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David Wilcox

Lessons from @Nesta_uk digital social innovation programme #DSInext confirm change depends on cultural shift not just clicks

6 min read

I came away today from NESTA’s digital social innovation event with three main thoughts: there’s lots of exciting projects our there … but they aren’t doing as much good as we hoped … and why can’t we be more like Barcelona?

The event was to launch a report on What’s next for digital social innovation (DSI), following a major research programme, about which lots here:

Big advances in technology – such as the open source and open data movements, low-cost hardware, crowdsourcing and internet of things – provide new ways of delivering public services and delivering social impact in fields as diverse as healthcare, education, democracy, environment, transport and housing. They are particularly well-suited to empowering citizens, involving them in their communities and engaging them in civic action.

We use the term digital social innovation (DSI) to refer to the growing movement of people, projects and organisations using digital technologies to tackle some of society's biggest problems.

We believe that DSI has the potential to dramatically improve the way our public services, communities and businesses work.

There are a lot of projects: the website for the DSI European network features 1890 organisations and 1070 projects, many of them relevant to our exploration into making London a more Networked City, and Connecting Londoners.

But DIS isn’t doing as much good as we hoped, as the report honestly says:

  • Despite this activity, there are relatively few examples of DSI initiatives delivering impact at scale. The growth of DSI is being held back by barriers at the system level and at the level of individual projects.
  • Projects and organisations involved in DSI are still relatively poorly connected to each other. There is a pressing need to grow strong networks within and across countries and regions to boost collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
  • The growth of DSI is being held back by lack of funding and investment across the continent, especially outside Western Europe, and structural digital skills shortages.
  • Civil society organisations and the public sector have been slow to adopt DSI, despite the opportunity it offers them to deliver better services at a lower cost, although there are emerging examples of good practice from across Europe.
  • Practitioners struggle to engage citizens and users, understand and measure the impact of their digital social innovations, and plan for growth and sustainability.

The report has a set of recommendations, including these key points

  • Invest in and enable DSI approaches within existing civil society organisations. Private and public financial support for DSI should not only focus on startups and grassroots organisations, but also on improving digital maturity in established civil society organisations and supporting DSI initiatives within them.
  • Enable peer learning and the spread of best practice.The European Commission should continue to invest in peer learning and knowledge-sharing initiatives, both online and offline. This must happen not only between practitioners but also between funders, policymakers and investors.

These proposals reflected recurrent themes through event: that coming up with digital solutions to social challenges is one thing, but getting adoption by organisations in the field of social good is another; and that encouraging people to share what they have learned is difficult.

And Barcelona? Francesca Bria, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer for the City, wowed everyone with a presentation of their Digital City plan, which you can see here. You may be able to find Francesca at 2hrs 48mins in the recording. The plan covers:

A City in Common
Technology for social change and public sector innovation

  • Develop a public, open and distributed citizen data infrastructure
  • Launch an open standards data collection platform
  • Implement strategies to involve citizens, businesses, communities, organizations, universities and research centers
  • Public administration digital transformation and innovation

Democratic City
Technology for a participatory, collaborative and transparent city

  • Develop and standardize new models of participation in digital environment
  • Technological citizenship sovereignty and digital rights
  • Create a XXI century education and training for life and work
  • Bring emerging technologies closer to citizens to foster a modern, conscious, active and participatory society

Circular City
Technology for a new, more sustainable and efficient urban model

  • Address with sustainability criteria, the most urgent urban problems
  • Reduce the digital gap between the different neighborhoods
  • Share and provide collective access to resources through democratic governance
  • Stimulate the culture of invention and technological innovation

Creative City
Technology to promote invention, entrepreneurship and social innovation

  • Boost a more efficient, transparent and strategic use of public spending
  • Promote public administration innovation, within SMEs and Cooperatives
  • Stimulate the Barcelona network for digital social innovation
  • Foster a more pluralistic digital economy and make a new urban innovation model

Hopefully inspiration for whoever is appointed London's Chief Digital Officer

In concluding remarks, Geoff Mulgan, NESTA chief executive argued for more lobbying to secure funding for digital social innovation - and also urged patience. It is people not clicks that change societies.

Most of the profound change associated with digital technology moves at the speed of culture as much as it does of technology . Most of the things we are talking about here that really matter require changes to how people think, how they feel, how they behave as well as hardware and software.

The day's mix of inspiring examples, and realism about what it takes to being about social change in cities confirmed there's lots for Networked City to learn from the DSI programme and NESTA's other research and project development. But how to bring it into play?

As I wrote yesterday, I'm hoping for cooperation with RSA because of the Cities 3.0 programme.

I hope that NESTA might also be interested because our approach to Connecting Londoners - explained here - could be way to explore how to combine top-down and bottom-up. As Geoff Mulgan emphasised, both are needed to create real social value.