Can digital social innovations tackle big challenges?

While digital social innovations (DSI) are booming in Europe, some observations regarding their potential for providing effective solutions seems to be necessary. These innovations are based on digital platforms to empower people in solving problems in areas as diverse as social inclusion, health, democracy, education, migration, sustainability, among others. Recently the DSI ecosystem in Europe has been growing fast. Examples are civic-tech, neighbourhood regeneration platforms, collaborative map-making for social inclusion, civic crowdfunding, peer-to-peer education, online time banks, and others. Variety 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 EU level, different schemes exist to support social innovations and also DSIs, like the Social Innovation Competition, whose 6th round will take place in Paris on 20th of March this year. Many events, festivals and conferences are also being organised, like the Social Good Week in Paris, which took place during March 2018, 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

While many DSIs emphasize participation and transparency, the use of open source software is limited, at least in France. Transparency and openness of a platform are important indicators about its capacity to encourage participation, by decentralizing 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. As expressed by  Valentin Chaput, “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 face serious struggles in building 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 commercialization of user data. Here, the main problem is not commercialization per se (although to prevent it would be preferred), but how the background business model is communicated with the users. To have information, users needs to read in detail the “Terms of Use” in the platform, which is often not communicated by an attractive design like the rest of the platform, in many cases. 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 than the above. Evgeny Morozov wrote  for the sharing economy: “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 categorize 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 doing so, Humaid 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, the option of “Ladies only” car sharing. In doing so, doesn’t KAROS reproduce existing practices that give rise to inequalities at first hand? Rather than using 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.

4 The struggle of traditional civil society organisations

Established civil society organizations 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 of them 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 polarized 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 of the 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 (see a research paper by Professor Van Dijk in University of Twente here ). This suggests also that the DSI users could be those who are already active in civic life in the offline world (see research by Marta Cantijoch, Silvia Galandini, and Rachel Gibson here]). 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 DSI and their potential power in addressing 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 standardize 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 measurement of social impact is problematic, complex and difficult. What’s more it is important to remember the famous quote by 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, which 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”, where they register and 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 (which regulations have changed as a result of platform activities? Which medical research results are obtained by patient-doctor platforms? Which civic projects are realized, 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 (see for example the research by Professor Van Dijk on this). 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 expressed by Tom Saunders of NESTA, it is important to “remember that there’s a world beyond the Internet”. For example the city of Amsterdam is remarkable in some activities.

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 (some resources on this topic can be found here). 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 startups in the same field is also problematic, which is the case today in some domains 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 centralization 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 maybe 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-fertilization 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 everyday lives, digital social innovations are promising to address big challenges, yet for better outcomes more needs to be done. Participation to civic life (whether 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.

Muge Ozman

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