Introducing our overview of digital social innovation in the field of migration and integration.
In the summer of 2015, the extraordinary wave of digital projects launched in response to the so-called “refugee crisis” appeared to herald a new era for DSI: more dynamic, more responsive, more mainstream. The burst of projects focusing on short-term challenges related to receiving newcomers (volunteer coordination, donation platforms, orientation information for new arrivals, accommodation projects) received widespread coverage and attention.
However, this analysis, led by betterplace lab, shows that in recent months we’ve seen a shift towards technology being used to tackle longer-term integration challenges, such as education and training, community integration and participation, language learning and – above all – labour market integration, which includes the recognition of already acquired skills, job-matching platforms, incubators and coding schools.
The technologies most widely used are apps and online platforms; there have been some experiments with emerging technologies (such as Building Blocks, a blockchain based project launched by the World Food Programme in a refugee camp in Jordan); and there is now a Europe-wide network of refugee coding schools based in Germany, Austria, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.
Germany remains a hotspot of activities, although the initial “explosion phase” of new projects (up to four a week!) was followed by a period of consolidation, focusing on financial stability and stronger partnerships, and discontinuation of unviable or obsolete projects. Outside Germany, our analysis finds the Netherlands and the UK to be the most active; the former also received a high number of newcomers, leading to labour market integration projects (such as Hack Your Future) to apps offering information on welfare and law (such as NL Help U), to information on accommodation, while in the latter, which did not take in many newcomers, projects tended to be more advocacy-focused or intended for implementation elsewhere (e.g. refugee camps). Our analysis finds little activity originating in countries like Greece, Malta or Cyprus, which have had high numbers of newcomers; this is most likely because of the generally less-developed civic tech scene, and because most refugees do not stay there long-term.
The widespread coverage of the refugee crisis, and shocking images and stories, led to intense engagement including from people who were completely new to DSI and migration, refugee and asylum issues. With their hearts in the right place, this unfortunately led to some naivety regarding the complexities of integration and therefore misguided or simplistic solutions. Luckily, now there is increasing awareness of the need for target-group engagement, co-creation and diversity within operational teams, leading to solutions more closely tailored to the actual needs of migrants and newcomers.
We are also witnessing a trend towards opening up DSI products initially aimed solely at refugees and migrants to other socially disadvantaged groups. The project HiMate, for example, offers free vouchers for cultural activities to increase social integration. This is a highly welcome development, particularly as there are some concerns that refugee-focused services could in fact isolate them further by treating them as “others”.
Overall DSI in this field has moved from a highly reactive approach, responding to emergency needs by creating tools to bring structure into apparent chaos, to being more focused, adaptive and proactive.
Challenges for DSI in the field of integration centre around funding (particularly for growth and scaling), relationships with civil society (with many organisations unaware of the potential of digital or lacking the skills to implement it effectively, or even remaining sceptical of its promise), policy developments and public discourse (which can change rapidly and have a huge effect on the feasibility of projects and on citizens’ attitudes and generosity).
The main role of policy, which we will be delving into further over the coming months, is to enable better collaboration and networking, to enable the most successful projects to scale and to avoid fragmentation, duplication and wasted time, effort and money. Furthermore, the public sector, the private sector and foundations must provide more agile, longer-term funding rather than just funding stipends and incubators. Finally, governments at national and city level and large civil society organisations should advocate for and support the most successful DSI projects, working in more networked ways to address what will be one of the defining challenges of our time.
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.