Digital Social Innovation and the Evolving Role of Digital in Museums

Haitham Eid, Southern University at New Orleans, USA


This article takes an exploratory approach investigating the possible role of the Digital Social Innovation (DSI) framework in contemporary museums. Gaining momentum in Europe, DSI is an emerging field of study, which aims to employ the power manifested in digital technologies to improve humanity. The discussion in this article uncovers how the DSI framework can unlock and free the creative minds in the museum sector to present genuine innovations that can potentially transform communities and improve lives. Museums and their role in society have evolved over the years. Contemporary museums see themselves as agents for social change. This is reflected in the museology literature as well as the discussions in many museum conferences, workshops and social media platforms. On the other hand, digital has been recognized in the museum sector as a tool that helps museums engage audiences (in gallery and online), increase accessibility and market programs, exhibitions and various events but no direct connection to the newly assumed mission of museums as agents for social change. The structural and operational function of digital in museums has been productive in achieving what is designed for, from immersive digital experiences and digitization of collections to museum branding and running social media campaigns. On the downside, this model has isolated digital (as a concept and a tool) and prevented it from providing solutions that directly tackle the core mission of museums to improve communities. With the intention to spark a wider conversation in the museum sector, this article provides a framework that can help museums produce more effective and measurable social impact. With the acknowledgement of both the potentials and the challenges of adopting the DSI framework in museums, the article concludes by recognizing that the use of DSI by museums is a paradigmatic shift that releases digital from the constraints imposed by the traditional digital model.

Keywords: Digital Social Innovation, Social Change, Museum Agency, Digital Innovation

Museums as Social Innovators

Western museums have gone through various waves of ideological transformations since their inception as cabinets of curiosities. These ideologies shaped the expected roles of museums in society and informed the ways in which museums carried their work. Museums, for example, have transformed from symbols of power and elitism to institutions of knowledge and enlightenment and from being about “things” (i.e. objects and collections) to being for people and communities. Close analysis to the current museum discourse reveals that Western museums are going through another wave of major transformation which is redefining what museums are for and about. This transformation is expressed in the museology literature using different terminologies and conceptual frameworks, but they all emphasize the role of museums as agents for social change, or museums as social innovators.

The museum as social innovator uses the power embodied in its institutional voice, collections, exhibition spaces and narratives to help find sustainable solutions to pressing social, cultural, and environmental issues (Eid, 2019). The fact of the matter is the integrity and relevance of contemporary museums as civic and cultural institutions are being questioned when they choose to ignore their role as social innovators.

Although the social dimension of museum work started as an odd proposition situated at the fringe of museum work, it is now being recognized and encouraged in the museum sector. As recent as September 2018, the Museums Association (MA) in the UK established the Museums Change Lives Awards, which celebrate the achievements of museums and individuals in three broad categories: Promoting Health and Well-being; Creating Better Places and Inspiring Engagement; and Reflection and Debate. This is not the first initiative by which the MA brought the social aspect of museum work to the mainstream. In July 2013, the MA issued a 15-page report, “Museums Change Lives: The MA’s Vision for the Impact of Museums,” emphasizing, as the title suggests, the social role contemporary museums can play in society. The report states,

Now it is time for museums to raise their ambitions. The Museums Association believes that every museum should commit to improving its impact on society. Every museum can play a part, however small, in improving health and well-being, helping to create better places and championing a fairer and more just society. Every museum should have the ambition to change people’s lives. (Museums Association, 2013).

The strong language in the previous statement by the MA raises two important points. First, the MA makes it clear that the role of contemporary museums goes beyond the traditional functions of exhibiting, interpreting, and preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Museums are expected to identify the social needs of their communities and subsequently design their exhibitions and programs to address these needs. Second, most often museums measure the impact of their work by surveying visitors who come to their buildings and benefit from their programs. The previous quote by the MA directs our attention that the real impact of museum work needs to be sought outside the museum walls, more specifically, in communities where museums can improve lives and promote health and well-being, and this is precisely what the museum as social innovator is about.

A report by the Pew Research Center, which concludes that fewer Americans think that churches and houses of worship contribute “some” or “a great deal” to solving important social problems (Lipka, 2016), intrigued Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums to argue,

On the other hand, this decline is an opportunity for museums, as trusted public institutions, to step up and fill the gap. I suspect that a similar survey asking about what museums, collectively, contribute to solving important social problems would reveal that we have a lot of room for growth—room that we can and (in my opinion) should fill! (Merritt, 2016)

This urge for growth is what makes social innovation and Digital Social Innovation (DSI) interesting models for museums. Social agency and contributing to “solving important social problems,” as Merritt indicates in the previous quote, are serious endeavors that require thoughtful discussions and debates.

The museum as social innovator is purposeful in turning the static objects and distant histories into forces of good that helps elevate communities and advance environmental and social justice causes. What is important to note in this circumstance and relevant to our discussion here is that the museum’s model as social innovator is gaining momentum in the museum sector and is being promoted (with various terminologies) by many museologists as the future of museums, warning of a significant transformation in the museum’s business model.

As museums steadily move to embrace a social innovation framework, the questions are now:

  • How can digital be positioned in the museum as social innovator?
  • What role can digital play?
  • How will this role differ from the traditional functions which digital are currently performing?

The remainder of this paper attempts to address these questions.

Engagement and Accessibility

The use of digital in the museum context has contributed to the way we know museums today. Many museums around the world have digitized their collections and made them available online, creating the largest database of cultural objects humanity ever witnessed. This endeavor has helped museums reach wider audiences and increase the accessibility of their collections. In-gallery and online digital gadgets have been instrumental in engaging audiences of all ages. Additionally, museums are using social media platforms to connect with various communities, keep their audiences engaged, and promote repeated visits. Digital culture and strategies have been normalized in museums to the point that led some experts to argue that museums have entered the post-digital era (Parry, 2013).

Overall, it is safe to conclude that enhancing engagement and accessibility are the chief outcomes of utilizing digital in museums and cultural heritage institutions. Even when technology evolves, engagement and accessibility have remained the orbit that guides most digital activities in museums. This can be seen in the app epidemic (when every major museum launched an app) and when we follow the current emerging fascination with new technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. It has been almost always about engagement and accessibility.

However, as museums embrace the social aspect of their work and go through the transformation into social agency and advocacy, the traditional thinking around engagement, accessibility, and participatory experiences, which dominated museum work in the last decade becomes insufficient. As a result, the museum digital community is compelled to contemplate how digital can contribute—beyond engagement and accessibility—to the museum’s growing zeal to be an agent for social change. In this context, the Digital Social Innovation (DSI), as suggested here, seems to be an appealing model.

Digital Social Innovation (DSI)

DSI is an emerging framework located at the intersection of technology, innovation, and the desire to provide solutions to pressing social issues. Gaining momentum in Europe, DSI has attracted an inspiring community that aims to employ the power manifested in digital technologies to improve humanity. Supported by the increase in accessibility of the Internet and the spread of the open data movement worldwide, the DSI movement has helped make considerable advances in tackling some of the difficult social, cultural, and environmental challenges we face today. It is worth noting that DSI is not the only term used to refer to this new interdisciplinary field. Other terms such as “tech for good,” “civic tech,” and “social tech” are also common among different communities.

Recognizing the potential of the DSI movement, the European Union launched the DSI4EU project, which consists of a consortium of seven partner organizations aiming to create a knowledge hub for DSI in Europe. The seven partners are Nesta (UK), Waag (Netherlands), betterplace lab (Germany), Fab Lab Barcelona (Spain), WeMake (Italy), Barcelona Activa (Spain), and the ePaństwo Foundation (Poland). The consortium’s 2016 report, “Growing a Digital Social Innovation Ecosystem in Europe,” defines DSI as,

a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet. (Bria, et al., 2015)

The DSI4EU project is part of the European Commission’s strategy on Europe 2020 initiative and the European Digital Agenda. DSI4EU identified 1,440 DSI projects and 2,228 organizations utilizing a DSI framework. The latest phase of DSI4EU is running from January 2018 to June 2019, with the objective to define DSI indicators/variables and compile an experimental DSI index which aims to measure and compare the capacity of local or national ecosystems to support DSI (Bone, Cretu, & Stockes, 2018). The process of compiling the index was ongoing during the writing of this article. However, seven indicators covering 32 factors impacting the starting, sustaining, and growing of DSI initiatives were identified. These seven variables are 1.) availability of funding 2.) collaboration 3.) diversity and inclusion 4.) civil society 5.) infrastructure 6.) skills 7.) support systems.

A colorful, circular graphic showing the DSI index.
Figure 1: The Digital Social Innovation Index and Seven Indicators (Bone, Cretu, & Stockes, 2018).



One of the highlighted projects on the DSI4EU website is “Smart Citizen,” a project that seeks to “engage citizens, communities, cities, developers and researchers in collectively addressing environmental problems in cities such as light, noise, and air pollution” (Smart Citizen, n.d.). The project produces the “Smart Citizen Kit,” a low-cost toolkit which allows normal citizens to collect environmental data in their local communities and share it on a designated server with research institutions to study and analyze. The technology used in the Smart Citizen project is Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform that enables users to create interactive electronic products. The project software is open source on GitHub for the digital community to review and improve. The data aggregated from the project are used by universities, such as the Architectural Association, University College London and the University of Glasgow, as well as cities such as Kosovo, Amsterdam, Manchester, and Barcelona.

The Smart Citizen project is an excellent example of how digital can take advantage of the bountiful technology resources (e.g. open source software and affordable Internet access) to tackle one of the most challenging issues of our time, climate change. More recently, the consequences of climate change have become more tangible to many people. From the erosion of wetlands and coastal areas to the increased intensity of natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, the devastating impact of climate change is felt in many local communities.

With the renowned interest by museums to improve their communities and take on big issues, the DSI framework as demonstrated in the Smart Citizen project can provide a conducive model with measurable impact. No reason can prevent museums from being involved in similar initiatives. This involvement can take various forms and degrees. For example, a museum that houses the technical expertise can be part of the core group that creates the innovation (the smart tool kit, as our example here), as part of a larger campaign to address climate change. Another way to take advantage of a similar initiative is to partner with start-ups as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to produce innovative solutions to pressing socio-environmental issues. Even if the museum cannot be involved in the R&D process, perhaps due to lack of resources, the museum can be a distribution site for the smart tool kit as part of exhibition series and encourage the local community to use it.

Social and environmental challenges are serious and complex which requires innovative and outside-the-box solutions. By the same token, using the same traditional thinking and tools to tackle today’s social and environmental challenges is not an ineffective strategy. Traditional museum exhibitions and educational programs are great and will continue to be important tools in the museum’s arsenal to share knowledge and disseminate information. But for museums to make the transition as effective agents for social change, they need to expand their thinking and the ways in which they can achieve their missions.

Most often museums show their impact through the number of visits and online clicks. These statistics, along with other qualitative data, are used by museums to attract philanthropic funds and justify their fair share in taxpayer money. For a long time, these measures were acceptable by donors and politicians, which ensured the continuous flow of financial support. However, with the increased number of non-profit organizations that can show and deliver more impactful social outcomes, museums are at a disadvantage, facing skepticism about their worth and value to society. This connection between funding and social impact is perhaps one of the most important drivers that has compelled museums to adopt a more socially oriented model. The challenge is embracing a socially oriented model without delivering measurable impact, suggesting that the gravitation toward tackling social issues by museums may seem superficial where the museum’s traditional business model continues to be untouched with the same old deliverables and outcomes.

Therefore, what museums must recognize is that the numbers of physical and online visits do not mean impact. This point is extremely important, and recognizing it will help museums move into a more productive and effective model that goes beyond casual engagement and entertainment-education. The social impact of museums and cultural heritage institutions was addressed by a blog post on Medium for the New Citizenship Project, a UK-based “social innovation lab, established in 2014, to help catalyse the shift to a more participatory society” (The New Citizenship Project, n.d.). It argues:

By approaching outcomes in this way, we’ve gone beyond the ideas and measures we often feel most comfortable with: visitor numbers, website hits, income; acknowledging that while these things are important, essential to the continuing survival of our organisations, they’re not tantamount to impact. (The New Citizenship Project, 2018).

Within this context, social innovation and DSI represent important frameworks that ensure the ability of museums to deliver measurable and sustainable social impact while sustaining a viable financial model. One of the recent and innovative projects that addresses digital literacy in museums is the Museum Sector Alliance (or Mu.SA). The project is funded with support from the European Commission and aims to address the shortage of digital literacy and transferable skills in the museum sector in three European countries: Greece, Italy and Portugal. Mu.SA is a collaboration between 13 organizations including museums, universities, and cultural heritage institutions. The Mu.SA’s report, Museum Professionals in the Digital Era—Agents of Change and Innovation, makes an important observation:

Although it is difficult to make predictions as to what the future holds for museums, further digital and social innovations are undoubtedly in store for them. Regardless of the resources available, all museums can become agents of change. They need to acquire an awareness of their potential, together with adequate ongoing professional training and be equipped with the appropriate skill sets for responding to the ever-changing needs of society. The digital shift is already a reality that cannot be ignored by the museum community, even by the most hesitant of its members, and it demands appropriate competences and knowledge. (Silvaggi & Pesce, n.d).

It is noted here how the Mu.SA project strongly recognizes the intersectionality of digital and social innovations in the museum context, a point also highlighted by Eid (2016) in his article, “The Intersection between Social Innovation, Museums and Digital.” In that sense, for museums to build an effective business model that enables them to tackle pressing social issues and deliver measurable and sustainable social outcomes, they need to develop a workforce that is: digitally literate; confident and competent; diverse and inclusive; and socially conscious and proactive. This environment will allow the social innovation and DSI frameworks to prevail.

Malde and Kennedy from the UK-based Culture24 ran a recent project, “Let’s Get Real 6,” in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, 64 Million Artists, Battersea Arts Centre, and 18 other UK museums and cultural heritage organizations to identify the connection between digital practice and social purpose in museum work. The outcomes of the project are presented in a deliberate document that includes a description of the project and a collection of reflective essays that address the issue from different perspectives. One of the interesting essays is written by Parry (2018) in which he argues that the legitimacy of digital in the museum context has been historically driven by the values of efficiency and effectiveness (e.g. faster software or equipment). However, this is changing, according to Parry (2018), where digital is now legitimized by its ability to contribute to improving social causes. Parry (2018, p. 34) states:

This, in other words, is about our socially purposeful practice looking across to (and being informed and helped by) our digital practice; and it’s about our digital practice looking up from its operational focus, and looking out to the bigger social goals which it needs to serve.

What we are seeing in the previous two examples (Mu.SA and Let’s Get Real 6) is two major projects and leading organizations, researchers, and academics in the museum sector who are deeply reflecting on the changing role of digital in the socially driven museum. This is a remarkable moment in the museum digital community that should not be overlooked.

With this being said, it is important to note that there is a spectrum of thoughts on the issue. While the language used in the Mu.SA clearly identifies the intersection between social and digital innovation (which I refer to here as DSI) in museums, Malde and Kennedy (2018), on the other hand, took a different approach, looking more specifically at the social purpose (not social innovation) of digital work (not digital innovation) in museums. For that specific reason, and to help provide some clarity, the following table provides an overview of some of the fundamental differences between the traditional digital model and the DSI model in museums.


Traditional Digital Model Digital Social Innovation
Objective/Mission The core mission of digital is to increase engagement with and accessibility of museum collections in-gallery and online. This objective is a contribution to the social outcomes of museums. The core mission of digital is to identify the social, cultural, and environment issues that concern the community we aspire to serve and utilize the museum’s collections, expertise, digital resources as well as internal and external collaborations, to introduce possible solutions.
Personnel Members of the digital team are regarded as skilled technologists whose responsibilities are to make sure all of our technologies (website, social media platforms, in-gallery interactives, etc.) run smoothly. Members of the digital team are regarded as social innovators who (besides their traditional responsibilities) work closely with members of the community (individuals and organizations) to contribute to its well-being: socially, culturally, and environmentally.
Evaluation/Impact The success of the digital project is measured by the number of users, clicks, downloads, interactions, etc. The success of the digital project is measured by the social value created in the community and how this social value has contributed to a more just, equitable, and inclusive community.
Technology and Innovation The early adoption of new and emerging technology in our work will make us leaders and innovative in the museum sector. Creating measurable and sustainable social value, and improving the well-being of our communities, are the focus of our work, regardless of the sophistication of the technology used in our projects. That approach will make us innovative in the museum sector.

Table 1: The differences between the traditional digital model and the DSI model in museums.


As the previous table indicates, transitioning to the DSI model can be a challenging process. It requires unwavering commitment and deep conviction of the museum’s role as an agent for social change.

Overall, the DSI framework helps the museum community realize the larger role digital can play in the museum sector and beyond. It unlocks and frees the creative minds in many museums worldwide to present genuine innovations that can potentially transform communities and improve lives (Eid, 2019). More importantly, on the conceptual front, it is considered a paradigmatic shift that releases digital from the constraints imposed by the traditional digital model that revolves around casual engagement with museum collections and entertainment-education. This major shift puts digital, probably for the first time, at the forefront of museum work as agents for social change, which can lead to a fundamental transformation in how museums function.

Nurturing a community of DSI in the museum sector needs museums with open business models and a willingness to interact and collaborate with other sectors more effectively. Cangiano, Romano and Loglio (2017) in their article “The Growth of Digital Social Innovation in Europe. An Open Design Approach to Support Innovation for the Societal Good,” published in The Design Journal, offered an analysis of special training programs aimed to help social innovators build digital capacity including the use of open hardware, open data and open knowledge. They argue that “. . . [w]ith the diffusion of open innovation models, designers started experimenting with collaborative tools to solve societal issues such as food waste or water and sanitation in developing countries.” (OpenIDEO, 2012) (Cangiano, Romano, & Loglio, 2017). Eid (2016 & 2019) discusses in great details the use of open innovation in the museum context.

Ultimately, no one expects museums alone to find solutions to all the social challenges that face humanity or to approach them the same way other sectors tend to do, but it is my belief that museums, as civic and cultural institutions, are positioned to make a great contribution.


Challenges to Adopting DSI in Museums

Adopting DSI by museums can be a challenging task. The next table provides an overview of some of the possible challenges/arguments and how they can be countered.

Challenge 1: Change Adopting DSI requires substantial change in the museum’s organizational structure, how museums regard their employees and the perceived role of museums in society. These changes are hard to implement.
Response Museums have changed before and will continue to reinvent themselves to meet the new challenges. Although change is hard, it is necessary so museums can continue to maintain their relevance and viability as civic and cultural institutions.
Challenge 2: Scope of Work Museums are experts in exhibiting, preserving, and interpreting their collections. DSI framework is out of the scope of these functions, which makes it appear unfitting to museum work.
Response So as organizing galas, running gift shops and restaurants, and coordinating concerts. If museums are serious about assuming their responsibility as agents for social change, which I do not have any reason to doubt, they should look at the DSI framework with great interest and excitement.
Challenge 3: Funding and capacity Many museums are underfunded and understaffed. As a result, many museums do not have the financial resources nor the capacity to adopt the DSI model.
Response The ability of museums to attract funding is based on how philanthropists, governmental agencie,s and the community at large perceive their social impact. Adopting the DSI model will dramatically improve the social impact of museums, which helps them attract traditional and new sources of funding.
Challenge 4: Doubt and skepticism Museums do not have the expertise to tackle complex social and environmental issues such as climate change, immigration, and racial and economic inequality.
Response But they say they do and are interested in making a change. The issue is museums may have to get out of their comfort zones and seek innovative approaches to execute their missions.

Table 2: Challenges to the DSI framework in museums



Digital Social Innovation (DSI) proves to be a viable framework for museums. It affirms the museum’s recently celebrated mission as agent for social change. By using innovative approaches to tackle the pressing social and environmental issues, museums confirm their relevance as civic and cultural institutions. DSI provides the necessary strategies and mindsets that can help museums deliver a more effective, efficient, and measurable social impact in their communities. As museums improve their social impact, relevance and ability to take on big socioeconomic issues, funding from traditional and new sources, will also improve.

More specific to digital, the traditional digital model which focuses on engagement and accessibility is no longer efficient in producing the aspired outcomes for museums as agents for social change. Therefore, adopting DSI marks the beginning of the post-engagement/accessibility era in museums where digital assumes a greater role in directly addressing some of the challenging issues facing our society. This new model provides the digital community in museums much needed context, purpose, and capacity to present genuine innovations that can transform communities and improve lives.



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Cite as:
Eid, Haitham. "Digital Social Innovation and the Evolving Role of Digital in Museums." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 12, 2019. Consulted .