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The betterplace lab, Germany, and the state of DSI
26th January 2017
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Alongside its growing startup scene, Berlin has developed an increasingly active DSI community. The betterplace lab is a dedicated ‘social-digital think-and-do-tank’, based in Berlin, which has been closely monitoring and supporting the civic tech community. We spoke to Carolin Silvernagl, Digital Social Lead, about her work, the state of DSI in Germany and some of the social and political challenges that the DSi community faces.
Q: What exactly is the betterplace lab and how did it come into being?
The betterplace lab is Germany’s leading social-digital think-and-do-tank. We were founded seven years ago as a part of the non-profit startup betterplace.org, which also runs Germany’s leading online donation platform.
The donation platform was started ten years ago with a strong international perspective. One of the main goals of the founders was to support small grassroots initiatives by providing an easy, direct contact point to donors in Germany. This openness to the world led us to see so many great ways in which technology was being used to better the world, at a time when tech in Germany way mostly related to industry applications or e-commerce solutions.
With that in mind, the betterplace lab was started to better understand and inspire ourselves and others with the potential of tech for social good, create visibility for DSI in Germany, and throughout the years, support the development of a DSI ecosystem.
Q: What are the lab’s core activities and how does it support the DSI community?
The betterplace lab is a digital-social research and experimentation lab. Broadly speaking, we scout out innovative cases of digital social solutions and publicise them. This is done through our online database, trendradar.org, or the yearly trendradar magazine. When we identify particular activity in a certain area, we dive in more deeply to try and understand these specific trends.
This work builds the foundations for further studies and reports on more specific focus topics like Internet of Things (IoT) for good, financial inclusion or the use of ICT by people on the move during the refugee wave of 2015.
Together with partners, we also run projects that help us learn from practice and spread the spirit and the tools of DSI, like the betterplace storytelling lab (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) or the civic tech fund “Prototype Fund” (in partnership) with the Open Knowledge Foundation).
Q: How developed is the DSI community in Berlin and Germany more widely? Is there a strong Tech for Good scene?
DSI is definitely on the rise in Germany. The country has developed vivid tech startup and social entrepreneurship communities in the past 10 years, with accelerators, incubators, competitions and successful role models to relate to. The center is Berlin, but there are other hubs like Munich and Hamburg. For the social impact community, facilitators like the Social Impact network and Ashoka Germany play an important role.
In recent years, we have seen a constant growth of tech solutions for social impact, both in classic civil society organisations and in a startup context. Support structures like the 2016 Google Impact Challenge and the German program of Climate Kic have strengthened that even further, and the start-up community is waking up to the call of social impact, too. A great example for this is the Entrepreneur’s Pledge, where tech founders commit that their next venture will be impact driven. We are at a point where professional experience - from both the tech and social worlds - and a young crowd full of ideas strengthen each other.
However, the scarcity of engineers is a problem. DSI projects have to compete with start ups and industry giants to attract them. It would also be good to see closer links between the strong civic tech and open source community (see for example the Chaos Computer Club or the yearly re:publica conference) and the social entrepreneurship community.
Q: Germany has taken a leading role in dealing with the refugee crisis facing Europe. How has the betterplace lab been working with the DSI community on this major issue?
We have been watching the social tech response to the "refugee crisis" closely since summer 2015. In the history of social tech it has been a uniquely dynamic phenomenon and, as you say, Germany has been at the epicentre of the activity. In Spring 2016 we began to notice that, although there was a huge amount of activity, there was also a lot of duplication and redundancy. A lot of our work has been trying to counteract this by encouraging more collaboration and knowledge transfer.
Together with the German Interior Ministry and other partners, we organised a "summit" for projects working in this space to convene and discuss how to share and work together more effectively. In November we launched a new research project to analyse what is working well in this space and why that might be. We want to share these lessons within Germany and internationally.
Q: Which other social problems is are the DSI community tackling most effectively in Germany?
We don’t see very dominant patterns around specific topics. Social impact innovation is often driven by a personal motivation of the founders, and we see this in DSI in Germany, too. In the field of online fundraising, we see interesting cases building on the concept of painless giving, like Ecosia, which uses partnerships with search companies to invest in reforestation, or the impact-driven mobile phone company goood. There is a longstanding community working on the topic of accessibility and inclusion, which started to develop around the advocacy of Raul Krauthausen and his wheelmap.org.
One exception is the field of green technology, where we see special supporting conditions. Sustainability is high on the agenda, both in public and political discourse, which complements a young and innovative green tech industry. Also, the topic allows for both impact and profit, which opens up funding channels like public tech innovation support funds or venture investment. I personally like Breeze and Coolar a lot, to give just two examples.
Q: What actions would you like to see from local, regional and federal government to help support the DSI community in Germany?
To support DSI, public authorities need awareness about for the specifics of technological solutions. Adapting funding frameworks to more agile, iterative project designs would be helpful.
Also, opening up more administrative data would be an important step to further strengthening the civic tech community. Thinking in the long term, we need more and earlier tech skills education so that not only a small elite of computer scientists, but the society as a whole, is competent and comfortable in creating and applying to create and apply technological solutions.
Q: If you were granted one DSI-themed wish for 2017, what would it be?
2017 will be a heavily political year in Europe, even more so than 2016.
Recently, we’ve seen a lot of controversial use of ICT information and communication technology in the context of political campaigning, as well as widespread social fear stemming from technological advancements like artificial intelligence.
At the same time, we observe a wave of activism and engagement within the social impact community, which aims at strengthening transparency, free speech and other cornerstones of democracy. These have tech at their heart.
Our wish is that 2017 turns out to be a year that advances democracy, participation, free speech and access to information, rather than weakening it - and that tech demonstrates the important supportive role it can play in this context.
The betterplace lab is based in Berlin. Visit their site to find out more.