Getting Digital Social Innovation Out of the Information Age
Despite the recent progress and diffusion of concepts such as social entrepreneurship, digital social innovation, impact investing and all their possible nuances, social good remains something that people have to advocate for. The “social” adjective carries indeed a hidden burden, as it automatically creates a sort of protected area where scattered and vulnerable subjects can find a shelter and a reason to be.
This problem affects also socially relevant inventions and movements in the technology space, to which in Europe we refer to as Digital Social Innovation. DSI is an Information Age product, as the actors which created this space came out originally from the blend of two worlds: protest movements, fighting for the increase of political participation as well as awareness about alternatives to the current sick system, and researchers in the area of Internet, computing, networks. With a generous simplification, we can trace a line from the No global movement in the early ’00 (with its claims against the few in power and its concern for climate change) passing from the explosion of Wikileaks and Anonymous, as well as the Arab Spring and Occupy, in a parallel evolution of human networks along “social” and online networks enabled by Internet widespread, borrowing from each other patterns and causes. This (again, simplifying) is the primordial soup from which the contemporary DSI was born from, and explains why most of this space is populated by grassroots instances and network scientists. In the meanwhile, we have passed to the Experience Age, and the digital world has exploded out of screens and networks, invading human interaction and almost any business area. But in DSI we keep talking about citizen engagement and networks, we have difficulties to relate to markets (or to go beyond and create alternative large-scale implementable spaces) and somehow we are flattened in a bi-dimensional approach that would like technology to be a mean that amplifies and improves human intellectual capabilities, with little focus on how our bodies, interactions and systems are shaped in the process.
We apply to DSI the Information Age mental approach, being extremely rational and straightforward in defining its intervention area: because “social” in the Information Age context refers mainly to the actors involved and to an impact that has to be directly social. But social impact can be produced also outside the information paradigm and of what is explicitly dedicated to a social cause, and become embedded in the same meaning and functioning of a venture/initiative (impact investment and social entrepreneurship have made the bigger steps in this respect). If we want to save and spread DSI, we have to stop watching the finger instead of the Moon.
Five approaches to move forward with
Climate disasters and debatable governments may increasingly turn public bodies, companies and people to digital social solutions, but in the meanwhile something has to be done in order to abandon welfarism in favour of a more pervasive approach. Here are five possible angles to tackle the challenge.
1. New metrics. Let’s start from the narrative and the framing of social. Technology is a matter of numbers: success is quantitative. How many users, downloads, minutes spent, conversion rate. How can we inject quality and relationships in the equation? As the movement Time Well Spent argues, one thing is technology allowing you to communicate with the others, and another technology allowing you to do so in a good way, without distracting you continuously and allowing instead meaningful conversations. We need less technical efficiency and more empirical satisfaction, and this has to be designed within technology and inform its possible uses.
2. Less networks, more bodies. So far actors in the digital social innovation area concentrated mostly on solutions related to facilitating and improving the experience with debate/participation and internet access. This because when we think of social in the Information Age we think of services and not of products, of political participation and not of everyday experiences. AI, VR, sensors, robots… The technologies that surround us today make us question what is the role of the human brain and human capacity in the future, and push the human boundaries under every respect (physical, ethics, behavioural…). We must talk more about how chat bots can help people, how we can better design technology around new metrics, how AI will impact this space, how devices and transhumanism can make society more equal, how implants can save lives, if and how money will disappear, how we will communicate between people and between people and machines, what is the ethics we want for all this.
3. Digital social education. More than getting everybody to code, we must get everybody to learn how to handle their data, rights and online persona. Where we sit in space and time is less and less important: how many people will “disappear” or got trapped in a middle dimension where they are a quantitative sum of data and not a qualitative identity? This is citizen informed engagement: it is enabling people to make informed decisions and not just to force them to decide or take action. It starts at school, where pupils can learn to be proactive towards technology, and informs the way services and decisions of public interest are communicated to people.
4. A proactive attitude towards the post-work society. To who do we want to leave the building of a post-work era? Silicon Valley billionaires who think of solutions for the few, or governments and citizens acting in the common interest? The process has started, it will happen, but not necessary in a catastrophic manner. Technology will be taking jobs of people who are not prepared to that (again, informed society) and most of these jobs will be automatable and not gratifying ones. The end of work is not the end of meaning: what will the unoccupied masses do is a much bigger problem. We need to rethink our society and its purpose together. Otherwise we will end up being “quantified workers” and slaves of the gig economy. The crucial problem is not creating new jobs, but jobs humans can perform better than algorithm. We are eliminating the human: so we need to think not only of how technology can serve social purposes, but most and foremost how it can facilitate and inject back human interaction in its way of working.
5. Sustainability and faster processes. Anything conceived to be used by people can be interpreted as social. But some inventions stay in the realm of cool technology and generate a lot of profit with no care for the social consequences, while some others end up in the pool of poor social things that deserve a subvention because you know, it’s social, who should pay for it? There is an overarching problem of how we frame and distribute those social inventions: there is firstly a gap between “marketable” and “of public interest”, to be bridged with hybrid and inclusive business models, or by inventing markets outside the markets and revenues outside the money realm; secondly, we see a usurpation of terms like “social” network or “sharing economy” by big corporations: neither Facebook nor Airbnb are social platforms, they are just making a lot of money on top of content and activities freely provided by us, the users. Taking back these terms and revamp a new meaning for them, or leaving them to corporations and invent new ones. Finally, social innovation seems to have a big problem with money and funds. It struggles to catalyse funds and appeal to investors, ending up leaning on public funds because of its vocation for the social good, something that is extremely controversial to put a price on. For those solutions that are not immediately marketable products or services, public funds (may they be local, regional, national, European) are still the most important way to go. Such funds require a lot of investment of resources and time to get in a proposal and they are intertwined with complicated and long bureaucratic procedures: by the time an innovative social idea is due to be funded, it is outdated, or little work has been done in making it economically sustainable. We must accelerate the support process, which means strengthening the argument for social innovation and put more effort in understanding demand, work towards effective adoption and implement sustainability strategies. In this respect impact investing and social entrepreneurship should be put at the steering wheel of DSI, as they are the only streams in this space that are creating a tangible alternative suitable to be scaled by policymakers.
Getting DSI in the Experience Age means increasing its relevance within this relatively new arena, by making it understandable and appealing, highlighting social impact value for business and for society as a whole, and finally channelling it to faster and effective development processes.