Shaping the Future of Digital Social Innovation in Europe: What was discussed during #digiSI?

image used courtesy of Nesta

Hi everyone,

Yesterday I participated in “Shaping the Future of Digital Social Innovation in Europe”, a conference organised by Nesta, at the European Commission in Brussels. This post is an attempt to share the main discussions that connected different areas at the intersections of technology and social innovation. It is not exhaustive but focuses on some key issues which  social innovators, entrepreneurs, hacktivists, cultural practitioners and policymakers currently are tackling in isolation but which require more aligned efforts.

If you want to do background reading do check out:

1. Nesta’s big report on Europe’s digital social innovation ecosystem: Four technology trends: open hardware, open data, open knowledge, open networks. Pay special attention to the policy recommendations as they were endorsed by several policymakers including Markkula and Campolargo

2. Article on key issues around data entitlement in the internet of things

3. Manifesto for smart citizens

What was not discussed, but should have been

My own observation is that an important missing component from the discussion is in the overlap between economic viability of digital social innovation initiatives…and ownership of physical assets. James mentions ownership of the means of production, distribution and sales in this comment on the limitations of timebanking and other p2p collaboration initiatives. But there are the broader issues of permanently affordable housing, food security, etc that affect many.

Another topic that was raised in the twitter feeds was that we need to have a discussion about privacy/security infrastructure as public goods. Why is this relevant? As an illustrative example you may want to read this story about Werner Koch and think about the implications for a minute.

What was discussed

A key discussion revolved around policymakers and others placing emphasis on technological innovation, rather than focusing on technological arbitrage. Firstly, a purely engineering focus leads to the self-indulgent idea of the act of making as sufficient. It also contributes to mis-identification of problems through fetishisation of data and technology as “optimisation”. But even if we restrict the discussion to one about technology there is a huge political question that is not being addressed, but has to be.

“Algorithms are instructions. Not “acts of God”. Algorithms are subjective. What are we doing about this to democratize debates?” - Renata Avila

As Caspar Bowden points out, when it comes to digital social innovation, the European Commission assumes that Big Data and Privacy are compatible, but recent research shows preserving the utility of data sacrifices its anonymity. If you reduce everything to information rather than social (as Google does) you end in very undemocratic place. One reason being a key point made by Marleen Stikker: that data and the Algorithms that define how those data are processed, are not neutral. They are based on subjective interpretations of reality, and embed values that need to be debated on a philosophical level rather than a technical one alone. There are already indications that this view is paving the way for the erosion of civil liberties

‘Europe needs a moral & intellectual re-think on if it is right to consider data a commodity’ - Evgeny Morozov

Usman Haque made a point that the key issue we need to address in “internet of things” is not about discoverability (as the web was), but about entitlement. How do citizens get involved as producers of data or entitlement structures? A person is moral owner of data. How do we get citizens to decide which are the meaningful decisions to be made? Especially when you really do need digital literacy to understand the effect of algorithms on your futures.

In Edgeryders we are discussing this issue, from a different angle: “a massive case of market failure occurs around personal data, where people simply cannot understand the value of their personal data, and the way it aggregates to become incredibly powerful.”.

One approach proposed was to measure the costs of disenfranchisement with solutions made for us by something or someone other than ourselves. The reasoning is that If something is not measured it doesn’t get factored into institutional decision making.

The big takeaway was that we have to focus on critically looking at gatekeepers of the internet as big (mostly American) data monopolies are taking over all kinds of services and locking out smaller actors in social innovation.

“Look around you-who is capturing and prepping to capture all the data points? #digiSI needs to go beneath surface of service @cased

“As government services are outsourced to Silicon Valley, how can smaller, local SMEs build services on the data?”

“The major actors can offer for nothing a service or product it took smaller actors a lot of investment to develop” (David Cuartielles, Arduino).

To address this requires us to better equip institutions with appropriate competence as the lack of smart laws leave vacuums that are filled by the rules of technology giants. It also requires us to get behind an agenda of decentralisation, public investment in distributed architectures and putting fair and open technologies at the heart of public procurement.

P.S If you found this post useful and would like more, let me know so I feel motivated to produce and share more of them :slight_smile: Write to


Also, the website never worked :slight_smile:

I could never get the unMonastery and other Edgeryders projects onto the digitalsocial website. I contacted the Nesta people at DigitalSocial, they promised to look into it but then never got back to me. I guess they were more oriented to the big report you mention than to connecting practitioners. I like much of NESTA’s work, but this is a fail in my book.

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unMonastery:Matera already added during OuiShare Fest 2014 :slight_smile:


At the time it was not there, @elf_Pavlik. Also, at the time it was not a formal organisation, but a project using the Edgeryders scaffolding (now incorporation is pending, I am told – but this is after Transmediale 2015). The fact remains that the website did not work properly, and that its developers, prompted by me on that, did not come up with a solution.

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A European idea for networks and distributed architectures

It was my feeling in Brussels - and this is reflected in Nadia’s description of this event - that there is no over-arching theme for the European digital discussions.

For instance - while Caspar Bowden’s remarks on Big Data are entirely relevant within the perspective that Big Data could be useful, “but…” the fact of the matter is that Europe has lost the Big Data race. Europe does itself a disfavour by pumping millions of tax euros into Big Data projects with Big Telcos and Big Equipment Manufacturers (which they are actually doing right now!!!), since we need to find an own niche to compete within - for instance distributed architectures and small, but relevant, data.

Similarly, for technical systems and algorithms “running” Europe: it is already clear from how distant and incomprehensible Brussels seems to most people in Europe (and we have indications that this is the way people feel from the elections in 2014) that Europe is much more “chaotic” than that it can be optimized around any particular process or method. Europe, on the contrary, needs more processes and more methods than other countries/regions, precisely because it aims to be diverse, democratic and still united in such diversity and democracy.

For monetization, unfortunately it’s not better than that we have a legal problem. Many technology companies and media companies are successfully spinning the myth that politicians can’t beat technology - that they will always be out-innovated. We have no indications yet that innovations don’t adjust to the market - if the law needs spying, the market provides spying. If the law needs data retention - we get cheaper harddrives and intricate location data selling business models. If the law requires public information to be owned, fenced and controlled - we get DRM, surveillance and centralized infrastructures.

Europe has an idealogical problem in that it wants to be united in diversity - as far as shipping people to Brussels goes - but it has yet to realize a political plan for helping the European public contribute as well. And this is no technical problem, it’s a political problem.


DSI: open hardware, open data, open knowledge, open networks


Thanks for pulling together your note of the meeting - as well as for your thoughts re what was/wasn’t discussed.

I note the following policy recommendations, which you flagged, from the NESTA report:

  1. Invest in digital technologies for the social good: Make it easier to create new DSI through specific regulatory and funding measures that focus on supporting non-institutional actors driving innovation in the following areas: the collaborative economy, cities and public services; open tools and distributed architectures; and citizen engagement and direct democracy.

I think, as you say, this is liable to (further) perpetuate the pervasive ideological hegemony where ‘technological innovation as panacea’ (for unsustainable/unequal/large corporate ‘economic growth’) is concerned. I also agree that a far greater emphasis needs to be placed upon ETHICS (what is meant by ‘social good’ - who gets to decide?) and MISSION (what do we want to leverage technology to actually achieve - intended outcomes (before ‘engineered’ method)?). Our own work to support the establishment of open networks underpinned by collaborative consumption of internet bandwidth in South Wales, as well as to explore the scope to design and prototype Data Coops, points to both as being largely ‘missing in action’ re the ‘open networks’ and ‘open data’ agendas at present. 

I think the reference to ‘regulatory measures’ is particularly interesting - and, noteworthy in this regard, are ongoing discussions surrounding ‘frameworks’ in relation to the sharing economy, Ubiquitous Commons, EU copyright reform, EU State Aid provisions (re telecommunications infrastructure) - because, like you, I agree there is a LONG way to go where the legal catch-up effort and technology is concerned; we have legal provisions that are designed for geographically bounded (tangible) territories, when what we need ASAP are ‘quantum legals’ to empower and protect ‘bytes of me all over time and space’. 

I also think your point about tangible assets is worthwhile exploring in greater depth. There is growing interest in the commonifcation of publicly owned assets and services (in Bologna as well as in the UK - see: @reinikainen and @simonfparker) and, with that, in ‘wild flower meadows over monocultures’ in respect of tangible asset ownership and management for social good - or, for want of a better term, ‘anarcho-localism’. But, something different - perhaps, a form of ‘anarcho-syndicalism’, if an analogy is sought without any political perspective intended - is urgently required where digital assets and distributed architectures are concerned. Otherwise, I fear, (1) will continue to operate solely in the interests of capital…rather than for citizens/workers/consumers, etc. 

  1. Make it easier to grow and spread DSI through public procurement: Provide support for evidence generation, common standards and integration with public services. Focus on the financial as well as the social impact (such as health outcomes, wellbeing etc.) when procuring services. Particularly for DSI this could include valuing the network effect and digital engagement of users provided by procured services.

I think a debate is called for to explore the extent to which DSI can sensibly be ‘procured’ by the public sector…the aim perhaps ought to be to disrupt procurement through/for DSI? Otherwise, I wonder whether we might want to stimulate a discussion about deploying a proportion of taxation differently to bring about an ‘R&D Government’ policy/programme intervention? If R&D (innovation) is about exploring unknowns/taking risks/disruption…to what extent can it also be about ‘evidence of what already works’, ‘common standards’ and ‘integration with existing public services’? 

On Social Value & Procurement - I think it is worthwhile noting: Lord Young’s recently published Review of the UK’s Social Value Act, and Locality’s response re assets/services (NB: in TANGIBLE locations/contexts). And, on valuing the network effect … well, I think we’re all agreed that the drive towards datafication and, related to that, commodification of the quantified self/community are…dangerous (back to my comments re [1]).

But, crucially, I think we need to question: how does measuring ‘digital engagement’ re procured DSI services make sense/add value WITHOUT our first underlining that ‘digital public services’ function in gated (private sector operated/controlled) communities from which those most in need and reliant upon public services are - disproportionately - prevented from entering?! Where is the policy recommendation in all of this about how to address inequality perpetuated by technological idealism?

  1. Increase the potential value of DSI (for instance, making available distributed architectures, common frameworks, open standards and through supporting Innovation Spaces). Overall, there is a need for a public, common framework for the design of DSI solutions and infrastructures underpinned by open protocols, open standards, open formats, regulatory mechanisms and collective governance models based on democratic and participatory processes. New financial instruments (such as crowdfunding, challenges and prizes) should be experimented with through R&D funding, while support to Innovation Spaces (such as Fab Labs, hackerspaces and makerspaces) should be increased.

This is, for me, more of the same - the ‘open’ mantra trumps the ‘ethical/mission-driven’ deployment of technology debate. And, as you say, where is the emphasis - NOT on financial instruments in support of capital but on sustainability and the democratic/participatory engagement of citizens/workers/consumers in this world of DSI?

  1. Enable some of the radical and disruptive innovations emerging from DSI – such as new approaches to money, consumption, democracy, education and health – to thrive: Policymakers need to provide space for more radical ideas to be tested out in towns and cities across Europe, using knowledge about how systemic innovation can best be organised. In some cases substantial investment will be needed to achieve this.

Interesting - reads back to my comments on procurement but…if you took a tangible assets analogy and considered spatial ‘zoning’ and/or ‘exception sites’, could it make sense to call for the development of kindred provisions where intangible assets and virtual networks/communities (here, DSI platforms) are concerned? In particular, were they ‘locked’ for mission/purpose - i.e. bona fide ‘social good’ - or, in some instances, members (cooperative fashion). I think exemptions from EU ‘state aid’ and ‘procurement’ provisions would be particularly helpful…but, others with a more detailed knowledge might add: IP/Patent and Copyright provisions - as a starter for ten?

  1. Expand the European DSI network and invest in the development of skills, and training: This could be done through growing the network to enable more opportunities for collaboration; increasing early stage seed-funding programmes and other types of non-financial support for DSI start-ups; supporting programmes that help people and organisations working on social innovation develop their digital skills; and building DSI capacity in Eastern Europe by facilitating collaboration between established DSI networks and organisations from the rest of the EU.

So, more funding for existing institutions and DSI infrastructure…accelerators/hubs/labs (that, all too often, fail to adequately compensate those commoners involved and, with that, exacerbate their precariousness)…and, unhelpfully, from my perspective, nothing here for ALT platforms/networks and/or to promote (serious) digital literacy where rights/responsibilities are concerned amongst EU Citizens themselves. 

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Political level - How do we build a political case and sell it

Hi all,

In response to THIS post on Edgeryders I think building a political case is very important. We need to make it real, to show how p2p makes a difference in people’s lives. I have more than 5 years experience in peer production, as a practitioner and as a designer of new economic models and of the infrastructure to support commons-based peer production. I know first hand what works, as well as the areas that need attention. I can also help in explaining and demonstrating how peer production helps the local economy. I operate within and I am one of the main architects for the open value network (OVN) model.

I can associate with open knowledge, open hardware, open networks (as in value networks).

One of our biggest challenge is to put in place processes to transfer global digital commons into local economies, in a sustainable way: open source innovation, which is a global process, produces digital commons in the form of designs, methods and protocols, etc. which can be used to solve local problems. Currently, the economic activity generated from the global commons is enclosed within classical organizations and the benefits that are generated are not redistributed back to the global open innovation network. There is a problem with the value flow between open source innovation and the economic activity that results from it, and that makes open source communities struggle to stay alive. Our understanding of the current reality is obscured by some very large and healthy ecosystems like Arduino (in the hardware realm), Linux and Android (in the realm of software). The truth is that most open source projects are supported by a small number of individuals who are struggling. The sum of these projects represent the bulk of open source development. The problem is that these open source initiatives lack effective mechanisms to capture the value they create. This value is captured by classical entities that are essentially parasitic to the open source movement. This is not sustainable. The tension between open source communities and corporate structures that capture the value they create is real, as it is illustrated in the case between RepRap and Makerbot (3D printer manufacturer). Some see open source development and business as two separate things. Some can’t see beyond classical business models and think that the conflict between open source innovation and classical ways to monetize that value is just normal. We think that this is only a transient anomaly during a phase of economic transformation. We think that the new open source mode of innovation is currently evolving its own means of sourcing (crowdsourcing), production (extreme manufacturing and other distributed manufacturing models) and distribution, as well as its own mechanisms for redistribution of benefits (the open value network model and others like it).  

These new economic models to transfer global commons into local economies in a sustainable way need to be refined in pilot projects, and they need infrastructure. The p2pValue project is a good step in that direction, but only the first one.  This issue was also at the core of the FLOK society project.

I can also associate with the Internet of Things (IoT), since SENSORICA’s mission is about sensing and sensemaking. We advocate and help build a distributed IoT. The other current, advocated by large corporations, is to put data into proprietary databases.  We all know where the second option leads…


Nice to meet you @TiberiusB and a very warm welcome to Edgeryders,

I think most of us here are familiar with (some of) your work - I for example remember your Tedx talk, and we share a number of common friends.

This is becoming a recurring truth indeed: “The truth is that most open source projects are supported by a small number of individuals who are struggling”

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Exactly! But then…

Very good point, @TiberiusB. Spot on.

I dearly hope I am wrong, but I don’t see approaches like open value network solving the problem that “supported by a small number of individuals who are struggling”. They are struggling because of the incentive structure. The incentive structure is such that “peer production, peer governance, peer property” is simply not an attractor. Peer production has, so far, produced “food chains” where one or few organizations take it all; peer governance works when it is highly protocolized, but it tends to collapse under the weight of too many issues competing for our attentions, so that we end up delegating our part of the governance and we end back where we started, at representation; and peer property is subject to free riding and tragedies of the commons, as demonstrated by the pervasiveness of conflict around doing the dishes even in the more politically advanced squats (hat tip: @Ben).

We will need to find something that is incentive-compatible. Open source is, occasionally. Barely.

This is difficult.

Open linked data and distributed networks

<span title="Hola, desafortunadamente no tuve la oportunidad de escribir antes aquí

">Hi, unfortunately I did not get a chance to write before here

The way we see it is that free software and knowledge are already part of our lives. That means we have an important repository of free knowledge ready for be used. The next big thing to put all that knowledge to produce. From here there are <span title="Aquí se habren diferentes campos.

">different fields we can work on.

Specifically we are working on development of distributed software to create markets. <span title="El gran obstrculo es la desfracmentación y las barreras para compartir información.

">The <span title="El gran obstaculo es la desfracmentación y las barreras para compartir información.

">major obstacle<span title="El gran obstrculo es la desfracmentación y las barreras para compartir información.

"> is, as @Nadia said, fragmentation and lack of integration. <span title="El gran obstrculo es la desfracmentación y las barreras para compartir información.

">It blocks sharing of information.

We therefore believe that the main target is to develop open data models to be used to share information between different networks and platforms. <span title="Afortunadamente ya hay diferentes prodoculos y tabajos que nos pueden servir de apoyo y punto de partida (OStasus, Open Vocab, Open linked data, RDF, etc)

">Fortunately there are different protocols and works we can use and helping develop (OStasus, Open Vocab, Open linked data, RDF, etc.)

The second step is to put it working. We have already developed distributed platforms for business networks and are now migrating to GNU social and testing other platforms. Already we are developing. So, we are happy to help and to be part of this initiative :slight_smile:

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