differences between these intimately related fields.

We’re still very far from understanding the impact of DSI at the project and system level

In the world of social innovation, impact measurement has been the buzzword for years - but not so in the field of DSI. As we outlined in our report What next for digital social innovation? last year, understanding, measuring and communicating impact is a key challenge to the growth of DSI, for a range of reasons:

  • DSI is an incredibly broad field, and creating common metrics has so far proved an elusive goal;

  • There are few tools, frameworks and metrics for DSI;

  • Funders are often ill-equipped to understand impact and support recipients of funding - for example, understanding that DSI needs heavy investment, and patience, before network effects kick in and tangible impact can be delivered, or because impact measurement frameworks are not appropriate for agile, fast-developing digital products and services;

  • The range of primary and secondary impacts of DSI initiatives is vast;

  • There is little funding for development of DSI, let alone for dedicated impact measurement funds.

  • The DSI community is still too often guilty of talking in abstract terms, rather than focusing on impact and how technology can change people’s lives and environments.

We have exemplary practice to look to: mySociety’s Rebecca Rumbul, for example, spoke about the organisation’s rigorous approach to impact measurement and the need to sometimes accept unwelcome truths. But there will never be a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach to impact measurement in the field of DSI. This being said, all stakeholders must commit to better understanding, measuring and communicating impact, not just so that we can grow the impact of DSI, but also to ensure that the development of DSI is ethical, inclusive and “does no harm” at the individual and societal levels.

We should accept the need for pragmatism in our approaches

For me, DSI is first and foremost a way of tackling some of society’s most pressing challenges - from democratic deficits to spiralling healthcare budgets, from poverty and inequality to food scarcity and climate change. Its end goal is to make people’s lives better, whether at the individual or societal level, whether in the short or long term.

To achieve this, we sometimes need to be pragmatic - to be open to opposing ideas and willing to compromise. I fear sometimes that the community can shy away from difficult conversations and subordinate impact to ideology.

The DSI community’s commitment to open-source technologies is laudable, and in our work we have always been advocates for openness, from open-source technologies to open knowledge to Creative Commons. At their best, open-source technology projects allow for scale, impact and inclusion, and embody the values and ethics of the internet we want to see. The Consul technology, now used in over 80 cities for citizen engagement, the Smart Citizen Kit, used to monitor pollution, and the tools created by mySociety for open knowledge and citizen participation are testament to open-source technology’s potential. Meanwhile, the internet itself is kept alive by thousands of people, many volunteers, who are committed to open-source technology. We also believe that publicly-funded projects should be open-source and that governments should procure open-source technologies wherever possible.

But it’s undeniable that they also come with their challenges, including poor user experience, difficulty finding sustainable business models, reliance on volunteers, funding shortages, lack of investment in marketing, communication and engagement, a “build-it-and-they-will-come” culture, and maintenance issues.

Meanwhile, the DSI community’s suspicions of large technology platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon have been shown to be justified time and time again; from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to workers’ rights and from biased algorithms to “surveillance capitalism”, big tech has a poor social and ethical track record. But in fighting big tech’s worst practices, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and also dismiss platforms’ potential to be used for good - indeed, it seems absurd not to capitalise on the fact that billions of users already spend hours on these platforms every day.

In short, we believe that for DSI to grow and reach impact at scale, we need to be open to non-conventional models - including proprietary technology, the use of big platforms and - yes - profit-making, as long as social impact is always the primary aim. At the DSI Fair, we heard from Elena Calistru, a member of DSI4EU’s advisory board, who has reached thousands of Romanians and involved them in holding their governments to account through Facebook. Many of the organisations who have been through accelerators like Bethnal Green Ventures use proprietary college, but are delivering impact at scale in complex systems like education and health. OpenCorporates, which has been instrumental in opening up corporate databases and influencing public policy, operates as a social enterprise, reinvesting its profits into the public benefit. As the growing impact investment field shows, social impact and financial return are not incompatible.  

Whatever our role in DSI - developing, implementing, researching, funding - we need to stick to our principles, our values and our ethical codes. We need to continue challenging harmful practices and proposing valid, realistic alternatives. But we also need to be open to meeting citizens where they are, experimenting with business models and co-opting big tech platforms for our own socially-oriented purposes. At the very least, we need to be open to discussing these issues. It is a difficult path to tread, but only by doing so can we hope to fulfil the potential for tackling social challenges which technology so clearly holds.