Can digital social innovations tackle big challenges?

Digital social innovations (DSI) are booming in Europe, empowering people to solve problems in areas as diverse as social inclusion, health, democracy, education, migration and sustainability. Examples include civic tech, neighbourhood-regeneration platforms, collaborative map-making, civic crowdfunding, peer-to-peer education and online time banks. A wide range of organisations support DSIs, through offering consultancy services, network access, funding, resources and skills.

The UK-based NESTA is one of the central think tanks in the field, as well as the coordinator of the EU-funded project DSI4EU. At the European level, different schemes exist to support social innovations and also DSIs, such as the Social Innovation Competition, whose 6th round took place in Paris on March 20 this year. Many events, festivals and conferences are also being organised, such as the Social Good Week in Paris or the Ouishare Fest, which was born in France and is now an international event.

While significant time, effort, and resources are spent on these activities, there are some obstacles to their development and efficacy in tackling the big challenges of our times, which seem necessary to address.

1. Questioning openness

Many DSIs emphasise participation and transparency, but the use of open-source software remains limited, at least in France. The openness of a platform is an important indicators about its capacity to encourage participation, by decentralising power, enabling others to access, replicate, and build upon the source code. Proprietary software, on the other hand, raises questions about the extent to which it is being manipulated by the innovator. Valentin Chaput, the editor of the site Open Source Politics states: “When we do not master its code, it is the authors of this code who control us”.

2. What happens to user data?

Social entrepreneurs often struggle to build sustainable business models that will ensure their autonomy and independence. There exist different business models through which DSIs generate income. One of these is the commercialisation of user data. Here, the main problem is not commercialisation per se (although to prevent it would be preferred), but how the background business model is communicated with the users.

To have information, users need to read in detail the platform’s “terms of use”, which are often not communicated by an attractive design. As a consequence, users can easily skip this part, due to ignorance or lack of interest. Platforms should be more transparent about their business models, and communicate these with the audience in a user-friendly way. This will also reduce some users’ hesitations in involvement, caused by a lack of trust.

3. Systemic change or short-term relief?

There is also a deeper concern about the sharing economy. Evgeny Morozov, author of Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, wrote, “it’s like handing everybody earplugs to deal with intolerable street noise instead of doing something about the noise itself”. Sometimes this is also valid for DSI. How can innovations that can bring a systemic change be distinguished from system-enhancing ones? It is not meaningful to categorise platforms as systemic ones and others, as there are different shades of grey between purely black or white.

But there is some scope for thinking deeper, by observing the activities of platforms. For example, Humaid is a crowdfunding platform in which people with disabilities or their caregivers can raise money to purchase necessary assistive technologies. In so doing, Humaid in a sense reproduces exclusionary practices in the society by taking people with disabilities as objects of charity, rather than as individuals with rights and freedoms, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Another example is from the sharing economy. Karos, a car-sharing platform launched a year ago, provides the option of “ladies only” car sharing. In doing so, doesn’t Karos reproduce existing practices that give rise to inequalities in the first place? Rather than using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to alleviate inequalities embedded in societies, such initiatives enhance existing norms and exclusionary barriers. Addressing big challenges require awareness raising and educational activities around rights and freedoms.

Karos ‘ladies only’ car-sharing. Part of the solution to inequality or a reinforcement? Karos

4. The struggle of traditional civil-society organisations

Established civil-society organisations that have field-specific experience with targeted populations, and who are involved in social movements and awareness raising activities can have an important role in systemic change, but most of them find themselves in a vulnerable position faced with digital platforms. For example, some are facing competition from start-ups that build resources and finances from the digital sector. Digital competences of the new economy and traditional associations’ field-specific experiences should find spaces of synergy building. But there are barriers to the successful building-up of such spaces, sometimes due to polarised ideological worlds between non-profits and organisations of the digital economy.

5. Under-engagement of users

There is also the important issue of attracting users to these platforms. Most DSI platforms rely on civic engagement, which could be for volunteering, providing skills, information, services, goods, opinions. At the same time, the online world is likely to reflect the economic, social and cultural relationships in the offline world – a research paper by Alexander Van Deursen and Jan Van Dijk of the University of Twente sheds light on this question.

This suggests that the DSI users could be those who are already active in civic life in the offline world, as indicated by the research of Marta Cantijoch, Silvia Galandini, and Rachel Gibson. If this is the case, DSIs can strengthen existing divides instead of alleviating them. To be able to develop effective and informed policies, more research about the nature of users, their engagement patterns in different platforms are needed, but there are obstacles on the way; most important is the lack of data.

6. Lack of data in a world of ‘big data’

The lack of data on users and the ecosystem are serious barriers to carry out research on DSIs and their potential to address big challenges. Platforms do not share data due to privacy and confidentiality reasons. Or, as in the case of France, regulations about data collection can prevent research about the users of DSI. At the national and EU levels, initiatives to collect and standardise data are much needed, so that researchers can have access to essential data about the use of and participation in DSI. This is also important to carry out research on the specific capabilities of different EU countries on DSI and develop means to transfer good practices and make use of potential synergies.

7. Fascination with (rapid) impact measurement

For investors, funders, and social entrepreneurs, social impact measurement is essential. But this can be problematic, complex and difficult issue. What’s more, it is important to remember a quote from William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted”. In addition, sometimes time pressures result in employing vague and ineffective means to measure impact that lack a deep understanding of the returns. Amount of funds raised, growth in the number of participants, number of supported projects, and so on, are often used as indicators of success, but such statistics are problematic.

For instance, participants of a platform are often “dormant”, meaning they register but do not use the platform later on. It is necessary to change the way “social impact” is understood by policy makers and investors to distinguish what needs to be measured and what not, and if measurement is a must the focus should be on tangible changes that the platform brings. For example, which regulations have changed as a result of platform activities? Which medical research results are obtained by patient-doctor platforms? Which civic projects are realised, and what are potential benefits? Social indicators should focus on a deeper understanding of how the actual social practices that give rise to social problems are tackled, and what the role of platforms are in this process.

8. Innovation (un)readiness of population

While most of the policy focus is on supporting the generation of innovations, the innovation readiness of the user population is not given enough attention. Investments in developing Internet skills are of crucial importance, which include operational, formal and strategic skills. The research of Alexander Van Deursen and Jan Van Dijk provides insight on this question.

In addition, potential users can be unaware, uninterested, or unconnected even if they have a benefit to gain. Paradoxically, those who are most likely to benefit from DSI are more likely to be unaware, uninterested, or unconnected. Instead of being confined to the online sphere, social entrepreneurs should work actively with target populations in the field, in developing solutions and encouraging participation. As Tom Saunders of NESTA states, it is important to “remember that there’s a world beyond the Internet”. For example, the city of Amsterdam is remarkable in efforts to integrate the people in the collaborative economy.

9. Duplication, duplication, duplication

Most digital platforms operate according to the logic of network externalities, also called as multi-sided platforms. This means that the existence of one group of users in a platform makes it more attractive for other groups to join. In this way, certain digital platforms build up their user base rapidly and become dominant players. While this can be problematic in terms of building up of monopolistic power, too many start-ups in the same field is also problematic, which is the case today in some areas of DSI.

For example, there are more than 20 civic-tech platforms with similar functions in France. The potential gains and losses in terms of social welfare and efficiency should be understood and evaluated better in the case of DSI. Many of these platforms struggle to grow, their user base is divided, and finally they close down within a few years of launching. One solution can be to allow for sharing reputation, or other information about users between platforms, which helps in sustaining diversity, while avoiding centralisation of power.

10. Lack of cross-fertilisation

The importance of the above problems also depends on the field of activity and type of DSI considered, as there are many different types of DSIs. Aggregating all DSIs in a single group may be misleading. At the same time it is precisely this diversity that gives this emerging ecosystem its dynamism and resilience. Unfortunately, this diversity is not made use of in an effective way. Instead, field-specific bubbles have formed with weak interactions between them. Cross-fertilisation and synergies between these are potentially important to increase resilience, but networks rest weak. A recent initiative in France is Plateformes en Communs, which aims to form a common platform of cooperatives and associations in diverse domains of activity, so as to leverage synergies between them.

Given the high level of penetration of digital technologies in our lives, digital social innovations promise to address big challenges, yet for there to be better outcomes, more needs to be done. Participation to civic life – online or offline – is always valuable in an increasingly problematic world. Digital platforms make this participation much easier. As the saying goes, little drops of water make a mighty ocean.


DSI4EU, Muge Ozman and Cedric Gossart are organising a special stream on digital social innovations in the 10th International Social Innovation Conference, which will take place in Heidelberg, in September 2018.