Making the most of opportunities in digital social innovation

Despite pockets of inspiring innovation, we are still not exploiting the full potential of technology to do good

Guest Writer | 20th Sep 17

Peter Baeck, Head of Collaborative Economy Research at Nesta and Matt Stokes, Researcher at Nesta, co-authors of the EU-funded ‘What next for digital social innovation? Realising the potential of people and technology to tackle social challenges‘.

There is a growing acceptance of the argument that digital technologies can help charities improve the way they work.

We’re now able to mobilise people and skills to tackle society’s toughest challenges through mechanisms like crowdfunding or citizen science. Often, these come with additional benefits like increasing public engagement or recruiting new volunteers.

Over the last 18 months, we’ve been using our platform to map the projects and organisations across Europe that are using digital social innovation (DSI).

Despite pockets of inspiring innovation, we are still not exploiting the full potential of technology to do good.

On the one hand, it has been enlightening to see groundbreaking ideas popping up and establishing themselves across the continent. Social innovators are using a variety of technologies, from crowdsourcing to open hardware and open data, to solve challenges in areas as diverse as democratic participation, transparency, learning, social mobility and the environment.

On the other hand, however, there are very few examples of these innovations going to scale, and there has been low uptake by public services and established charities.

We’ve spent a long time understanding what needs to be done to ensure that the third sector is making the most of DSI. Here are our top tips:

  • Understand how tech can help you deliver impact. Tech is not an end in itself – it is a tool to help you achieve your aims in new and more efficient ways, whether that’s by using citizen science to get research results more quickly or experimenting with new ways of giving. It’s not always (in fact, usually isn’t) about cutting-edge technology like blockchain or artificial intelligence – sometimes the simplest technologies can be the most effective and successful.
  • Get senior buy-in. Moving to digital is a big change, and it won’t happen without support from the highest levels of your organisation. It’s essential that senior management and trustees understand the importance of tech, and how it will help achieve your mission. This process could involve a senior leader or a trustee taking on responsibility for digital, the development of a digital strategy and securing funding to invest in technology and upskilling.
  • Invest in digital skills. Lack of digital skills is one of the biggest barriers to better adoption of tech by charities. It’s concerning that over three-quarters of charities invest no money in digitally upskilling their employees and that almost half lack basic digital skills.The third sector will only be able to adopt tech that works if organisations are prepared to ensure staff are equipped with the skills needed to take advantage of developments.
  • Build partnerships. The uptake of digital will be more successful if you involve others and draw upon their experience and expertise. Corporates and startups are full of great minds, keen to use their skills for social impact. CAST’s Fuse accelerator, for example, supports nonprofits to develop tech, while Super Global links charities up with tech and design agencies.
  • Don’t start from scratch. We have far too often seen the duplication of efforts, which means time and money is wasted. Platforms like can help you identify organisations doing similar work, whose expertise you can use as a foundation. Where possible, build upon existing open-source or white-labelled technologies and make your own tech open-source.
  • Measure your impact. While impact measurement has become more established in the social sector, it’s not yet being applied very well to technology-based interventions. When developing tech initiatives, treat impact measurement in the same way you would any other intervention.

Making the move to digital is not easy, especially for a sector under great pressure.

While there is no doubt that it is a significant investment, we believe it is an investment that will pay off many times over for the third sector.