What are digital social innovations?

light bulbs.

One of the problems that we encounter in our research on digital social innovation (DSI) is related with defining it. Is it a catch-all phrase? A combination of three trendy words? Digital social innovations (DSI) are often associated with positive meanings, like openness, collaboration or inclusion, as opposed to more commercially oriented innovations. In trying to define such a contested concept as digital social innovation, we should strive to disentangle it from its positive aura.

The following figure is helpful for a start. Digital social innovation lies at the intersection of three spheres: innovation, social and environmental problems, and digital technologies.

Authors’ own.

The first sphere is innovation. It refers to the development and diffusion of a (technological, social…) novelty that is not used yet in the market or sector or country where it is being introduced. The second sphere concerns the solutions put in place to address social and environmental problems, for example through public policies, research projects, new practices, civil society actions, business activities, or by decentralising the distribution of power and resources through social movements. For example, social inclusion measures facilitate, enable and open up channels for people to participate in social life, regardless of their age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or socioeconomic status (e.g. the positive discrimination measures that enable minority students to enter universities). Finally, the third sphere relates to digital technologies, which concern hardware and software technologies used to collect, process, and diffuse information.

From innovative ideas to diffused practices

Many digital technologies are no longer considered innovations in 2017, at least in Europe, where they have become mainstream. For example, according to [Eurostat] only 15 % of the EU population do not have access to the Internet. On the other hand, some digital technologies are novel ones (area C in the figure), such as the service Victor & Charles, which enables hotel managers to access the social-media profile of their clients in order to best meet their needs.

As regards the yellow sphere, many of its solutions to social and environmental problems are neither digital nor innovative. They relate to more traditional ways of fighting social exclusion or pollution, for example. To solve housing problems in France, the HLM system (habitations à loyer modéré) was introduced after the World War II to provide subsidised housing to low-income households. When introduced it was an innovative solution, but it has now been institutionalised.

At the intersection between the solutions and digital technologies we find the area B which does not intersect with the blue innovation sphere. There we find digital solutions to social and environmental problems which are not innovative, such as the monthly electronic newsletter Atouts from OPH (Fédération nationale des Offices Publics de l’Habitat), a federation of institutions in charge of the HLM system, which uses the newsletter to foster best practices among HLM agencies in France. We also find innovations that aim to solve social and environmental problems which are not digital (area A). For example, the French start-up Baluchon builds affordable wooden and DIY micro-houses that enable low-income people to live independently. As for area C, it concerns innovative digital technologies which do not aim to solve a social or environmental problem, such as a 3D tablet.

Using digital technologies to address real-world problems

In the area where the three spheres intersect lie digital social innovations. DSI can thus be defined as novelties that use, develop, or rely on digital technologies to address social and/or environmental problems. They include a broad group of digital platforms which facilitate peer-to-peer interactions and the mobilisation of people in order to solve social and/or environmental problems. Neighbourhood information systems, civic engagement platforms, volunteered geographic information systems, crowdfunding platforms for sustainability or social issues, are some of the cases of the DSI area.

For example, the Ushahidi application, designed to map violent acts following the 2008 elections in Kenya, aggregates and diffuses information collected by citizens about urban violence, which enables citizens and local authorities to take precautionary measures. As for the I Wheel Share application, it facilitates the collection and diffusion of information about urban (positive and negative) experiences that may be useful to disabled people. Two other examples involve the use of a digital hardware (other than a smartphone). First, KoomBook, created by the NGO Librarians Without Borders, is an electronic box using a wifi hotspot to provide key educational resources to people deprived of Internet access. Second, the portable sensor developed by the Plume Labs company, which can be used as a key holder, measures local air pollution in real time and diffuses collected data to the community.

Theoretical clarity, practical imprecision

But as it always happens with categorisations, boundaries are not as clear-cut as it may seem on a figure. In our case, there is a grey area surrounding digital social innovations. For example, if a technology makes it easier for a lot of people to access certain goods or services (short-term recreational housing, individual urban mobility…), does it solve a social problem? The answer is clouded with the positive meaning attached to digital innovations, which can conflict with their possible negative social and environmental impacts (e.g., they might generate unfair competition or strong rebound effects).

Take the case of Airbnb: according to our definition, it could be considered a digital social innovation. It relies on a digital platform through which a traveller can find cheaper accommodations while possibly discovering local people and lifestyles. Besides avoiding the anonymity of hotels, tailored services are now offered to clients of the platform. Do you want to take a koto course while having your matcha tea in a Japanese culture house? This Airbnb “experience” will cost you 63 euros. Airbnb enables (some) people to earn extra income.


But the system can also cause the loss of established capabilities and knowledge, and exclude locals who may not have the necessary digital literacy (neither lodgings located in central urban areas). While Airbnb customers might enjoy the wide range of offers available on the platform as well as local cultural highlights sold in a two-hour pack, an unknown and ignored local culture lies on the poor side of the digital (and economic) divide.

Measuring the social impact

Without having robust indicators of the social impact of DSI, it is difficult to clarify this grey area and to solve the problem of definition. But constructing ex-ante and ex-post indicators of social impact is not easy from a scientific point of view. Moreover it is difficult to obtain user data as firms intentionally keep them proprietary, impeding research. In addition, innovators and other ecosystem members can engage in “share-washing”, concealing commercial activities behind a smokescreen of socially beneficial activities. An important step towards overcoming these difficulties is to foster an open debate about how profits obtained from DSI are distributed, about who is excluded from using DSI and why, and about the contextual factors that ultimately shape DSI social impacts.

As troublesome as definition issues may be, researchers should not reject the term altogether for being too vague, since DSI can have a strong transformative power regarding empowerment and sustainability. But neither should they impose a restrictive categorisation of DSI, in which Uber and Airbnb have no place. The involvement of a broad variety of actors (users and nonusers, for-profit and not-for-profit…) in the definition of this public construct would do justice to the positive reputation of DSI.