Digital Innovation For Social Impact

3 things governments should do more of


Business and social models enabled by digital technologies like sensing, infinite computing, and machine learning are affecting the way individuals, communities and organizations interact and work. As open platforms, crowdsourcing, outcome and sharing economy redefine the way we produce and consume, the private sector was quick to embrace change transforming the fabric of many global industries and typically resulting in dramatic increases in productivity of capital over labor, accelerated product lifecycles, and winner takes all competitive structures.

The impact of digital technologies can be equally transformative where the value of innovation accrues to society rather than individuals: it could take us a long way toward greater economic inclusion, political participation and sustainability reshaping education, democracy, healthcare, and public safety. And yet digital social innovation is still in its infancy.

Under the pressure of fiscal and demographic structural challenges, governments have a fundamental interest in backing new and more efficient solutions to social problems in order to lower the cost and increase the quantity and quality of public services. However, policy-making in the context of major technological and social shifts is politically complex and governments are highly regulated organizations resistant to disruption brought about by technology and social innovation. As a result, little has been done so far by the public sector.

Greater involvement of governments in digital innovation for social impact is not only desirable to improve public service delivery. Digital automation and hyperconnectivity are changing the dynamics of financial, products and labor markets and governments need to find balanced answers to fundamental issues like technological unemployment or networks and data ownership.

I see 3 things governments and intergovernmental organization should be doing more of:

1. Experiment policies to widen social involvement in the production of public services and tackle the consequences of digital automation on the labor market. Examples include basic income and associated incentive systems and electronic voucher programs for the provision of public services to encourage merit, competition, and innovation.

2. Provide regulatory incentives to organizations involved in the production of social value through digital channels. Think of demand side policies such as the “digital switchover” of selected public services closing alternative delivery channels or supply side initiatives like “mutualization” programs to allow government employees’ teams take over their schools or primary care centers and become social entrepreneurs.

3. Actively promote digitally enabled social innovation helping innovators scale and deploy their ideas. Support for non-institutional actors can come in many ways including direct funding (prizes, grants, challenges), the provision of a public decentralized environment for open data, the possibility to test radical innovations such as new approaches to money, education, and health across communities or widening public procurement objectives to include social impact.


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