The Berlin Wall between civil society and social change

It's the weekend before Social Innovation Camp Central & Eastern Europe (SICamp CEE); one of the most intense experiments in digitally-enabled social innovation to have targeted that region. We've assembled seventy amazing people to build six great ideas in a manic 48 hours. Time to reflect on why it matters.

SICamp CEE is the guerilla sideshow to a Civil Society Forum (CSF) convened by the CEE Trust. In a bold move, this major funder of NGOs is questioning whether those dollars are having much social impact. The commissioned opinion pieces on the state of CEE civil societies reveal the depth of disillusionment and loss of direction.

The truth is that we didn't get rid of the Berlin Wall. Sure, there was a festive destruction of that hated bit of concrete, but the Berlin Wall and all walls like it are the physical parallels of a certain approach to the world; a way of dealing with life that works best with division and control. Read the insightful CSF essay Redefining NGOs by Primož Šporar: NGOs are "autocratic", "top-down" and "donor-driven", have an increasing "political dependence on the government in power" to maintain an "existence more closely related to the salaries of employees than the potential benefits for the target group". Bluntly, they are afraid that truly active citizens could undermine their "monopoly on problems".

This is the description of social change with a wall around it. Of barriers between people and the supposed agents of that change. Of hierarchical control that stifles innovation and the kind of "informal, ad-hoc and problem-oriented" local initiatives that Primož sees springing up outside of the NGOs. And I can say for sure that his description fits the so-called Third Sector in the UK as much as it does NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe.

Enter Social Innovation Camp! Of course we're not the answer to all that. But SICamp is like one of those early crowbars, digging at weak points in the wall, looking for leverage. And our leverage is digital because that enables people to connect and collaborate without the overhead of old institutions. It enables crowdsourcing, wikifying and the emergence of new possibilities by mashing stuff up.

And that's why we say SICamp is about "individuals using the web to change things" and not about making the third sector more efficient or effective. In my experience, people working in an NGO automatically filter out ideas that they know don't fit with the organisation's expectations, even if they're innovative ideas. An organisation bringing an idea to SICamp would want control and this would kill the magic. At SICamp the development of the idea is totally in the hands of the team who've formed around it. They can change it and play with it. They can be spontaneous and creative. But this is serious play - they want to win, and to win they need to create something that will have real social impact.

SICamp works. At least, our past events have generated enough real projects and ideas with legs that the momentum is growing. But SICamp CEE is a uniquely internationalist experiment, with campers from Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, UK, USA, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. One of the criteria for selected ideas is that they can be applied in more than one country, and multinational teams will build them. SICamp CEE is truly internationalist.

SICamp and all similar hacktivist initiatives are using digital tech to break through the walls of resources and respectability, tapping straight in to people power by creating a space for free imagination. The liberatory potential of digital is that it allows us to do this without asking for permission. The tools are to hand - down with all Berlin Walls!