Abstract Fluid droplets can be induced to move over rigid or flexible surfaces under external or body forces. We describe the effect of variations in material properties of a flexible substrate as a mechanism for motion. In this paper, we consider a droplet placed on a substrate with either a stiffness or surface energy gradient and consider its potential for motion via coupling to elastic deformations of the substrate. In order to clarify the role of contact angles and to obtain a tractable model, we consider a 2D droplet. The gradients in substrate material properties give rise to asymmetric solid deformation and to unequal contact angles, thereby producing a force on the droplet. We then use a dynamic viscoelastic model to predict the resulting dynamics of droplets. Numerical results quantifying the effect of the gradients establish that it is more feasible to induce droplet motion with a gradient in surface energy. The results show that the magnitude of elastic modulus gradient needed to induce droplet motion exceeds experimentally feasible limits in the production of soft solids and is therefore unlikely as a passive mechanism for cell motion. In both cases, of surface energy or elastic modulus, the threshold to initiate motion is achieved at lower mean values of the material properties.