Strategies for Promoting Digital Innovation: A few approaches

Examples and stories from the Nominet Trust, Nesta, Lab Around the World, and elsewhere offer hints of the various strategies being used to promote digital social innovation around the globe. While it’s always tricky to try to derive a comparative logic from the work of others, especially from afar, I see hints at a few approaches to promoting digital social innovation:

  • Hubs and labs. Targeted investments that provide a common meeting place, broadband connectivity, and varying levels of mentorship, classes, hackathons, or meetups are “institution-building” efforts that can be found almost everywhere, from African cities to the ImpactHub network and Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator.
  • Prizes and competitions. Nothing says innovation like a prize or competition. These are often managed through hubs and labs. They invite a range of participants, reward accomplishment, and are great attention-getters.
  • Global distributors. While we usually think of foundations as the sources of money, it seems the biggest ones are also playing the role of idea distributors. The Bill & Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations all have offices in multiple places and can use their own professional networks as well as grantee contacts to spread ideas from place to place. Other international funders such as UNICEF and DFID, the Department for International Development in the U.K., also do this. The value of these human connections seems high, despite the hope that Internet channels for distributing research would let the information do the talking. A 2014 analysis by the World Bank found that only a small percentage of its posted research was ever downloaded. Promoting and distributing ideas still relies on people.
  • Governance by GitHub. Open-source software developers have long shared their code with others as a way of collaborating, reusing useful pieces of code, and making improvements collectively. GitHub is a popular repository of code that allows people to easily share, build upon, fix, and improve software code. When the coders get together with nonprofit managers, public agency officials, or other domain experts to set parameters and code standards for specific types of software, such as mapping park trails or sharing bus information, then the code becomes both an artifact of governance and a means of distribution and replication.

Which of these strategies work best — and where, when, and for whom — are open questions. Other strategies are surely in use. Some of these approaches will fail. These are first steps in trying to make sense of the activities of digital civil society.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2015.