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Digital Social Innovation: Francesca Bria talks the Internet of Things

Author: SIE
Published Date: 16 February 2015

Francesca Bria is a Nesta Senior Project Lead in the Nesta Innovation Lab. She is the EU Coordinator of the D-CENT project on direct democracy and social digital currencies and she is the Principle Investigator of the DSI project on digital social innovation in Europe. The DSI project's final event, "Shaping the Future of Digital Social Innovation in Europe" is taking place on February 17th in Brussels. SIE recently interviewed Francesca as part of our special DSI series.


How can you see digital technology reshaping society in the next five years? What new trends are emerging?


A growing movement of innovators in civil society, tech and social entrepreneurs are now developing inspiring digital solutions to a variety of social challenges. 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 really interesting 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 have identified some societal trends that we believe will have a bigger impact such as “open democracy” that means a wider citizen participation in policy making; the “collaborative economy” that is the emergence of new economic models such as sharing platforms or digital currencies; and “new ways of making” based the open hardware and open manufacturing revolution. 


Some brilliant DSI examples are collaborative online platforms for online deliberation and voting, such as Open Ministry and Your Priorities; 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 new forms of collective intelligence in which people can identify specific behaviours, create awareness, mobilize collective action, and then implement the changes to tackle social issues. This emerging area could have great potential for future activities at European level, together with the experimentation of new funding instruments, be it crowdfunding or challenges & prizes to foster social innovation 


The Internet of Things is expected to transform society in the next 10 years yet it is not well understood by many. How would you explain the Internet of Things and its benefits to societies? 


The Internet of Things is booming and is about integration of the physical world (data coming from connected objects, sensors, people) with the virtual world of the Internet. The IoT does not concern objects only; it is about the relations between people, their interactions and relations with the environment. In particular it is the convergence of communication networks, logistics and energy that is important for future applications in the home environment and in cities. The production, capture and analysis of real time data, and the possibility to use of this data for the social good is at the centre of the benefits of IoT to societies. However 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. Today for instance the Blockchain (the technology that made Bitcoin possible) is a promising distributed protocol that could transform trust, identity and the way we do transactions and stipulate contracts. However, the Blockchain development is now mainly in the hands of the commercial sector and there are only few applications and experiments for the social good. 


It is clear that we need an open and democratic process able to shape the development of future technology in a way that they can benefit society and transform key areas such as public services, energy policy, democracy, money and health in a more inclusive and sustainable way. In fact, we are not only talking about technology, but of the institutions of the future. Deciding the rules of the game and the directions in which society is going cannot be left only to private companies or economic short-termism. 


How can the European Commission better support digital social innovation? 


DSI has been mainly driven by grassroots social movements, hackers, geeks and civil society groups. 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 much less systematic support for innovations that use digital technology to address social challenges. It is the quality of the balance between top down and bottom up that will determine the success of the digital transition. The EC and other public institutions also at regional and City level should be courageous and invest in this emerging field. We can suggest 4 main actions for policy makers:

  • 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.
  • Make it easier to grow and spread DSI through public procurement, providing support for evidence generation, common standards and integration with public services.
  • Expand the European DSI network and invest in training and skills development
  • 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