The shape of civil society to come - a Carnegie Trust Inquiry

The Carnegie UK Trust is running an Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. Unsurpringly, the first phase identified new media < cough > as one of the "burning issues" meriting further futures work and asked Suw Charman-Anderson to look at the way social technology and the internet is going to evolve over the next 15 years, and what that might mean for civil society organisations. Suw has kicked off by video interviewing social tech luminaries like Chris Messina & Ross Mayfield. Carnegie's report on The shape of civil society to come says that “The purpose of futures work is to ‘disturb the present’ and to help organisations understand and manage uncertainties and ambiguities. Futures thinking operates on an assumption that there is not one future but multiple possible futures, dependent partly on how we choose to respond to or create change.” My take is that the disturbance will come where the faultlines in civil society are most pressured by the patterns and memes of the social web. The Shape of Civil Society identifies key faultlines such as

  • Voluntary and community associations lose their distinctiveness due to increasing partnership with the state,
  • Traditional political engagement on the wane
  • Diminishing arenas for public deliberation
  • Marginalisation of dissent

These are clearly on collision course with memes like Openness, Transparency, Agility and the return of The Commons. To get a picture of possible futures we'll need a sense of history; maybe even Friedrich Kittler's 'recursive history' where the same issue is taken up again and again at regular intervals but with different connotations and results. And it's not just about history but about how to re-imagine society through the digital which means going wider than the social tech scene. I enjoy taking part in the #4Change Twitter-conversations about how social media is helping to create change, but we'll only appreciate the network mindset by widening our view and looking at marginal philosophies and hidden histories. And I don't really believe that the NGO sector can read the tea leaves of it's own future either. The Carnegie report highlights the blurring of the voluntary sector and the state, which goes hand-in-hand with the corporatisation of nonprofits. It's hard for bureaucracies to change their spots; expecting them to collaborate even across their own internal silos is like asking the tongue to taste itself. They may wish that the pixie dust of social media will restore their humanitarian sparkle but it may simply be that charities are broken. So all power to social startups mashed with the Coalition for Independent Action. And in the mean time, where do we look for hints of a digitally enabled future of civil society? On the margins, I think; taking a punt that the interesting social innovation happens at the edges where the dominant paradigm is migration. In fact, the very term civil society is too static for these times; we need a term that's more about flow, turbulence and transition. Perhaps I'll see you out there in the civic turbulence; in the mean time, keep an eye out for how you can contribute to the important work that Suw is doing.