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What we learned about Digital Social Innovation at the OKCon

Author: DSI
Published Date: 30 October 2013

Six months into our research project on Digital Social Innovation (DSI) we are in the midst of preparing our first interim study report, which we will publish in the next couple of months. On September 16th we convened our first Advisory Group of experts on different aspects of digital social innovation for the first time to discuss and challenge our work to date. Alongside this we also ran three sessions at the recent Open Knowledge Conference (OKCON) in Geneva to explore what the open knowledge community would like to get out of our research.


Discussions naturally went in different directions, covering the opportunities in different technologies from open hardware to open data and the role of DSI to help achieve outcomes in different parts of society, from better care solutions for an ageing population to new ways of growing democracy and participation.


However, aside from the very encouraging general interest in the research and the recognition of the need to create a much better knowledge base on what DSI is and how it can be supported, there were three recurring challenges that kept cropping up in discussions with the AG members and OKCON participants:


What are the emerging socio-economic models for Digital Social Innovation? 


As with many social innovations the biggest challenge for Digital Social Innovation(s) is the creation of sustainable and viable systems. For instance our Advisory Group pointed out that the mere use of open digital platforms for collaboration does not go far towards real social innovation in our present world. What is truly disruptive (in the positive sense) is the conjunction of digital tools and a culture and practice of sharing. It also probably calls for major changes in the macro-economic and legal environment (for instance re-defining growth, economic indicators and sustainability). New business models and socio-economic mechanisms based on the valorisation of social data and common information resources for collective use and public benefit are clearly starting to emerge.


However, big questions still remain around how many of the inspiring but very small scale initiatives will be able to demonstrate their value and compete or collaborate with existing systems across Europe. How will a personal network like Tyze integrate with traditional social care provision; how will sharing platforms like Peerby finance their service; and what will it take for new models of crowdsourcing legislation such as Open Ministry or Liquid Feedback to demonstrate they present a viable alternative to transforming the traditional models of representative democracy?


Our research needs to begin to unpick how these and the other inspiring examples we are researching answer these questions.


An Emerging grassroots civic innovation ecosystem in Europe: How can different types of organisations involved in supporting and growing DSI in Europe be supported in order to strengthen synergies across Europe


A big part of this research is crowdmapping networks of organisations involved in supporting DSI or delivering DSI services (if you haven’t already, have a look at our network map and join the community if this is you). This crowdmapping exercise is helping us to group DSI projects according to their contribution to growing technology trends such as open networks, open data, open hardware, open source, and knowledge co-production networks. This exercise is showing that it is crucial for Europe to invest in this emerging and vibrant bottom-up innovation ecosystem and technology trends.


Our research and the map will help to understand who the organisations are, where they are based, and what strong networks exist but it won’t give us the refined characteristics of the organisations and why they use digital technologies. In order to develop practical lessons for the wider social innovation community our work on these case studies will need to unpick the rationale behind cities like Vienna and Santander pioneering new practices in Open Data and open sensor networks, or understand what drives organisations like Mysociety and Open Knowledge Foundation to develop services like Fixmystreet and CKAN.


What are the different types of network effects and types of collaboration that are enabled by DSI? Digital Social Innovation enables new forms of collaboration and/or delivers a social impact through the creation of a ‘network effect’ (for a study on Digital Social Innovation with a broader scope, have a look at the Tech for Good project by our friends at the Nominet Trust). However, to properly understand the potential in online collaboration, we need to recognise and understand in much more detail the different types of collaboration and participation DSI activities ask of people. There is a huge difference between a simple action like an e- vote on Avaaz vs. deeper engagement via peer support through platforms like Tyze or taking part in a Hackathon to unpick open public data.


These are some of the big questions and challenges to DSI that we have had to date and hopefully our research, together with the active engagement of the DSI community, will begin to answer these. What would you like to come out of our research in to DSI? Let us know in the comments below or via our twitter account @Digi_Si or email us at Digital.Social@nesta.org.uk.