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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.

Thousands of people are using technology to tackle social challenges – but what’s holding digital social innovation back?

Over the past year, as part of the European Commission-funded DSI4EU project, we’ve been mapping and supporting the people, projects and organisations around Europe who are using social and collaborative technologies to tackle social challenges. This is a trend which we call digital social innovation (DSI), although other terms like civic tech, social tech and tech for good are also used widely.

Using the database we’ve crowdmapped over the past year through the digitalsocial.eu platform, we’ve been able to understand how DSI is being used to address different social challenges, how DSI activity is distributed geographically, and how different technologies are being used. (You can explore the data for yourself through our interactive visualisation.) We’ve complemented this with experimental work using Twitter data to map DSI activity.

Alongside our mapping work, we’ve spoken to over 30 practitioners, policymakers, funders and other stakeholders and conducted a literature review to understand what’s holding back the growth of DSI. We believe that DSI has a transformative potential to change the way our public services, charities and communities work, but that this potential has so far gone unrealised. This research, which we launched last week at our event What next for digital social innovation?, sought to understand why this is the case.

You can read the full report here, but we’ve rounded up the most important lessons for you here under three main headings:

  • What does DSI activity look like across Europe?
  • What system-level factors, like financing, skills and adoption by the state and civil society, are holding back DSI?
  • What are the challenges which individual DSI projects face?

What does DSI activity look like across Europe?

  1. There is a huge amount of DSI activity going on in Europe. We have crowdmapped almost 2,000 organisations and over 1,000 projects working on DSI - and, in reality, even more people beyond our database are part of the movement. DSI is taking place across different social areas and using a range of technologies.
  2. DSI activity is not evenly distributed across Europe. There is a concentration of activity in Western and Southern Europe; by contrast, there is less activity in Eastern and Northern Europe and particularly little activity in the Baltic countries and Balkan countries. This is not because of a lack of appetite for DSI among citizens, but rather because of a lack of support.
  3. DSI is particularly active in cities. Due to the density of people and assets and the particular social and environmental challenges present in cities, DSI has taken off most successfully in urban areas. In Europe, cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin are hotbeds of DSI.
  4. Stakeholders in DSI need to be better connected to each other. Despite some progress led by network nodes across Europe, stakeholders in DSI are not well-connected enough. Strong and diverse networks are essential to the growth of DSI, and must be supported and facilitated if DSI is to deliver impact at scale.
  5. We can use new methods to understand DSI activity. Beyond our database, we have experimented with using a small sample of Twitter data to understand in more depth the geographical spread and connectedness of the DSI ecosystem in Europe. Mapping methods such as scraping of social media, job adverts and open data should be further investigated as a means of measuring and understanding DSI activity. 

What’s holding back the growth of DSI at the system level?

  1. Funding is insufficient and unevenly distributed. Access to finance remains one of the key challenges for DSI practitioners. Both grant funding and social investment for DSI and related areas remain scarce, particularly when compared to the amount invested in commercial digital innovation. And while countries like the UK have maturing funding ecosystems, and countries like Sweden, Finland and Germany have developed structures for public support, funding is particularly scarce in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, there is a specific gap in funding between the very early-stage funding and investment and post-revenue investment. Addressing this challenge requires not just increased funding but also structures for building pipelines and establishing milestones to support funders and practitioners.
  2. Structural digital skills shortages and difficulties developing and accessing support skills are holding back the growth of DSI. Digital skills shortages are holding back the growth of DSI just as they are holding back economic growth in Europe. DSI initiatives need access to people with broad and deep digital skills in a growing range of areas if they are to grow their impact, and despite significant efforts in recent years by the public, private and third sectors there is still a long way to go to fill the gap. Secondly, DSI practitioners often lack business and support skills such as communications, marketing and business planning. Action is needed to build upon and develop existing initiatives which equip practitioners with these skills and improve their access to others with these skills, and encourage knowledge-sharing between practitioners.
  3. Adoption by established civil society organisations has been too slow. There is an increasing recognition that CSOs are behind the curve on digital: they lack digital skills in their workforces, digital leadership, digital strategies and awareness of digital trends and opportunities. At the same time, DSI offers the opportunity to operate and deliver better services at a lower cost and to put supporters and service users at the heart of their work, but there are few examples of this opportunity being realised. To continue to flourish amid increasing demand and budget constraints, CSOs must invest in digital, and be supported by policymakers and funders to do so, in order to achieve their mission. CSOs must also ensure that any DSI approaches they develop are appropriate for their level of digital maturity.
  4. The public sector has not yet seized the opportunity in DSI to deliver better services at lower cost, and to thereby bring DSI into the mainstream. Many, if not most, DSI initiatives will be able to grow more rapidly through integration into the public sector and government. Where the state holds a monopoly, for example in health and education, it may be the only way of delivering impact at scale. In turn, DSI offers the state the chance to involve citizens, reinvigorate democracy and deliver better services at lower costs. However, barriers to innovation, digital skills shortages, complex procurement processes, infrastructural challenges and political resistance are preventing mainstream adoption of DSI by the public sector. Examples from across Europe, however, demonstrate the potential of strategic commitment to DSI.
  5. Governments have an important role in enabling DSI through policy and infrastructure. Although Europe has led the field in areas like open government, open data and personal data protection, there is still much work to be done. In some cases, there is evidence of progress slowing and, worryingly, even of steps backwards. Furthermore, investment in digital skills for all and in internet and data infrastructure is essential if DSI, and digital technologies more broadly, are going to deliver social impact and reduce, rather than replicate or exacerbate, existing inequalities and discrimination.

What are the challenges which individual projects face?

  1. Engagement is no easy task - it needs time, investment, skills and support. Many DSI initiatives struggle to engage citizens, which is essential to their success. This can be due to different reasons, including lack of market and user research, underestimating the need for engagement efforts, developing products and services which do not appeal to citizens, and understanding methods and channels of communication. Funders and investors should support practitioners to develop and access the necessary skills and support for engagement.
  2. Practitioners must put digital inclusion first. If DSI is to effectively address social challenges, often those which affect the most disadvantaged, it must be digitally inclusive. Practitioners must complement digital inclusion efforts developed at the system level by building services and products open to everyone, not just the early adopters, This is especially important if failing to do so could entrench inequality or reduce initiatives’ legitimacy and impact.
  3. All stakeholders must do more to interrogate whether DSI initiatives actually work. DSI is still a new field, and despite its promise, very little has been done to understand the impact initiatives are having. One the one hand, this is due to a lack of demand, because of limited uptake by funders, investors, CSOs and the public sector. On the other, practitioners are often unwilling or unable to understand and measure their impact in a way which is proportionate to their initiative. Without a better understanding of how DSI is affecting people, societies and the environment, and whether it is a good investment of time and money, DSI will not (and arguably should not) grow.
  4. We do not understand enough about routes to growth and business models. Relatively few initiatives have grown to deliver impact at scale, and some of the values and principles of DSI run contrary to dominant market models (like free access and open-sourcing over proprietary ownership, and collaboration over competition). As a result, we do not yet understand in enough depth how DSI initiatives can grow their impact and become sustainable, whether through the market or not. More research and knowledge-sharing must take place to help us identify, categorise and develop promising models for growth and sustainability.
  5. Every DSI initiative will grow in a different way, but there are common lessons to be learnt. There is no single way to engage citizens, to measure impact, to grow an initiative’s impact or to be financially sustainable. Nevertheless, our research has identified common conditions and strategies, which we gather together in a practical guide at the end of our report.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be writing about some of these topics in more detail, such as the trends we’re observing in DSI, what we think policymakers and governments should do, how the public sector and civil society can adopt and support DSI better, and how we can fund DSI sustainably. Keep your eyes peeled for them!

In the meantime, if you’re working on DSI, please continue to add and update your projects and organisations on the digitalsocial.eu website and check out our blog and case studies. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, drop us a line on [email protected]


Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

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