Establishing parameters and a framework of analysis for ICT-driven social innovation

22.03.2013 Blog

A major pillar of the TEPSIE project’s research is looking at the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on social innovation. It is relatively easy to make a strong case that this technology will have, and in fact is already having, potentially the most transformatory impact on social innovation compared to any other single factor. But, is this just well-worn hype or does such a view have some credence, albeit in the context of an enabling mix of other factors, and if so what are these?  One obvious challenge is the sheer pace of technological change and the emergence of new tools and networks as well as the communities and ecosystems that form around them, sometimes fleetingly and sometimes more long-term, although anticipating the difference is rarely possible. A clear characteristic of online networks is their connectivity and the potential this might give to both communicating and scaling social innovation.

TEPSIE’s work to date has inter alia shown that there are a number of dimensions relevant to social innovation which seem to be heavily influenced by ICT. These include changing relationships between bottom-up and top-down activities, between centralisation and de-centralisation, between individuals and groups, between hierarchical and networked forms of organisation, between local or small scale and global or large scale, and between innovation as new ideas and activities on the one hand and copying or emulation on the other. Another major issue is how ICT seems to be able to affect the interplay between tacit and explicit knowledge and content especially when differentiating between local and global scales. In this context, the potential to be able to scale up some of the attributes of Communities of Practice, perhaps through so-called Networks of Practice, may be important. Also currently being examined are the social innovation implications of Community Awareness Platforms (CAPS) currently being heavily pushed by the European Commission research agenda as “ICT systems leveraging the emerging ‘network effect’ by combining open online social media, distributed knowledge creation and data from real environments […] in order to create new forms of sustainability and social innovation”.

In addition to the above and to provide some frameworks for the work, TEPSIE’s research team is also looking at a number of overarching typologies which can assist evidence collection and analysis. For example the proposal that, at a general level, it is possible to conceive of three main types of ICT-driven social innovation:

1. ICT is a key enabler of social innovation by increasing efficiency and effectiveness, facilitating better social innovation through greater connectivity, simplicity and convenience. In other words ICT permits existing types of social innovation to function better with improved outcomes. For example, local community self-help initiatives in the Netherlands, as in the town of Geldrop-Mierlo, can function more efficiently and achieve better outcomes by providing information and brokering self-help service offers online.

2. ICT provides opportunities for new types of social innovation through the ‘network effect’ of collective, dispersed or large scale intelligence. By facilitating new types of bottom-up and decentralised forms of collaboration, ICT potentially opens vast new fields of social innovation, which we have only recently begun to glimpse but not fully understand, and where the potential is enormous. These types of ICT-driven social innovation can be highly disruptive of existing processes, roles and relationships, particularly because their forms and impacts are unpredictable. For example, the UK government required the Ordnance Survey (OS) to release its digital map data for free two years ago, which was accompanied by fears its revenues would dry up. However, one year later the OS is generating more income by selling its expertise in support of the free data to companies developing geo-based business applications, whilst NGOs are now able to develop geo-based social applications as well as target their activities much more easily with much less effort. In other words, the basic business model of a big part of the OS’s activities has been completely transformed.

3. ICT can improve, change and disrupt governance and framework structures in society and thus open new possibilities for social innovation. This is a more indirect form of ICT-driven social innovation but nevertheless has enormous potential as it re-balances the playing field in favour of the majority, even those who do not use ICT given that the role of intermediary civil organisations and communities is enormously strengthened. For example, many countries starting in Brazil now use online participatory budgeting mainly at local or city level. Citizens are able to discuss and vote on municipal budgets on whether resources should be spent on a new school, playground, sports facilities, parks, etc., sometimes with a binding effect on local politicians. There are of course, important issues surrounding accountability for such decisions, but this clearly represents a dramatic change in the power relationships in a community when it is introduced.