This work is supported by the Co-op Foundation and Luminate.
Apply for the Community Tech Fellowship by 4th September here.
Over the last year, outside of my role at The National Lottery Community Fund, I’ve been continuing a contract I have with the Co-op Foundation and Luminate — one that I agreed I’d need to see through when I accepted my full time role.
Lauren, based in Manchester, and in the community at Federation, took on the work of building out from there — and is really building on our initial ideas of a movement or collective being grown across Greater Manchester to demonstrate what it means when a whole region shapes its technology through a ‘responsibility’ lens. The GM Responsible Tech Collective has big ambitions and multiple strands of work underway.
I’d been tasked with focussing specifically on civil society. I wrote more here about why that focus is important here.
What we mean by civil society is also really important.
Over the last 5 years, since I started working at Doteveryone, where I led the “Stronger Society” strand of work, and then in my role running the Digital Fund at The National Lottery Community Fund and staying connected to the community of tech ethics and digital rights etc, I’ve grown increasingly perplexed by what is perceived as ‘civil society.’
When I see funders commissioning work that is about civil society, that talks about centring civil society, or platforms being given to civil society voices, and reports published to advocate for ‘civil society’ — I look at who was involved in ‘civil society’ and it’s very rarely organisations in civil society that are actually on the ground, delivering services, or supporting and connecting people in communities.
I see funding going to academic institutions, intermediaries, rights organisations and think tanks. Of course it’s great we have a well-developed (and well-funded) ecosystem of these organisations commenting and researching, but that is not enough. We also need to hear from communities — and not simply via surveys or citizen assemblies that ask for their opinion on particular topics.
If I want to draw on the wisdom of civil society to shape the impacts of tech on our lives, I want to hear from the Samaritan’s, Safe Lives, Citizens Advice, Law Centres’, Women’s Aid, With You, National Ugly Mugs, Mind, but even more than that I want to hear from the local Mutual Aid group, the Neighbourhood Watch group, the Parish Council, the voluntary sector organisations, the faith organisations, the local groups and causes — the places that interact daily with people in their everyday.
These are the people and spaces that we need to invest in and build the capabilities of when it comes to shaping the dynamics of technology on society — in our communities. And we are excluding them when we think only of where civil society and technology intersect through a rights framework or a democracy framework.
Using these particular frames also means that we tend to frame our responses reactively, around issues such as privacy, security, social media echo-chambers, online abuse, fake news and the regulation of the big ‘tech companies’. This is not to say those responses are wrong — they’re not — they’re hugely important. But they are only one part of a bigger picture. As Alastair Parvin says —
“Most importantly of all, what these reactive conversations don’t do is give us a mental model that allows citizens, communities and democratic institutions to get ahead-of digital transformation and shape it, rather than being shaped by it. To move the conversation from one that is only about ‘tech ethics’ — to one that is also about the things that are holding our economy and our society back.”
I’m excited that the UK’s first Community Tech Fellowship will be working directly with the layer of civil society — community leaders and voluntary organisations — who have direct experience, and an incomparable wisdom, about our everyday lives.