A recent report by Nesta and commissioned by the European Commission maps more than 1000 innovators across Europe (as of January 2015)—who are developing digital solutions for a range of social issues in the area of health, democracy, climate change and education—and delves into the potential of this emerging ecosystem in the region.
In the context of the research, these innovators are referred to as ‘digital social innovation’ (DSI) organisations and are often very different from charities, social enterprises or big Internet businesses with secondary social projects, like Facebook.
Instead, they are defined as:
A type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale and speed that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet.
It’s not the clearest definition, but that comes with trying to categorise emerging forms of technology and organisations in general. In this realm though, it can be especially tricky since many companies are able to easily tweak their mission to take a social spin.
Nonetheless, the report seems to hone in on organisations and projects that play a role in enabling grassroots innovations to address social challenges. For a better idea of what DSIs look like, here are a couple that were mentioned as DSI cases in the research:
- Arduino – Started in Italy, Arduino is an open-source electronics company that offers simple and affordable software and hardware for users to build their own gadgets.
- Your Priorities – A platform, developed in Iceland, that crowdsources opinions on legislation from citizens with the most debated/significant ideas rising to be discussed in city council.
- Open Knowledge Foundation – A Cambridge-founded global non-profit organisation pushing for and providing awareness on open content and data.
On the affiliated Digital Social Innovation website, run by the EU Commission, there's a more up-to-date and detailed breakdown of these initiatives in Europe, including where they come from.
Although DSIs have long been around, the report posits that there hasn’t been any comprehensive studies on this particular realm. According to the research, smaller innovative services explicitly tackling a societal issue, which may not fit into traditional or commercial models, are not properly supported to grow and scale by the current political infrastructure.
During an 18-month period, Nesta conducted the study seeking to shed light on the nascent digital social innovation ecosystem with the aim of providing better support for future policy decisions.
Overall, some of the biggest challenges for the EU lie in creating an environment that fosters collaboration between DSI organisations and communities as well as investing in an infrastructure that allows small-scale, radical innovations to emerge and evolve.