Introducing our overview of digital social innovation (DSI) in the field of food, environment and climate change.
We know that technology does not always lead to our societies becoming more green - think of the increase in pollution caused by thousands of online delivery services, or the monumental energy consumption of blockchain networks (Bitcoin currently uses as much energy as Chile).
This is what makes DSI so exciting in this field: it seeks to make use of open, collaborative technologies to support the transition to more sustainable societies and economies, including by engaging the public, enabling cleaner, localised energy production, and optimising mobility solutions. In so doing, it allows us to envision a future where technology makes an overall positive contribution to our environment.
The environmental challenges we face today are well-known: rising air and sea temperatures, pollution, plastic waste, food insecurity, and so on. It’s easy to blame this on industry, transport and farming, but the roots go far deeper. Indeed, sustainability issues are deeply rooted in economic systems, culture and behavioural patterns.
Policies, taxes, treaties, research and regulation will only take us so far; DSI offers one way in which we can begin to overhaul our behaviours and attitudes towards production, consumption and investment.
To do this, DSI initiatives aim to raise awareness, improve citizens’ access to technology and sustainability solutions, and make these solutions more affordable. They do this by harnessing community collaboration, for example through neighbourhood social networks (eg for food- or item-sharing) or through digital cooperative models; by involving citizens as scientists, for example through open-source citizen sensing kits like the Smart Citizen Kit; and by empowering citizens as makers rather than just consumers, for example through open-source 3D-printing and textile design.
One important trend within the field is the development and provision of open-source software for community and bottom-up groups to develop their own networks and solutions, such as the Open Food Network (which provides software for more sustainable local food systems) and Open Source Ecology (which provides open-source blueprints for developing machines and equipment).
DSI initiatives in the field face several challenges, which mainly revolve around engaging users, developing high-quality, sustainable open-source software and hardware with excellent user experiences; and a lack of interest, funding and supportive policy for bottom-up, community-led initiatives. We identify a number of areas where policymakers could have a positive impact, including removing fiscal and legal limitations to stimulate local energy production and supply to electricity grids; strategic championing and initiatives such as the Fab City and Milan Urban Food Policy Pact; and innovative procurement which allows smaller players and open-source models to access government contracts. We will be working over the coming months with policymakers, researchers and practitioners to refine and develop our policy proposals.
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.