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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.

What next for digital social innovation? Realising the potential of people and technology to tackle social challenges

This report, produced as part of the DSI4EU project, maps the projects and organisations using technology to tackle social challenges across Europe, and explores the barriers to the growth of digital social innovation

This report, and accompanying guide, produced as part of the DSI4EU project, maps the projects and organisations using technology to tackle social challenges across Europe, and explores the barriers to the growth of digital social innovation.

Key findings

  • There are almost 2,000 organisations and over 1,000 projects involved in digital social innovation (DSI) across Europe, with the highest concentration of activity in Western and Southern Europe.

  • Despite this activity, there are relatively few examples of DSI initiatives delivering impact at scale. The growth of DSI is being held back by barriers at the system level and at the level of individual projects.

  • Projects and organisations involved in DSI are still relatively poorly connected to each other. There is a pressing need to grow strong networks within and across countries and regions to boost collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

  • The growth of DSI is being held back by lack of funding and investment across the continent, especially outside Western Europe, and structural digital skills shortages.

  • Civil society organisations and the public sector have been slow to adopt DSI, despite the opportunity it offers them to deliver better services at a lower cost, although there are emerging examples of good practice from across Europe.

  • Practitioners struggle to engage citizens and users, understand and measure the impact of their digital social innovations, and plan for growth and sustainability.

Across Europe, thousands of people, projects and organisations are using digital technologies to tackle social challenges in fields like healthcare, education, employment, democratic participation, migration and the environment. We call this phenomenon digital social innovation.

Through crowdmapping DSI across Europe, we find that there are almost 2,000 organisations and over 1,000 projects using open and collaborative technologies to tackle social challenges. We complement this analysis by piloting experimental data methods such as Twitter analysis to understand in further depth the distribution of DSI across Europe. You can explore the data on projects and organisations on digitalsocial.eu.

However, despite widespread activity, few initiatives have grown to deliver impact at scale, to be institutionalised, or to become “the new normal”.

In this research, we find that weak networks between stakeholders, insufficient funding and investment, skills shortages, and slow adoption by public sector and established civil society organisations is holding back the growth of DSI.

Policy recommendations

Funders and policymakers should:

  1. Support DSI through funding mechanisms. Private and public funders of social innovation should ensure that DSI organisations and projects are able, and encouraged, to access funding.
  2. Invest in intermediaries and the support infrastructure for DSI. Currently, some large-scale investment goes to individual projects while the majority of projects miss out. Focusing instead on investment in infrastructure such as incubators, accelerators, network-building, physical hubs and training initiatives would enable a more decentralised system capable of supporting a wider range of DSI initiatives.
  3. Invest in and enable DSI approaches within existing civil society organisations. Private and public financial support for DSI should not only focus on startups and grassroots organisations, but also on improving digital maturity in established civil society organisations and supporting DSI initiatives within them.
  4. Enable peer learning and the spread of best practice.The European Commission should continue to invest in peer learning and knowledge-sharing initiatives, both online and offline. This must happen not only between practitioners but also between funders, policymakers and investors.
  5. Conduct further research into the supporting conditions and models for growth and sustainability of DSI. The European Commission should support research into the enabling conditions of DSI and growth and sustainability models for DSI initiatives.
  6. Use public procurement to advance DSI. The public sector at European, national and sub-national levels should support DSI by promoting open-source where possible, piloting DSI in testbeds and adopting innovative methods of procurement such as pre-commercial procurement.

Alongside the recommendations, our guidelines for practitioners provide practical tips for how DSI projects can think about their engagement strategies, impact measurement and paths to sustainability.


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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Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Peter leads work that explores how combining human and machine intelligence can develop innovative solutions to social challenges.

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Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Mission Manager, A Fairer Start

Toby worked with local governments to develop and pilot improvements to services that support young children and families.

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