Is Digital Social Innovation for the masses or the few?

13 Jun 2017 |Written by Al Mathers

What is digital social innovation and how can we capture it and understand it’s worth? 
From the perspective of our work at Good Things Foundation, for innovation of this kind to occur, we must find ways for all people to be empowered to use technology creatively, to address local inequalities, and to want and be able to share these nationally and globally. 
Maybe there is no clear definition to capture the breadth of activity that this might encompass, and maybe that’s right, it should be ever evolving to respond to emerging needs and changing political landscapes. However, to help us on our way, there’s definitely a place for a few ground rules too. So here are some lessons I learnt following Nesta’s ‘What next for digital social innovation?’, inspired by the big, the small and local scale.


Lesson 1: Providing structural understanding and complementary support to scale

Quite obvious but, as scaling remains an expected next step for anyone who wants to have an impact on people’s lives, is hard to ensure. Previously, Government were assumed to be the main financial supporter of this, but as the state retreats, who takes on this societal responsibility is seemingly up for grabs. Reliance on a series of self-contained projects is no longer a sustainable approach to delivering lasting change. 

Lesson 2: Valuing impact measurement as meaningful and transferable

Whilst digital social innovation is alive and well across Europe, for example, the DS14EU programme documented an emerging European network of (currently) 1,910 organisations and 1,130 projects, we still know far more about the work of the five countries that dominate: the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands than about innovation more widely. If great work has happened but the impact isn’t captured, outcomes can be short lived and are unlikely to be transferred or learnt from. It’s important to be structured in how you investigate and design interventions and clear that the outcomes measured should be transferable and realistic i.e. for projects that focus on increasing employability amongst socially excluded people, not everyone will end up with a job. As our Online Centres highlighted at a recent focus group to explore issues of social inclusion, we need to develop measures that are softer but have clear, transferable social worth i.e. supporting people to become willing to engage and developing trust to work with others. 


Lesson 3: Readdressing the dominance of ‘pale, white and male’ activity to make innovation meaningful

Here I’m drawing upon the words of Mark Cridge from MySociety, who recognised this somewhat perennial issue in digital social innovation. MySociety’s desire to work more closely with NGO’s and charities who reach into the hearts of communities where less well-represented groups can benefit from their support and innovation chimed well with our own ethos. If innovation is born out of challenge and frustration and resourced and recognised for these factors, it has great potential to further societal equality.

Lesson 4: Digital social innovation as part of daily life

This rule is all credit to Norwich City Council’s Digital Inclusion Project Co-ordinator, Laura Wigby.  Laura sits at Norwich’s front line for digital inclusion. As part of the Customer Contact team, she is surrounded by council staff who handle the local population’s day to day questions. Being able to triage these enquiry routes, and offer more from a digital inclusion perspective has been one of the council’s most innovative approaches. Where a call may have started about rubbish bin collection the discussion can become increasingly two-way giving the caller more information on digital inclusion activities and support in their local area. Council staff at all levels have been encouraged to become digital champions and this activity has blossomed across the city with 15 Digital Hubs created. Shared spaces in sheltered housing schemes have been drawn into the programme to create drop-in venues, bringing people together as learners and volunteers where they might not have previously overlapped. The key being, that this is about real life and solutions to real life problems.
So where should this take us? Maybe we don’t need to define it anymore but agree that digital social innovation is not something that happens in a separate space, it’s the way we can now change the day to day world around us.