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3 Social innovation in the smart city

A graphic showing the process of social innovation
Figure 9 The process of social innovation (adapted from Young Foundation and Nesta, 2010)

Government policies and the market have so far failed to solve some of the major challenges faced by cities and society, such as climate change and widening inequality. How might social innovation help?

Social innovation is about developing new ideas to tackle social problems or meet social needs. You might create a new product, service or organisational model. Or you might develop a new approach to delivering public services. This last possibility would call for a shift in thinking, away from a focus on delivery of efficient city services and towards exploration of what would create a societal transformation, such as a better quality of life for service users.

Nesta and the Young Foundation have created the Open Book of Social Innovation [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Young Foundation and Nesta, 2010) in which they identify six stages of social innovation that take ideas from inception to impact.

  • Prompts, inspirations and diagnoses – all the factors that highlight the need for innovation.
  • Proposals and ideas – the stage of idea generation.
  • Prototyping and pilots – where ideas get tested in practice.
  • Sustaining – when the idea becomes everyday practice.
  • Scaling and diffusion – a range of strategies for growing and spreading an innovation.
  • Systemic change – the ultimate goal of social innovation.

These stages are not always sequential and there are feedback loops between them. This is a type of design thinking process. The book explores the six stages in depth, describing methods, tools and case studies from around the world.

Digital technologies are changing social innovation. They’re enabling people to connect and collaborate, they’re making open source services, open data and tools more easily available, and they’re supporting people to co-create solutions at a much larger scale than was ever possible before the internet.

The European Commission has funded a project on Digital Social Innovation (DSI), led by Nesta and delivered in partnership with ESADE Business School, Waag Society, Institut de recherche et d’innovation (IRI), FutureEverything and Swirrl. They have created a network of European organisations that use the internet for social good, and they’re crowdmapping the organisations and their projects. These organisations engage with their community network and bring people together to discover, explore and share new ideas.