History of technology is full of examples in which certain periods are marked by intensive innovative activity in a certain domain. These incremental innovations come into being by exploiting the opportunities enabled by an initial and more radical development. In the case of mobile apps, digital platforms form one of the underlying building bricks.
In at least one way digital platforms are different from previous waves of innovations, as far as their potential role in sustainability is concerned: They open up an important space for improving the way societies tackle social and environmental problems. Innovations that occupy this space are called digital social innovations. We take them as digital platforms that increase the capacity of civic society to formulate a problem, bring it to the fore of public arenas, and engage a variety of stakeholders to jointly frame and solve this problem.
How do digital social innovations help tackle social problems? In two ways:
- By expanding the space for civic engagement considerably, compared to offline possibilities.
- By reducing the barriers caused by geographical distance in gathering advocacy and support for a cause
According to Jennifer Light and Danielle Allen civic agency is “oriented towards how people live together – whether locally or globally- shape their worlds together, especially in conditions of diversity, working both through and outside political institutions”. Digital platforms widen the range of choices available in civic engagement; from a few clicks when signing an online petition, to more deliberative exchanges with others in virtual forums. In a few minutes, one can donate to a community project in a civic crowdfunding platform. And aside from facilitating such altruistic contributions, there are also digital platforms in which participants themselves benefit, like time banks to exchange services in a neighbourhood.
In addition to the expansion of civic engagement, there is also the issue of geography. To remind of the famous book written by Cairncross in 1997 (The Death of Distance) digital platforms overcome the barriers of distance in access to distant worlds. But our research on digital social innovations reveals that these platforms not only overcome the barriers to distance, but can also strengthen local communities through economic development and increased social cohesion. Take the digital platform déclic.toi which collects and diffuses information about accessible social events for people with disabilities in Reims, or the platform Diffuz.fr for accomplishing small tasks that help achieve community objectives.
We identified 4 types of digital social innovations in our research by taking into account these differences. First, we distinguished two ways in which civic engagement can be realised: by collaborating, communicating, exchanging with other users, or by simply participating oneself by donating, voting, signing, or providing information (aggregative). Second, we also realised that each of these different types of civic engagement can be realised virtually, or in real spaces. The resulting types are given in Figure below:
Each of these types have different characteristics and different benefits in terms of how they contribute to sustainability, as given in the table below with examples.
Why are these important? First, digital social innovations are getting significant policy support, but if these policies are to be effective, the impact of each type is important to consider, and a match with the policy priorities and community needs. Second, there are important obstacles in the development and diffusion of digital social innovations. But these obstacles also depend on the type of DSI. To overcome these obstacles, one needs to have a good understanding of the nature of digital social innovation types.