In the last decades, digital technologies and Internet have massively shaped social innovation.

The new challenge for the social sector is nowadays to find a place in a global collaborative environment and to develop itself through online tools and platforms, while innovators are more and more counting on collaborative modules and open access resources. Organization involved in social activities does not have to miss the digital boat, in order to strengthen the social commitment and engagement of individuals because they are naturally focused on solidarity and participation.

Digital technologies and social communities: they do not seem to naturally link together in strengthening social innovation. Technology is often believed to alienate individuals while social engagement in based on shared knowledge and participatory practices.

However “digital social innovators’ are entrepreneurs, groups, services and organizations realizing social innovation by mean of tech tools and developing digital solutions to social challenges. On this emerging field of study – digital social innovation – and its best practices, there is little knowledge though.


This is why NESTA, an innovation charity based in the UK, and The European Commission are running a research project, DSI4EU (Digital Social Innovation for Europe), with the aim of better understanding digital social innovation (with studies, research activities, publications, mapping etc) and supporting organization and individuals involved in DSI.

As they declare, the research project: “Aims to explore the potential of the network effect of the Internet (…) emphasizing the characteristics of digital tools that can effectively empower citizens and civic innovators. The challenge is to exploit the collaborative power of networks (networks of people, of knowledge, and connected things) to harness the collective intelligence of communities in order to tackle big social challenges”.

A dedicated website has been developed and an interesting report, ”Growing a digital social innovation. Ecosystem for Europe” has been presented last year during the event: “Shaping the future of digital social innovation in Europe”.

The DSI initiative is active within the context of the Digital Agenda for Europe, in particular within the framework of Horizons 2020 and the CHEST funding projects.


What is exactly digital social innovation?

According to the definition provided by the project leaders, DSI is ‘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 that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet’

We discussed about DSI and the main activities of the DSI4EU project with its Principal Investigator, Francesca Bria of NESTA and its Project Officer, Fabrizio Sestini of European Commission, asking them few questions.

Silvia Bertolotti: When and how the DSI project was created?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: In 2012 the European Commission issued a call for Tender for a study on “Digital social Innovation“, for which it received 15 different tenders, among which the proposal by Nesta, Waag Society and others was selected as the one offering the best value for money. The study lasted almost 2 years and produced the first comprehensive report in the field, available at project website.

In 2015 the European Commission issued a call for proposals in the broad domain of CAPS (Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation), including a part on “accompanying measures”, within which the DSI4EU project (strongly based on the previous study, and led by Nesta with most of the previous partners) was selected.


Silvia Bertolotti: What is the main goal of DSI and how the project is articulated in terms of organization structure?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: The main goal of DSI is to create awareness about the new forms of social innovation enabled by network effects and collective intelligence which can be achieved thanks to Internet networks. It includes several key parts:

– A “dynamic mapping”, listing all the digital social innovation activities taking place in Europe, grouping them according to partners or subjects, also in order to provide useful inspiration to aspirant social innovators

– Organizing workshops and conferences providing physical venues for social innovators to meet and policy makers to learn specific success stories

– Providing recommendations to the European Commission about how best to encourage and sustain these emerging forms of innovations.


Silvia Bertolotti: Let’s talk about the members of DSI. Who are they? Who is nowadays a ‘digital social innovator’?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: Through crowd-mapping organizations on the project website, we have mapped 1,171 organizations with 736 collaborative DSI projects. Open and commons-based Digital can help mobilize collective action at unprecedented scale: mobilizing large communities, sharing resources and spreading power. People and organizations working on digital social innovation may not identify themselves as social innovators, and are often in very different communities from those who traditionally work on social innovation, such as established charities and social enterprises.

Our in depth study of more than 130 global examples of DSI showed the diversity of the field, but also that many innovations can be understood as manifestations of four main technological trends: Open Hardware, Open Networks, Open Data and Open Knowledge, and the way these trends are combined to achieve social impact and develop solutions that serve the real needs of communities.

Silvia Bertolotti: What are currently the priorities for the EU Commission within the field of digital technology and what are at present the main funding opportunities?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: There are several parts of the European Commission currently active in the social innovation domain; however, DG Connect is the one most interested in the role that digital technologies play in enabling this new form of innovation. The largest call was published one year ago in the domain of CAPS, and following it we were able to invest over 60ML euros and launch some 24 projects, most of which have started in January 2016 (see CAPS is probably the world’s biggest and most innovative public programme in this field.

Silvia Bertolotti: What do you see as main challenge(s) in digital social innovation for an EU policymaker?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: As a policy maker, deciding on the allocation of public funding, the key challenge is the lack of measurable indicators of effectiveness of social innovation activities, compared to traditional approaches (based on institutional or top-down initiatives). New indicators of progress (such as the “global Happiness Index” or others) are emerging but are unfortunately not as widespread and easy to measure as classical indicators based on GDP.

Also, this emerging field mobilizes mostly NGOs, social entrepreneurs and civil society, which are at a loss when competing with established and well organized lobbies from big industries. If Europe wants to grow and scale an Innovation ecosystem for the social good, to drive long-term sustainable innovation-led growth, it needs to support a digital social innovation ecosystem made up of these new stakeholders, and based on open source technologies, open standards, distributed architecturesthat can be scaled and supported to compete with corporate players.

Silvia Bertolotti: In 2014 has been published the “Growing a digital social innovation Ecosystem for Europe” report. Which are, in your opinion, the main and most interesting outcomes of this research? While mapping the main European experiences, what were the most interesting?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: The most interesting output of this research was the uncovering and definition of several social innovation areas which were previously largely unknown, such as open democracy, open access, new ways of making, or the collaborative economy itself. The growing Digital social innovation movement of social entrepreneurs and civil society organizations are now developing inspiring digital solutions to social challenges. These range from social networks for those living with chronic health conditions such as Cancer Research UK and their citizen science platform Cellslider, to online platforms for citizen participation in policymaking such as the D-CENT project, to using open data to create more transparency about public spending, such as Open Corporates and other very innovative projects such as the bottom-up networking community, providing Internet access to rural communities; the Tor project promoting anonymous communication and digital rights for all citizens, or Arduino that is strengthening the open hardware and maker movement in Europe.


Silvia Bertolotti: Will there be other initiatives of this kind – report, publications – scheduled for the future?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: Yes, those expected within the DSI4EU project. DSI4EU is setting up an engaging programme of training, mentoring, events, policy workshops, and experimentation. DSI4EU will represent the building blocks for a new participatory innovation ecosystem for Europe, including a radical approach to scaling, extending and connecting the DSI network through the HUB.

Silvia Bertolotti: For which sector (i.e. open access, open democracy, collaborative economy etc.) and in which field do you think digital technologies are particularly suited in terms of promoting social innovation? More in general, what are the main social challenges of the modern society, where digital technology might represent a crucial factor?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: All the social challenges of the modern society are related to a fundamental problem, which is scarcity of natural resources in relation to a growing population with growing needs, together with increasing wealth and income inequality. Traditional top-down policies are reaching their limits, especially for the strong resistance offered by incumbents and established monopolies in existing areas.

More effective solutions can be expected leveraging on some key mechanisms, in all of which digital technologies –if properly implemented and used- play a key role:

– Better awareness of the issues at stake (for instance in terms of energy consumption, food waste, air pollution, etc.), which can in itself lead to more sustainability-aware lifestyles (e.g. smart meters)

– New forms of Internet-enabled cooperation among people, allowing to create collective intelligence and physical collaborations

– New forms of collective action, engaging citizens in social activities or in political decisions.


Silvia Bertolotti: You list on your website 4 main tech trends (open knowledge, open network, open data, open hardware). Which, in your opinion, is particularly relevant and important in this specific historical moment?

Francesca Bria – Fabrizio Sestini: Also for the reasons mentioned before (lack of concrete measures of impact of social innovations), it is impossible to define one trend which is more relevant than others. Also because they are all strongly intertwined – openness is the key qualification which is common to all, and this directly links with the new forms of open participatory innovation, which they all enable. Anyhow, we can say that trends such as the collaborative economy, open democracy and the ability to use data as common goods are changing society, and will require organizations and institutions to shape the future evolution of these trends in order to benefit the entire society and achieve a sustainable and inclusive growth.