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Lessons of digital social innovation beyond Europe

Author: Jordan Junge
Published Date: 17 April 2015

Although the ‘Shaping the Future of Digital Social Innovation in Europe’ event held in February in Brussels marked the end of an 18-month European Commission project on digital social innovation, it sparked the beginning of conversation on the future of DSI. The tone and context of the event was European, however, there were key themes and lessons learnt that could be applied globally. Four things that stood out for me during the event were:


1.     The power of digital social innovation


Geoff Mulgan of Nesta opened the conference highlighting the power of digital social innovation to radically organise and change lives and societies at a low cost.  Unlike other technologies, such as aerospace, many of the digital technologies highlighted have very low entry costs and are simple to use and understand- thus drastically opening up the field.


Safecast is a brilliant example of the power of digital social innovation. Following from the tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan in 2011, Safecast crowdedfunded a project to develop an inexpensive and highly accurate geiger counter that enabled citizens to track radiation levels in their communities and develop a complete and comprehensive dataset that was invaluable in the recovery process.


Consider the open source hardware, Arduino, a cheap circuit board that can connect the digital world to the physical world. The options are limitless- from asatellite in space to solar panels that search for the brightest sunlight to sensors that monitor pollution. James Roberts just designed an inflatable incubator fitted with the hardware to provide a simple but lifesaving device for babies in refugee camps. Adruino is brilliant- not just for the inventions that people have built with it- but for the community that has sprung up around the world dedicated to open-source and support. 


The DSI map has over 1,000 examples of brilliant innovations that showcase this power and potential.


2.     DSI is unusually democratic and social in its aim and potential


The aim of these digital technologies is to connect, mobilise, and share - making them incredibly democratic and empowering. Not only do citizens have a voice more than ever but are in many cases, in control of the technology helping to shape the future and their communities.


M-Pesa has enabled millions of people who were outside of the formal banking system to gain access to secure financial services, revolutionizing the way people buy and sell goods. M-Pesa is an easy to use mobile banking app where customers drop off cash at one of the 40,000 Safaricom registered retailers, (most likely a local corner shop) and then have the money in their account. M-pesa can be used to pay bills, salaries, individuals, and make loans. The lack of bureaucracy and regulation and popularity of the Safaricom network has seen the service explode- with over 2/3rds of Kenya’s population using the service. M-Pesa has been accredited for boasting growth in local communities by saving people time and money, creating a sense of trust in mobile banking and enabling a whole host of start-ups in the region.  


Digital technologies are also helping to increase transparency and accountability, particularly in policymaking. YourPriorities is an e-democracy app that allows citizens to submit ideas, debate them and submit the ideas to policymakers. In Reykajavik, up to 40% of citizens use the platform and the city council has committed itself to discussing and implementing the most popular ideas on monthly basis.


3. Its not always inclusive


However, as world and governments embrace digital innovations, it is important to step back and understand the audience and intended impact. Chris Sigaloff ofKennisland took a more realistic view of DSI and reminded the panel at the event that it’s important to ask questions- particularly who is this all for? Will innovation really make for a better future for all?  


As India rushes to build 100 smart cities, it’s important to open the debate of end user. As Adam Greenfield wrote in the Guardian: ‘It is one thing, after all, to reinforce the basic infrastructures that undergird the quality of urban life everywhere; quite another to propose saddling India’s cities with expensive, untested technology at a time when reliable access to electricity, clean drinking water or safe sanitary facilities remain beyond reach for too many.’


This is something that SIX is really interested in exploring over the next year- how we can ensure that innovation is inclusive to all & include more unusual suspects in the innovation discussion.  At our annual SIX Summer School this year in Delhi in November, we will explore the role of digital innovations in people’s lives and how we can make technology more human.


4.     Collaboration is necessary


The DSI map and conversations that it spurred has highlighted all of the unique and diverse actors in this field. However, many of these actors operate in isolation in their own silos. As Robert Madelin, Director General of CONNECT, stated at the event ‘the field of digital social innovation is pretty fragmented-there are a lot of communities working on this but they don’t know each other’.


One strong recommendation that emerged from the day was the need to further build up and develop the community of digital social innovation- to help connect the dots and further grow the field. SIX is excited to help build this community by providing spaces to continue these conversations, promoting the field of DSI globally and encouraging more collaboration across sectors and countries.


This project has highlighted the power of collective intelligence for the social good and the ability for citizens to change the systems in which they live. The conversations in Brussels helped to challenge assumptions and ask important questions about regulation, funding, collaboration and the future of this field. These conversations cannot just be confined to Europe. We’re excited to continue these conversations this year- from Nairobi to Delhi- and explore the impact that digital social innovation has to change people’s lives and society.