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Cities are facing increasingly complex challenges caused by social and demographic changes, technological innovation and shortages of key resources. These range from air and noise pollution to loneliness, low democratic engagement through to affordability and quality of housing, diversity to social cohesion. A growing number of these are being addressed using new DSI approaches.

At the same time, DSI holds particular potential at the city level. To a certain extent, this is thanks to the sheer density of people, assets, infrastructure, knowledge and skills which allows for collaborative technologies to thrive. But increasingly, it is because cities are becoming a hotbed for innovative policymaking and strategies - sometimes despite or even in reaction to national policies - and, in many countries, they have significant power over the decisions which affect people’s day-today lives the most. Often, they also have close relationships with citizens, and effective ways of engaging them.

Indeed, cities are one of the key audiences for the DSI4EU project, and this cluster’s activities link closely with work Nesta is leading on the DSI Index, which will compare how different cities are supporting DSI and share best practice with them.

City governments have strong powers to support DSI, including through funding (whether by themselves or with others, for example through matched crowdfunding or public-private partnerships), by promoting and providing open data, by using innovative public procurement to support DSI projects (e.g. committing to open-source software or using pre-commercial procurement), supporting skills development (e.g. through employment support and education systems), involving citizens in decision-making through digital platforms, and championing DSI publicly.

In this analysis, led by Barcelona Activa, DSI4EU carried out a preliminary analysis of five municipal approaches to supporting DSI, and found that while digital transformation as a whole is a high priority for most cities, more DSI-specific concepts such as data commons, open data, citizen engagement and open-sourcing were less prevalent. Nevertheless, we have seen some promise including in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam, and the Finnish “Six Cities” region. Many European cities have been leaders on open data and data analytics.

However, not all cities are faring equally well. Leaders like Barcelona and Amsterdam are far ahead of the pack, with many cities - even capitals and otherwise very successful cities in some cases - lagging far behind. There are a number of areas where city governments can act to support DSI, but it is also important that cities work together to codify learning, share lessons, learn from each other, and replicate or adapt the most successful initiatives. They should also ensure they are working closely with other actors, including the private sector, universities and citizens, to support the growth of DSI in those cities. In this way, we will be able to achieve the vision of more human-centred, socially relevant smart cities which is now widely understood to be the necessary successor to the first wave of smart cities.

DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. This feature is part of a series of introductory texts exploring the landscape, challenges and opportunities for DSI in different social areas. You can find the other features in the series on our main feature page.

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