Guest Blog

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This Guest Blog Post is by Iain Cameron who worked for 25 years in the Department of Trade and Industry and Cabinet Office. He also worked for over ten years on business improvement in the UK automotive supply chain. Recently he has been developing a start-up, Industrial Strategy Communications and has worked on projects recently with Oxford University, the UK Commission for Skills and SMMT Industry Forum.

“Digital Social Innovation (DSI) is emerging as a priority in the big new European research programme, Horizon 2020, which kicked off at the start of the year. In global terms Europe sees itself as working a different social model from US based capitalism and DSI ties in well with these broader goals.

Readers of Techcityblog will need no introduction to digital innovation but where does ‘social’ come in? Within the classic US Silicon Valley start-up model the goal is obviously to be a big hit in the market so that perhaps a start-up rapidly grows to a scale where it can be sold on for a large capital sum. Social innovation is simply innovation where the ultimate goal is outside that realm. A lot of DSI projects are about health goals in developing countries, for example – an arena where market models have been slow to bring about the progress required.

To be fair a lot of good work on DSI is being done at Stanford University which is local to Silicon Valley. There is an excellent Facebook page run by Stanford on Social Innovation which has great articles from leading researchers in a brief easy to digest format.

One way of thinking about the social side of DSI is that projects generally have goals which would suit them to be charities under UK law. The aim of the project is to deliver some form of benefit to people outside the project – the beneficiaries . Environmental priorities are another major area where DSI has taken root, for example.

As part of the European drive Nesta have produced a web platform to map the European scene. With this scite you can browse the organisations who are active and look at their activities. It is easy to put your own project on the map and use the platform link up with others across Europe who
are interested in the same field. The map suggests that the UK is a major player in DSI – not just in the Techcity area but across the country as a whole. There are plenty of links between the UK and Holland and Belgium where there is another strong cluster of projects.

Crowdfunding is an important resource for DSI and rewards-based crowdfunding is especially suitable as opposed to equity or loan based crowdfunding. All the other elements of the digital innovation apply to DSI. It is a good question whether the kind of team dynamics in market-based digital start-ups also apply to DSI. While profit has proved to be a major motivator in innovation it is not the only one and a mature civil society like the UK is full of people who are working hard towards charitable goals.

In some areas the boundary between market and non-market goals can be blurred. For example if you are interested in digital music and work with a Digital Audio Workstation you may have noticed the enormous range of software synthesizers using VSTI which are free to download and use. The authors have chosen to work outside the market system. At the same time there are also a range of VSTI synths which can be bought in the normal way and there are various hybrids where discretionary payments are sought by the authors.

Academics have not been slow to discover the DSI scene and to publish articles about different aspects. While this is welcome there is a risk that their work can over-complicate the area. It can be a deterrent to would-be social entrepreneurs if DSI looks as if not only do you need the normal skillset for a start-up but you also need to master a set of extra techniques which are unique to DSI.

In fact a do-it-yourself punk-style ethos is much more suitable. We need to remember that across Europe as a whole there are high levels of youth unemployment. Young people have the energy , the idealism and the familiarity with digital that makes a good start for the DSI scene.

Surprisingly some commentators have concluded that a constraint on the growth of DSI is not the lack of funds but the lack of suitable projects so there is everything to go for if you have a project idea you want to develop. There are several sites on the net which have pulled together examples of successful DSI which can feed your inspiration.”

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