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).
Gebiedonline is a cooperative of online community platforms in which all members jointly own the platform technology and decide how to use and develop it further. Originally developed for the IJburg community in Amsterdam East, the cooperative has now established over 20 online community platforms across different cities in the Netherlands. One of these platforms is run by the 02025 community, a group of concerned citizens that aims to accelerate the energy transition within the Amsterdam region. They use the online platform to expand and strengthen their community, for example, by sharing upcoming events and relevant news items. Gebiedonline is also going to be one of the pilot platforms for the DECODE project, which Nesta is also working on.
FarmHack.nl is an example of an organisation that improves the accessibility and quality of open software and data solutions available within the agricultural sector. It organises hackathons where farmers, hackers, data crunchers, concept developers, urban planners and other stakeholders work together to use both openly available agricultural data and data collected by farmers themselves to create new and locally relevant applications for agricultural production.
Launched in September 2017 at De Ceuvel, a sustainable urban community in Amsterdam, Jouliette uses blockchain technology to manage and share their own energy production and consumption. The “Jouliette” is a community energy token on the blockchain which can be used to trade goods at the local cafe, facilitate local timebanking and be integrated into other services such as De Ceuvel’s car-sharing program. The project team installed a smart electricity micro-grid in the community, connecting the 16 office buildings, greenhouse, restaurant, and B&B to each other. This grid allows the buildings to exchange electricity amongst each other entirely independently from the national grid, and o track and visualise electricity production and consumption in real-time. Furthermore, Community members who produce their own renewable energy (e.g. through solar panels) can sell this to peers with Jouliette.
Rainforest Connection is a non-profit tech startup in San Francisco that builds scalable, open-source solutions to poaching and illegal logging. Working with conservation agencies and local communities in five countries, Rainforest Connection builds acoustic monitoring systems to protect rainforests from illegal deforestation and halt animal poaching. Its systems run on second-hand mobile phones transformed into solar-powered listening devices that enable real time alerts to be sent via SMS to local authorities if suspicious sounds are detected. At the core of each device is an Android smartphone with an operating system that has been modified for this specific project. Because the project uses an accessible and low-tech solution, it allows small communities to engage effectively in rainforest protection.
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.