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DSI in the city: the potential of third spaces

6th June 2017

Whereas the DSI (digital social innovation) policy agenda has so far mainly focused on the level of the European Union, we see that cities are strongest in materializing the DSI idea. It’s likely that the biggest impact is reached when those levels are connected. A new idea that could contribute to this ambition is the ‘third space’. In third spaces, stakeholders from multiple levels come together at urban nodes to shape the future without being preoccupied by administrative boundaries.

The DSI community today is hugely diverse and has a critical role in the steering of technology innovation towards the common good.

The CAPS programme started in 2014, focusing on mapping out DSI across Europe, but has recently come to focus more on policy influence. At a policy workshop halfway through 2016 and again in November that year, for example, the DSI4EU consortium brought practitioners together with policymakers from DG Connect and the Joint Research Centre. We have benefited from the support of

MEP Marietje Schaake throughout this process.

With a DSI Fair in Rome in the beginning of this year, and another event to discuss the future of DSI in London, many efforts are being made to connect European policymakers to the DSI practitioners and agenda. At the same time, the is growing more diverse every week. From social enterprises to charities and from civil society organizations to creative design agencies, many different stakeholders are represented. DSI is a constructive movement that delivers opportunities to innovate policy not only on a European level, but also on a city or regional level.

Shift to the cities and the ‘third spaces’
But DSI needs a wider angle than the EU policy context. The urge for new policy creation is becoming more pressing, since the ‘Smart City’ concept isn’t living up to its promise. It’s currently built on an old model with top-down innovation organized by municipalities and an invitation to multinationals to push technology off the shelf on to citizens. These technologies have often not been reviewed critically in terms of privacy, data-ownership, power structure and fitness for purpose.

Innovation in cities is systemic by nature. Innovative urban solutions happen at the intersection of built form, public space, urban mobility, energy usage, ICT, nature-based solutions, social innovation, new economic models and new governance structures. It involves many different stakeholders. It acknowledges that the challenges cities face are rooted in behaviour and human activity as described by the Anthropocene epoch, dating from when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems. The artefacts and technologies that humans created are not only tools for change but are creating new challenges as well.

We see the participatory and open model of innovation taking off quickly, mainly in cities. The new concept is more about the ‘responsible digital city’ and emancipation of ‘smart citizens’. In this vision, ethics and horizontal innovation are crucial, by constantly looking for new connections and crossovers. This approach could especially be ramped up in so-called ‘Third Spaces’. A Third Space can be seen as a meeting place where you can participate as an individual contributor rather than in an institutional position. Inside these spaces, policy is formed in a new, horizontal way. Bottom-up initiatives are invited to present ideas and co-create solutions for urban and social challenges. The ambition is to move away from a compartmentalised policymaking focused on sectors to instead focus on solving problems and developing innovations generated by engaged citizens.

On 4 and 5 February 2017, at a successor event to the earlier EU Policy Lab, around fifty people convened to discuss and develop the idea of multi-level urban Third Spaces. Civil servants, a diversity of Commission staff, and social innovators from a range of partner institutions were guided through a process of conceptualization and outlined the route towards adoption of Third Spaces in the European political context. After introductions by Christian Svanfeldt (EC Joint Research Centre) and myself and a highly educational icebreaker game, the participants selected and investigated example dossiers that could benefit from Third Space interventions. On the second day, we modelled the Third Spaces using creative materials and storytelling methods. Finally the audience worked on the question of how to bring our agenda forward and discussed the next steps.

DSI and Third Spaces: perfect match
Co-creation of policy in a third space is a step further than inviting citizens to the city town hall for a public meeting. This is a neutral space where you’re not a guest but an equal contributor to the conversation. Cities often need multi-level approaches to their challenges, and see these Third Spaces as an important place where these different stakeholders can contribute to innovation and policy making.

One example is the Medialab-Prado in Madrid. In this citizen laboratory of production, research and broadcasting of cultural projects explore the forms of experimentation and collaborative learning that have emerged from digital networks. It is part of the Department of Culture and Sports (former Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism) of the Madrid City Council. Another example is the Smart Citizens Lab, located in de Waag in Amsterdam. In this lab they explore tools and applications to map the world around us. Along with citizens, scientists, and designers, the participants deal with themes ranging from air quality to the conditions of bathing water to noise pollution.

Alongside the emergence of new spaces, established institutions are shifting as well. Public libraries are taking on a new role, for example in Amsterdam, where makerspaces and fablabs are expanding in the neighbourhoods in close collaboration with the public libraries. In two years there will be ten more maker spaces in many of the neighbourhoods of the city, combined with lessons about digital technology for the kids from the community. This brings DSI another step closer to a lot of young people in the city.

The DSI community is ready for its next step. With the European Union and the nation state under pressure, DSI delivers a constructive alternative for innovation. This is an alternative that is being adopted enthusiastically by many cities in Europe, who see potential for new solutions in this bottom-up driven community.

It’s time to even further intensify the impact of DSI on cities. Let’s enter the ‘Third Space’.




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