Digital Social Innovation: Everyone Has Something to Give

Nesta is an innovation charity in the UK helping people and organisations bring their ideas to life. Their work includes tackling social challenges by investing in research, partnerships and projects. Once a niche, now digital is a hype and part of everything we do including social innovation. We talked to Peter Baeck from Nesta about how digital revolution is transforming social innovation and society today.

In the photo: Peter Baeck from Nesta. Photo credits: Nesta

In the Photo: Peter Baeck from Nesta. Photo Credit: Nesta

From Experiments to Investments

Nesta has four operational pillars: innovation lab, think tank, impact investments and a skills team. Each one of them plays its role. The innovation lab looks after practical programs and experiments, e.g. bringing coding to schools, teaching kids how to use 3D printing, organising an open data talent series. The impact investments team looks into the investments in ventures for social and non-profit motifs. The team tries to change the nature and culture of investments by arguing that one can add social outcomes to investment strategies. The skills team looks across all projects in Nesta to develop best practices for other groups and organisations around the world.

The policy and research team where Peter sits is the organisation’s ‘think tank’. “We try to understand new trends within the economy and society and help policy makers, practitioners, and businesses understand what these trends mean for them. For example, the impact crowdfunding has on business finance, or the impact open data will have on volunteering,” Peter says.

Right now Peter is currently studying how charities are using crowdfunding in the UK to raise money. The inspiration he gets is what he loves the most about his work as a researcher for public and social innovation. Even though at times there might be a lot of frustration to see so many great ideas go to waste because society is too slow to adopt them, Peter believes that Nesta’s work is to bridge that gap and make that journey to adopt a little bit quicker through investments, skill development, capacity building and policy changes.



Capacity Building and Finding the Talent

From his work in the sector Peter has observed most organisations who are pioneering technology and social innovation today are newcomers like start-ups or community hubs whereas some older, medium-sized organisations struggle to keep abreast with technological transformation.

In the photo: creator spaces in the UK. Photo credits: Nesta

One of the main challenges for organisations like Nesta is to help even more people benefit from digital technology. Another big challenge is finding the talent. “You have many talented young people working for big companies like Google, so you’re competing with them for the best talent,” he says. “Last year we produced the paper Data for Good. We explored how charities can use open data to understand social challenges in new ways. There were a lot of data scientists out there who were willing to volunteer their time after work, coming to a hack and spending their weekend trying to understand how to use that data to, for example, help volunteers to address flooding in the UK.”

 In the Photo: (above) creator spaces in the UK. Photo Credit: Nesta

According to Peter, the main difference between DSI and what we call a more traditional social innovation is that it’s often very local, very grounded. “It’s often about getting people together in a community to address something and do something about it. And traditionally one of the biggest challenges in social innovation has been how to scale them and how to grow a movement beyond one area or location.” Digital has brought a new perspective and a new way of supporting the same cause despite a geographical location. Online platforms can easily attract people from anywhere in the world around a common cause or issue. “This is a true potential of DSI.”

How Do We Innovate?

Peter could sit and talk for hours about many great DSI examples he’s come across working at Nesta. But he thinks that for all of them to be successful it’s essential to have the skill to understand the “user involvement and user design, how to bring people and their resources together to identify a problem, design a solution, deliver it and then evaluate its success.” Crowdsourcing is key in DSI because it’s all about bringing together bits of resources, be it ideas, time or money, from large crowds of people to address common challenges.

citizen_scienceOne of Peter’s favourite DSI projects is from UK charity Cancer UK and citizen science platform Zooniverse. A project titled Cell Slider enables cancer researchers and ordinary people like you and me to collaborate on identifying early stage cancer. A website was developed to teach anyone to learn to identify cancer in images that researchers have to study for hours in order to spot abnormalities in cells. The tutorial on the website empowers people willing to help to study real life images. “In the last two years 200,000 people have helped to analyse 1.6 million images with an accuracy of 85-90%. This is a great example of how you can involve the public in tackling the biggest challenges we have in healthcare which is cancer,” concludes Peter.

So anything from school competitions to community fundraising shows that everyone has got something to give.

What’s in it for Governments and the Public Sector?

When it comes to local government, there are many social issues that ask for certain public services: healthcare, homelessness, the environment, and community regeneration are just a few. Depending on cultural or political context, the role of government of course varies. But Peter is convinced that there is a strong link between social value and public value and that’s where social innovation comes to play. “What social innovation does, in many ways, is help people address challenges in their local areas in better and new ways.” He adds that “the role of government is often to understand that to work with people on designing social innovation, it also means giving away some power and devolving some of the authority, decision making and spending to people and networks.”

Paris is a good example of how a government and people can work together on improving the city. Madam Mayor, I have an idea is a project where 5% of the city’s investment budget is dedicated to people’s ideas on how to improve the city (parks, roads, etc.) by voting on them online.

In Rotterdam people have crowdfunded a footbridge across a highway where previously there was no pedestrian crossing and locals had to or go around it until they reached the next crossing. The city didn’t think there was a real need for such a bridge before people started buying  planks (around 12 euro each) to build this bridge. “So today there’s a footbridge over the highway in Rotterdam where each plank has a name of a donor from that local area.”

The Role of Civil Society Organisations

In the picture: DSI organisations in Europe

When asked about the role of civil society organisations in DSI, Peter thinks that they are often the glue that keeps all things together. Still many charities are set up with a legal structure to fundraise offline, to mobilise volunteers offline while our generation is mainly online. There is an obvious gap. “What we find often in our work is that more and more networks aren’t formalised. There are movements to address one issue, and then people shift to another movement to support another issue. So it’s less of “I commit my volunteering time to one charity for the next ten years” and more cause by cause support jumping from different networks and organisations.”

In the Picture (above): DSI organisations in Europe

More about DSI and what Nesta does can be found in their research to map DSI organisations across Europe.

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Cover Photo: Nesta




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