Today, Civil Society Futures launched their final set of outputs, sharing what they’ve found after a two year enquiry, about where civil society is headed, what it needs and what we can each do to strengthen it. I was invited to write a response for the launch. Here is what I said (throughout the piece I am responding to specific quotes from the report) —
“Civil society cannot stand still as society shifts.“
This is a brilliant opening line and one that I emphatically agree with.
The power of technology
I’m especially committed to how civil society and the wider social sector can stay on top of the shifts in society being created by technology.
“We will address inequalities and conflict by seeking to understand power and oppression.”
We can’t ignore the power that technology has, the ways it has the power to entrench and further inequalities or the haphazard and opaque nature of the change it can create — unpicking what binds us in community, as well as making important public institutions outdated. Automated decisions increasingly mediate civic life.
We live in a digital society now and whilst technology still affords all kinds of opportunity, we need to think as much about the implications of technology as we do about its applications.
“And our wider social infrastructure is playing catching up: education, news, mental health advice, the way democracy works are all functioning in a liminal space — caught between responding to the world we know and can describe, and the uncertainty that’s unfolding around us.” — Rachel Coldicutt, CEO, Doteveryone
Civil society shouldn’t underestimate the need to understand the social impacts of technology and actively find ways to be part of directing the impacts of technology on society. This understanding is at the root of fairness — making us aware of its power structures, and enables us to question what this mean for our choices, rights, and lives.
Whilst organisations are working out what a better regulatory system looks like to hold technology to account, I’d like to see a social sector empowered to play a greater role in this, and in empowering communities to demand and benefit from technology.
“Civil society needs to be active and responsive and think ahead.”
The evolution of technical capability can irreversibly alter what society considers acceptable — think of how privacy norms have changed because of the utility provided by smart phones and the Internet. What other change will technology make irreversible?
So lets focus and work out what capability society needs to shape the influence technology has on our lives.
There are some growing communities looking at how to build momentum around this.
New rights, and collective rights
Civil Society Futures talks about “defending rights and calling out injustice.” They say that “civil society is political: we will challenge those in power” — lets remember that we need new rights — human rights that have been updated to reflect the digital society we now live in.
Technology has created the need not only for new digital rights but also the need to think more about collective rights. For example, having data under the exclusive control of individuals disregards our communal and societal interests as citizens. We must also consider the rights of society — societies have rights to data.
And if we want to challenge those in power, we need a tech literacy that’s hard to find in the social sector — there is a lot of power held in the dialogue between government and the tech industry — the social sector needs to find ways to join that conversation.
Organisations such as the Algorithmic Justice League in the US are working to give citizens a voice and we need somewhere here in the UK where citizens can voice their concerns and experiences with algorithmic bias and know that they will be heard, taken in and acted on.
The cult of the individual and voice of those with lived experience
Everything I’ve written so far has been where my work’s been focussed the last few years, at Doteveryone. But now I’m working in the largest community foundation in the UK and I feel hopeful about the role funders can play in strengthening society, paying attention to social infrastructure as much as individual need. We talk about people in the lead but I think we should remember that society has needs too and acknowledge the divide between what works for individuals versus what works for society.
The dogma of user-centred design is a useful framing and practice but we need to design for relationships, for ecosystems, and for networks. Reverting to the “voice of those with lived experience is more important than any others in the room” is also too simplistic and reductive.
Taking a stand
“ Funding made available for the disobedient who challenge systems, trusting and rewarding them to do more.”
Now more than ever, we need people to take a stand, to stop sitting comfortably on the fence, and use their power and privilege to represent those for whom it’s too risky to speak up. Therefore I welcome the idea of funding programmes and fellowships that acknowledge those that are disobedient. At the Point People we’re doing some work with the Roddick Foundation this year, to set up something that does just that. We’d welcome other foundations joining us.
So what does this mean I will do?
What does it mean organisations like Doteveryone can do?
And what does it mean foundations like the Big Lottery can do?
Think tanks can work hard at not entrenching old power, going only through the well worn channels to Whitehall as a way to influence policy. They need to consciously design ways to bring new voices in to the white, male, Oxbridge-centric corridors of Westminster power and stop going through back doors that keep “policy influencing” opaque and impenetrable.
Foundations can use their convening and resource power to encourage more connection and trust between organisations that might usually be in competition. They can be field-builders and encourage more ecosystem approaches. Nobody is better placed to play this role.
Personally I need to change by consciously and intentionally being in relationship with more people who are not like me. That’s something I will actively look to do more of in 2019 and beyond. As well as looking for any opportunities I have or can create that build more coordination across people, communities and organisations that are looking to affect the same kinds of change.