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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Digital social innovation: ground-up policy making

Yesterday, at a jam-packed meeting room in the heart of the European Commission in Brussels, we convened the world’s first policy workshop for digital social innovation (DSI) with a mix of 70 European policy makers, experts and practitioners.  

Some governments have been very successful at finding ways to stimulate technological innovation (DARPA in the US developed the building blocks of the Internet, after all). But in this emerging and very fragmented field, Nesta’s CEO Geoff Mulgan acknowledged that practice is far ahead of policymaking. His phrase used to describe the current policy landscape was terra incognita.

The day in Brussels was organised to change that and to explore a range of tools which might encourage and accelerate digital innovation to benefit society.

One reason why policymakers have hitherto struggled with digital social innovation is that it consists of a complex and interrelated system of technologies, standards, open platforms, disruptive services and groups of people. As such, it was important to hear from a range of practitioners and to understand the challenges that they face as they grow their work to scale. 

For this reason we kicked off the day with live case studies from Arduino, Smart Citizens, Provenance, Confine, Goteo and e-democracy site Your Priorities. The speakers highlighted that digital social innovation is often enabled by open data, source code and platforms. In many cases, new services cannot be envisaged at the time that these open tools are developed. A great example is the Arduino which, as Zoe Romano showed, has a diverse range of applications, from running more efficient cement plants (to reduce energy consumption), to powering low-cost baby monitors.

For policymakers, these uses of open systems have implications for how R&D might be funded in the future. Many present at the workshop asked for public funding of innovation to be used in a more open way so as to unlock technologies on which others can build useful services and networks.

Set up by prompts on how to design policy from Geoff Mulgan and Esteve Almirall of Esade Business School, the afternoon of the workshop began to crowd-source policy ideas from participants. This focused not just on particular sectors, and levels of governance (from city to global), but also on the different policy tools that might be used such as digital human rights and data passports.

Ideas were clustered together and the image below shows the breadth of thinking.

These areas of policy were further worked on during the day, with European Commission officials providing their responses to the ideas that emerged.

The reality of developing good policy is that it can be rather boring, laborious, and is often filled with compromises. But inspired by the passion of the people in the room, this workshop did a pretty good job at bringing people together to discuss how Europe might just be the best place in the world to nurture digital social innovation.

We want to encourage everyone interested in policy ideas for DSI to take part in shaping ideas over the next 6 months, and over the next few days ideas from the workshop will be uploaded to the bespoke DSI Your Priorities platform. Here you can debate and vote on ideas from the workshop or upload your own ideas.

If you are interested in learning more about the research, you can find more than 30 case studies on digital social innovation in our interim study report and you may want to join our DSI network.

All illustrations are by natalkadesign.com who live sketched the workshop.


Jon Kingsbury

Jon Kingsbury

Jon Kingsbury

Director, Creative Economy Programmes

Jon led the inter-disciplinary team that designs, commissions and delivers multi-million pound innovation programmes that help the creative and digital economy.

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Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Peter leads work that explores how combining human and machine intelligence can develop innovative solutions to social challenges.

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