4. Digital social innovation: For the social good (and a moonshot)

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The fourth edition in the series Better cities. The Contribution of Digital Technology is about “digital social innovations” and contains ample examples of how people are finding new ways to use digital means to help society thrive and save the environment.

Digitale sociale innovatie  – also referred to as smart city 3.0 – is a modest counterweight to the growing dominance and yet lagging promises of 'Big Tech'. It concerns "a type of social and collaborative innovation in which final users and communities collaborate through digital platforms to produce solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale that was unimaginable before the rise of Internet-enabled networking platforms."

Digital innovation in Europe has been boosted by the EU project Growing a digital social Innovation ecosystem for Europa (2015 – 2020), in which De Waag Society in Amsterdam participated for the Netherlands. One of the achievements is a database of more than 3000 organizations and companies. It is a pity that this database is no longer kept up to date after the project has expired and – as I have experienced – quickly loses its accuracy.

Many organizations and projects have interconnections, usually around a 'hub'. In addition to the Waag Society, these are for Europe, Nesta, Fondazione Mondo Digitale and the Institute for Network Cultures. These four organizations are also advisors for new projects. Important websites are: digitalsocial.eu(no longer maintained) and the more business-oriented techforgood.

A diversity of perspectives

To get to know the field of digital innovation better, different angles can be used:

• Attention to a diversity of issues such as energy and climate, air and noise pollution, health care and welfare, economy and work, migration, political involvement, affordable housing, social cohesion, education and skills.

• The multitude of tools ranging from open hardware kits for measuring air pollution, devices for recycling plastic, 3D printers, open data, open hardware and open knowledge. Furthermore, social media, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, big data, machine learning et cetera.

• The variety of project types: Web services, networks, hardware, research, consultancy, campaigns and events, courses and training, education, and research.

• The diverse nature of the organizations involved: NGOs, not-for-profit organizations, citizens' initiatives, educational and research institutions, municipalities and increasingly social enterprises.

Below, these four perspectives are only discussed indirectly via the selected examples. The emphasis is on a fifth angle, namely the diversity of objectives of the organizations and projects involved. At the end of this article, I will consider how municipalities can stimulate digital social innovation. But I start with the question of what the organizations involved have in common.

A common denominator

A number of organizations drew up the Manifesto for Digital Social Innovation in 2017 and identified  central values for digital social innovation: Openness and transparency, democracy and decentralization, experimentation and adoption, digital skills, multidisciplinary and sustainability. These give meaning to the three components of the concept of digital social technology:

Social issues
The multitude of themes of projects in the field of digital social innovation has already been mentioned. Within all these themes, the perspective of social inequality, diversity, human dignity, and gender are playing an important role. In urban planning applications, this partly shifts the focus from the physical environment to the social environment:  We're pivoting from a focus on technology and IoT and data to a much more human-centered process, in the words of Emily Yates, smart cities director of Philadelphia.

Innovation
Ben Green writes in his book 'The smart enough city': One of the smart city's greatest and most pernicious tricks is that it .... puts innovation on a pedestal by devaluing traditional practices as emblematic of the undesirable dumb city.(p. 142). In digital social, innovation rather refers to implement, experiment, improve and reassemble.

(Digital) technology
Technology is not a neutral toolbox that can be used or misused for all purposes. Again Ben Green: We must ask, what forms of technology are compatible with the kind of society we want to build (p. 99). Current technologies have been shaped by commercial or military objectives. Technologies that contribute to 'the common good' still need to be partly developed. Supporters of digital social innovation emphasize the importance of a robust European open, universal, distributed, privacy-aware and neutral peer-to-peer network as a platform for all forms of digital social innovation.

Objectives and focus

When it comes to the objective or focus, five types of projects can be distinguished: (1) New production techniques (2) participation (3) cooperation (4 raising awareness and (5) striving for open access.

1. New production techniques
A growing group of 'makers' is revolutionizing open design. 3D production tools CAD/CAM software is not expensive or available in fab labs and libraries. Waag Society in Amsterdam is one of the many institutions that host a fab lab. This is used, among other things, to develop several digital social innovations. One example was a $50 3D-printed prosthesis intended for use in developing countries.

2. Participation
Digital technology can allow citizens to participate in decision-making processes on a large scale. In Finland, citizens are allowed to submit proposals to parliament. Open Ministry supports citizens in making an admissible proposal and furthermore in obtaining the minimum required 50,000 votes. Open Ministry is now part of the European D-CENTproject a decentralized social networking platform that has developed tools for large-scale collaboration and decision making across Europe.

3. Collaboration
It is about enabling people to exchange skills, knowledge, food, clothing, housing, but also includes new forms of crowdfunding and financing based on reputation and trust. The sharing economy is becoming an important economic factor. Thousands of alternative payment methods are also in use worldwide. In East Africa, M-PESA (a mobile financial payment system) opens access to secure financial services for nine million people. Goteo is a social network for crowdfunding and collaborative collaboration that contribute to the common good.

4. Awareness
These are tools that seek to use information to change behavior and mobilize collective action. Tyze is a closed and online community for family, friends, neighbors, and care professionals to strengthen mutual involvement around a client and to make appointments, for example for a visit. Safecast is the name of a home-built Geiger counter with which a worldwide community performs radiation measurements and thus helps to increase awareness in radiation and (soon) the presence of particulate matter.

5. Open Access
The open access movement (including open content, standards, licenses, knowledge and digital rights) aims to empower citizens. The CityService Development Kit (CitySDK) is a system that collects open data from governments to make it available uniformly and in real time. CitySDK helps seven European cities to release their data and provides tools to develop digital services. It also helps cities to anticipate the ever-expanding technological possibilities, for example a map showing all 9,866,539 buildings in the Netherlands, shaded by year of construction. Github is a collaborative platform for millions of open software developers, helping to re-decentralize the way code is built, shared, and maintained.

Cities Support

Cities can support organizations pursuing digital social innovations in tackling problems in many ways. Municipalities that want to do this can benefit from the extensive list of examples in the Digital Social Innovation Ideas Bank, An inspirational resource for local governments.

Funding
Direct support through subsidies, buying shares, loans, social impact bonds, but also competitions and matching, whereby the municipality doubles the capital obtained by the organization, for example through crowdfunding. An example of a project financed by the municipality is Amsterdammers, maak je stad.

Cooperation
Involvement in a project, varying from joint responsibility and cost sharing, to material support by making available space and service s, such as in the case Maker Fairs or the Unusual Suspects Festival. Maker Fairs or the Unusual Suspects Festival. Municipalities can also set up and support a project together, such as Cities for Digital Rights. A good example is the hundreds of commons in Bologna, to which the municipality delegates part of its tasks.

Purchasing Policy
Digital social innovation projects have provided a very wide range of useful software in many areas, including improving communication with citizens and their involvement in policy. Consul was first used in Madrid but has made its way to 33 countries and more than 100 cities and businesses and is used by more than 90 million people. In many cases there is also local supply. An alternative is Citizenlab.

Infrastructure
Municipalities should seriously consider setting up or supporting a fab lab. Fab Foundation is helpful in this regard. Another example is the Things Network and the Smart citizen kit.. Both are open tools that enable citizens and entrepreneurs to build an IoT application at low cost. These facilities can also be used to measure noise nuisance, light pollution, or odors with citizens in a neighborhood, without having to install an expensive sensor network.

Skills Training
Municipalities can offer citizens and students targeted programs for training digital skills, or support organizations that can implement them, through a combination of physical and digital means. One of the options is the lie detector program, developed by a non-profit organization that teaches young children to recognize and resist manipulative information on (social) media.

Incubators and accelerators
We mainly find these types of organizations in the world of start-ups, some of which also have a social impact. Targeted guidance programs are also available for young DSI organizations. In the Netherlands this is the Waag Society in Amsterdam. A typical tech for good incubator in the UK is Bethnal Green Ventures. An organization that has also helped the Dutch company Fairphone to grow. In the Netherlands, various startup in residence programs also play a role in the development of DSI organisations.

A digital-social innovative moonshot to gross human happiness

It is sometimes necessary to think ahead and wake up policymakers, putting aside the question of implementation for a while. A good example of this from a digital social innovation perspective is the moonshot that Jan-Willem Wesselink (Future City Foundation), Petra Claessen (BTG/TGG). Michiel van Willigen and Wim Willems (G40) and Leonie van den Beuken (Amsterdam Smart City) have written in the context of 'Missie Nederland' of de Volkskrant. Many DSI organizations can get started with this piece! I'll end with the main points of this:

By 2030...
… not a single Dutch person is digitally literate anymore, instead every Dutch person is digitally skilled.
… every resident of the Netherlands has access to high-quality internet. This means that every home will be connected to fast fixed and mobile internet and every household will be able to purchase devices that allow access. A good laptop is just as important as a good fridge.
… the internet is being used in a new way. Applications (software and hardware) are created from within the users. With the premise that anyone can use them. Programs and the necessary algorithms are written in such a way that they serve society and not the big-tech business community.
… every resident of the Netherlands has a 'self-sovereign identity' with which they can operate and act digitally within the context of their own opportunities.
… new technology has been developed that gives residents and companies the opportunity to think along and decide about and to co-develop and act on the well-being of regions, cities, and villages.
… all Dutch politicians understand digitization and technology.
… the Dutch business community is leading in the development of these solutions.
… all this leads to more well-being and not just more prosperity.
… the internet is ours again.

A more detailed explanation can be found under this link

https://amsterdamsmartcity.com/moonshot

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4 Comments

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Jiri Skopek's picture
Jiri Skopek

Many thanks. Really enjoy your writing

Jiri Skopek's picture
Jiri Skopek

Is there any compendium of success stories?

René Pare's picture
René Pare

Great long read and many useful links. Thank you!

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