Digital Social Innovation – Future directions

This article was written by Geoff Mulgan (CEO, Nesta) and is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. 

Over the last 50 years vast sums of public money have been spent supporting digital innovation in the military and business.   These fuelled transformative new phenomena – from drones to mass surveillance, Amazon and Google, to the ubiquity of personal data.  Alongside digital business, warfare and spying there has also long been an important strand of digital social innovation – visible in projects such as Avaaz, Wikipedia and Ushahidi. But there has been much less systematic support for innovations using digital technology to address social challenges.  

Digital technologies are particularly well suited to helping civic action:  mobilising large communities, sharing resources and spreading power. A growing movement of tech entrepreneurs and innovators in civil society are now developing inspiring digital solutions to social challenges:  these range from social networks for those living with chronic health conditions and online platforms for citizen participation in policy making to using open data to create more transparency about public spending. We call this Digital Social Innovation (DSI).  

We believe that this is likely to become much more prominent over the next decade, with impact in five main areas: 

Open Hardware. These projects are inspired by the global do-it-yourself maker movement and the spread of maker spaces.  They make digital hardware available for people to adapt, hack and shape into tools for social change.  Examples include Safecast which allowed people to build their own Geiger counters, initially as a response to the Fukushima accident.  Arduino, the open hardware circuit board with a microprocessor, is now already been used by millions – an open approach very different from traditional commercial hardware.  

Open Knowledge refers to large groups of citizens coming together through online platforms to collectively analyse data, develop and analyse new types of knowledge or crowdfund social projects.  There are numerous examples from citizen science projects like Cellslider, to ones like Fix My street which map problems in local infrastructures to Zooniverse, which has involved more than 200,000 volunteers in analysing more than 2 million cancer images. Another example is the Open Ministry platform, which has involved more than 250,000 Finns in co-writing and voting on citizen led policy proposals.  

Open data refers to innovative ways of opening up, capturing, using, analysing, and interpreting open data.  Well over a million public sector data sets are now open and being made use of.  Vienna in Austria opened up more than 160 datasets on everything from budget to planning information which has led local entrepreneurs to develop more than 109 open data based apps for the city and its residents. A very different example is OpenCorporates – now the largest open database of companies in the world, with data on 60 million companies and their subsidiaries, with searchable maps and visualisations of complex corporate structures, often illustrating the layers of control across global organisations (in some cases showing thousands of subsidiaries). One analysis of the complex corporate structure of Goldman Sachs based on data from the US, New Zealand, the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg and the UK, identified 1,475 subsidiaries registered in the US and 739 in the Caymans alone.  

A fourth type of DSI is Open Networks which describes how citizens connect devices such as phones and internet modems to collectively share resources and solve problems. which was founded in 2000 in rural Catalonia is one example of this, a response to the lack of broadband internet in rural areas. is a “mesh network” where each person in the network uses a small radio transmitter that functions like a wireless router to become a node. Only one node needs to be connected to the internet and from it the connection is shared wirelessly with all others in its vicinity, who again share the connection wirelessly with those closest to them. With more than 23,000 nodes, Guifi has been described as the largest mesh network in the world providing internet connection to those who would otherwise not be able to access it. The majority of Guifi activity is in Spain, but the network reaches as far as Argentina, China, India and the US. 

A fifth type of DSI, overlapping the others, is Digital Aggregation, the use of the Internet to aggregate people, money and voices in new ways.  These include: crowdfunding platforms and alternative monies, the many examples of the collaborative or sharing economy, and many using the Internet for campaigning. 

Traditional civil society has sometimes struggled to understand these – and to see how to make the most of these new tools.  Meanwhile public R&D funding for digital innovations has tended to be directed to universities or established companies. Nevertheless, the cheapness, reach, and effectiveness of many digital innovations mean that they can often grow very fast. 

The big barrier they face, however, is that the mainstream incumbent institutions also have to change for their full potential to be realised.  New tools for digital democracy depend on parliaments being willing to listen; new tools for alternative finance depend on established regulators giving them space to operate; and new ways of organising health or education often depend on public organisations being willing to buy them in preference to traditional methods. 

That’s usually the biggest challenge – that the old needs to make space before the new can thrive.