internetartizans's blog

open data doesn't empower communities

Open data doesn't empower communities. I'm not saying open data is a bad thing, but we need to highlight the gap between the semantic web and social impact. Otherwise we'll continue to get swept along on a tide of technocratic enthusiasm where hope lies in 'a flood of data to create a data-literate citizenry'.

I'm inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don't see any of that in the data.gov.uk apps list. The reasons aren't technical but psychosocial - the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don't have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.

So why the big push behind open data and the lack of interest in enabling communities? i think the crude answer is 'bread and circuses'. And anyway, opening up data is a technocrat friendly activity whereas empowering communities is messy and difficult. So we'll continue to be told that we can improve public services and create future economic growth by linking data rather than tackling power.

There are many missing steps between open data & an empowered citizenry that can fulfill David Cameron's claim that “People will be the masters. Politicians the servants. And that’s the way it should be”. It might be useful to contrast the histories of libraries and of Chartism - libraries are a necessary platform for an informed citizenry, but it takes the channeled anger of a social movement to focus that in to historic change.

Hackney Peace Mural

So which path leads beyond the sterility of SPARQL queries? Part of me says forget the whole thing. In a past life i helped collect data for the NHS, so i know that most government data is fake anyway (massaged beyond recognition as it passes upwards through the layered sphincters of bureaucracy). I'll keep an open mind to the results of the Open Data Impacts survey but i think we should sound the alarm that open data risks becoming (as Becky Hogge says) a kind of cargo cult.

The real struggle, as ever, is on the terrain of meanings. Who will write the narrative that we inhabit? And how much does data actually help here?

Adam Greenfield captures the issue in microcosm when comparing two local crime apps, Asborometer  and SpotCrime NYC:
"In my talks and writing, I frequently argue that 'data' in and of itself is seductive, its dynamic visualization more so, and that we need to be very careful that we don’t get drawn into real-world decisions based on such visualizations without due reflection.... The distinction is between an abstract fear on the one hand, given apparent substance by its inscription in seemingly authoritative numbers, charts and graphs — and the actual texture of street crime on the other, in all its tawdry, banal and occasionally appalling isness. You’re likely to have much more of a sense of agency when confronted with particulars than you would against inchoate percentages. And agency, as far as I’m concerned, is the name of the game".

So either we dump data for narrative, or we 'queer' the data in the full knowledge of its limitations. I'm inspired in that by the counter-cartographies collective (3Cs) who say in their report from a Chicago community mapping workshop:
"One big point of discussion was how to deal with the embedded biopolitics behind data sources like US Census data that we use in our maps — as 3Cs, we often talk about how we ‘queer’ data or statistics by pulling map stories out of them that they weren’t intended for. But data sources often come so tightly bound up with state politics, white supremacist racial policies, definitions of family structure, etc., that queering them might require more conscious work than we always put in".

Open data is not a magic recipe for righting wrongs. What will move things on is the stories that communities tell about their situations and their possible futures. If open data has a part to play in this it will be through the bootstrap empowerment of projects like savvy chavvysocial startup labs and transition towns.

my Media for Development manifesto

Although I've only been at Media for Development for a week, I can already see the potential for digital innovation to boost MFD's mission. I hope that a mashup of my background in web & social change and Media for Development's experience of participatory media will produce some pioneering ways to empower marginalised communities. So here's a snapshot of my thinking about where to go and how to get there.

My starting point is the way Media for Development uses participatory media to help transform people's lives. As a digital guy, this seems to me like a good match for the 'maker' meme - people participating in building their own stuff and their own solutions to problems. To my mind, a good starting point for MFD digital projects would be co-creation and the kind of co-design promoted by @thinkpublic and @wearesnook . This can by carried through the technical side of digital projects by appropriating agile development- the tech project methodology that iterates in small stages, keeping the project close to the users and allowing it to adapt as new issues and opportunities emerge.

At the other end, the digital scene is a wellspring of questions about impact and ROI, as embodied by Measurement Camp. The visibilising of social connections that's embedded in the social web makes social network analysis a way in to measuring impact, especially around ideas of social capital. And I expect Social Return On Investment (SROI) will be a useful way to pin numbers to our projects in a way that aligns with MFD's values. Of course, the most powerful way to convey impact is to hear from people themselves and MFD is already expert in the power of narrative.

One of the biggest challenges that faces MFD or anyone trying to build peer to peer support is the investment of time and resources it can take to get self-generating momentum in an online community. My first ideas about tactics is to start with stuff that's simple and useful, and can be applied immediately in people's lives. There were some good examples of this at Jailbrake - an event that applied the Social Innovation Camp approach to making web & mobile services for young people caught up in the criminal justice system. For example, we heard that even a simple text reminder at the right moment can make a difference by helping someone with a fairly chaotic lifestyle make it to their probation appointments.

 daniel of the Nudge Me project

Daniel from the Nudge Me project at Jailbrake (Photo credit: theps.net)

As one of the founders of Social Innovation Camp, I'd say its approach has a natural fit with media for Development and I'm expecting to draw a lot on @sicamp contacts and experience as I go forward with projects here, including the aim of making enterprises not just projects i.e. innovations that can find a way to be sustainable instead of petering out when the initial funding fades away.

But no statement about strategy would be compete without a 2 by 2 matrix :) so here's mine for MFD-Digital: with communities along one axis and digital along the other, we start with the communities that MFD knows well (e.g. people with experience of prison) and the tech that has already been successful (like the online community of Savvy Chavvy). Innovation on the communities axis means new hard to reach groups, and MFD already has plans to work with military veterans, and with young dad's who are in danger of being excluded from parenthood. Innovation on the digital axis has some straightforward starting points, like mobile and mapping: i've been inspired by the potential of open street mapping to catalyse community mobilisation, and i've already met with frontlinesms to look at ways that toolset can help overcome the digital divide here in the UK. In the future we may convene sicamp / crisis camp style events to catalyse unexpected digital innovations.

At the end of the day, though, it's not about tech but about the potential of digital to enable transformation; a change in people's lives and ultimately in themselves. And also, perhaps, in those of us doing this work. I'm looking forward to reporting irregularly on this journey.

"There ain't no justice, just us" - war crimes impunity in the digital age

One of the darkest things about war crimes is that most of the perpetrators get away with it. From Pinochet to Serb paramilitaries, the men (& it's mostly men) involved in acts of vile horror carry on with their lives untouched by justice. Will the digital age have any impact on impunity? If you need convincing about impunity, the Guardian's Datastore has taken the data provided by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague and compiled a spreadsheet of the cases that have been concluded. Set against the scale and duration of the horror, this is an essay in ineffectiveness. And listen to the women from the Omarska concentration camp recount their experiences on BBC radio. Their job was to clean the torture rooms of skin, teeth, hair; at night they were raped. Having bravely returned her home town of Prijedor, one the muslim women regularly comes face-to-face with her tormentors while the war memorial in the town glorifies the Serb 'war heroes'. I know from personal accounts that the spectacle of the ICTY is wholly failing to bring closure to those who experienced ethnic cleansing. But behind the horror there's the determination of some women to fight for justice. Having set up an association for women victims of war in Sarajevo, they have also become a detective agency, taking witness statements and tracking down & photographing perpetrators based on 'crowdsourced' identification of the men in the statements - a process that starts to sound a lot like the citizen journalism ushered in by digital tech. What impact could citizen journalism & social reporting have in unblocking the politically-motivated inertia of official war crimes investigations?
(Photo from Calling the Ghosts, A Story about Rape, War and Women by Women Make Movies) Another challenge is highlighted by the Kenyan election violence of 2007. On the one hand, this was the stimulus for Ushahidi, open source software which uses the lessons learned from Kenya to create a platform that allows anyone around the world to set up their own way to gather reports by mobile phone, email and the web - and map them. Ushahidi has now been used in many critical situations around the world including the first European application at our Social Innovation Camp Central and Eastern Europe by the Map Your Nazi project. Ushahidi is an exemplar of bottom-up digital innovation, but more than 2 years later no-one in Kenya has been prosecuted for the crimes against humanity that it helped to map. It turns out that neither a mashup nor the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court can have much impact on the political forces that trade power for impunity. My contention is that the real impact of digital comes from it's catalysis of horizontal process, social action that routes around institutional complicity. Could Ushahidi or something like it be used to convene activities of transitional justice - people-powered initiatives that take on the need to confront legacies of mass abuse? I'm not talking about the real-world equivalent of a Twitter lynch mob but holistic additions to criminal prosecutions that promote accountability and create just and peaceful societies. These would need to be more active than digital memorials. Perhaps we should apply the radical transparency of wikileaks to the archive of the war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia and pipe the results through citizen-up initiatives like we20? Whatever the challenges of transparency 2.0, the alternative is to freeze societies in a state of denial. Despite the efforts of Michael Portillo most Brit holidaymakers are still unaware that the beaches of Malaga contain mass graves of Republican sympathisers shot by Franco. Even though I count myself knowledgable about the Spanish Civil War, I visited Granada without knowing that the hills we strolled over still conceal 10,000 bodies. The psychic damage to Spanish culture is still in full effect thanks to the 'Pact of Forgetting' and the 1977 amnesty law. The transparency of the digital age is not just about open data but the surfacing of suppressed histories as starting points for transformation.
(Photo credit Mike Elkin & archaeology.org)

Beyond Transparency: from Lessig to True Levellers

Lawrence Lessig's New Republic article 'Against Transparency' really rattled the cages of transparency fans and led to a spirited defence from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, the co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation.

Lessig's opening diatribe is long-winded and sets up some straw men that Miller and Klein dispose of - like saying that transparency will increase cynicism because the public don't have the attention span to make proper judgements. I suspect the need for a complete throwdown comes from his lawyer-genes :)

But IMHO he wins out by addressing the core issue; that the only way to capitalise on transparency to increase trust is to actually change structures. So if we can never be sure whether a certain political donation did or did not influence a vote, we should take donations out of the process altogether. As Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted during the debate: "amazing how people r missing the point of @LESSIG article. disclosure useless without changing uderlying dynamics".

Despite the Sunlight folks efforts to 'annually directly train more than a thousand reporters and bloggers on how to use these datasets, tools, and sites to better inform their investigations' their aspirations stop at cleaning up the existing system. In this they follow the democracy geeks at MySociety, believing that current mechanisms would deliver fairness if only they were cleansed of unethical gunk.

For sure, we need transparency around finances, but cash is just a proxy for power. And power is a far trickier thing to map than money; it ranges from the psychological to the physical and involves us all in complex and contradictory networks. Our current institutions accrete power in ways that amplify its abuse while simultaneously producing narratives of denial.

Us liberal Twitterati have flexed our Streisand effect in the last few days to challenge the old trappings of power, in the specific shape of UK libel laws and #Trafigura. One rightful rallying cry for this was the 1688 Bill of Rights. But it's ironic that so many other flaws of our system are still glossed over, despite the fact that in the Putney Debates of 1647 the Levellers were predicting the need for a better system than the one we have.

While Sunlight say "the very idea of exposing government data feeds for outside developers is, at its core, about spurring innovation in the way we all perceive and contextualize data" I'm still troubled by The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups and the increasing tendency of information mashup initiatives to align themselves with the status quo rather than with movements for social change.

Last word goes again to @alaa: "activism that limits its ambition to exposing and reporting is useless if not harmful. work on redefining reality behind what is measured."


Observ. LIII. Of a Flea., from Micrographia by Robert Hooke

Will Politics 1.0 Swallow Government 2.0? a response.

Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio has penned a couple of sparky posts this week about the more trenchant realities of government 2.0. In 'Will Politics 1.0 Swallow Government 2.0?' he characterised Tom Steinberg's decision to advise the Tories as heralding the way that gov 2.0 leaders will inevitably align with politics 1.0:

"What interests me, though, is how people like Steinberg in the UK or like Beppe Grillo in Italy feel the urge to join or take sides with a party, although they have been making independence and grass-root approach their mantra."

The reason being that bloggy tweety aggregation is all well and good but if you want to get stuff to stick in the real world you need established structures. "Perhaps going back into existing silos is the price to be paid for moving from vision to execution". That's the bit that makes me smile - the idea the the government, or any large incumbent institution, represent the best hope for executing anything flies in the face of experience, especially when it comes to anything that involves tech.

My sense is that it's easier for mySociety types to cleave to The Man because their agenda is to make current modes work more smoothly, rather than to question the distribution of power at a basic level. Shame, because the interesting thing about Stuff 2.0 is its potential to leak a bit of power back to a peer-to-peer model. That's not to deny the challenge of sustaining bright ideas in a hard economic reality, which is why I wrote about Lightweight Structures for Social Innovation Startups after the first SICamp. But politics 1.0 has the gravitational pull of a black hole and the only way to break the paradigm is to connect digital innovation with social movements that are the soil for its participatory roots. So, for example, if you really want to see government 2.0 you'd be better off doing digi with Transition Towns than with the Green Party.

And that's why I was rocked to see the title of Andrea's follow up post 'Why Government 2.0 Has Little To Do With Government'. Critiqueing the idea that gov 2.0 is about the ways "organizations and institutions can leverage technology to improve effectiveness and efficiency and to better engage constituents" he reframes the issue: "The problem is that government 2.0 is not about organizations and institutions. It is about the way in which constituents aggregate and socialize knowledge in ways that change their expectations and how they relate to government institutions." It's nicely articulated but stays on the safe ground of information and knowledge. I'd contend that the bolder win is for people to aggregate and socialize solutions i.e. actual functioning answers to social needs, whether stand-alone, grant funded or direct hacks of gov operations. That's what Social Innovation Camp has been trying for, and it'll be interesting to see which side of the wavy grey line that folk at the myPublicServices unconference will plump for.


Image courtesy of edmittance: part of his work with Transition Towns.

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!

Digital Kung Fu for Civil Society

My slides from the civil society workshop in Tbilsi in May 2009. Questions, suggestions and comments welcome!

Making Things To Make A Difference

When I was trying to explain Social Innovation Camp to NGOs & journalists in Tbilisi I settled on the phrase 'Making Things To Make A Difference'.

I got enthused about the whole 'Making Things' meme by Chris Thorpe, while helping him cook up the idea for 'Making Things for 2morro' (a hackday for youngsters as part of 2morro 09). Making Things captures the proactive and DIY approach to problems that infuses Social Innovation Camp and marks it out as a social impact that's distinct from campaigning, policy or orthodox service delivery.

And kicking around Social Innovation Camp ideas with the helpful Dan Burgess of Naked Comms reminded me that the powerful flip side is '...because so much is BROKEN'. That's why we must make stuff; because we can all see that it's not just charities that are broken but the financial system, the economy, our cities and all the other fruits of collapsanomics.

There's a great article called 'Alinsky vs. Arizmendi: Redistribution or Control of Wealth In Changing the World' which contrasts two visions of changing the world. One is the campaiging of Saul Alinsky for "the improvement of the distribution of wealth that the system generated to include communities that were systematically excluded or shortchanged because they were Black, Latino, or working class." The other is the Mondragon network of worker-owned co-ops started by an anti-Franco priest in Spain, and which now has has 85 companies employing 130,000 people globally.

The article finds in favour of the co-ops, on the basis that the redsitribution model depended on a social contract that has since been shattered. Personally, I suspect that we'll always need a bit of both. But more than that we need the creative hacktivism that's breaking out as we realise we can (in the words of a Social Innovation Camp mantra) "use online tools to organise offline change". And that's why 'Making Stuff...' appeals to me; not just making tools or whole solutions, but in the process re-making expectations about what's possible. The tools are there and we don't have to ask permission, so...

Image by moleitau There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image. AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

Twitter activism in Tbilisi

Next weekend I'll be doing some training for journalists and NGOs in Tbilisi alongside Kevin Anderson (blogs editor for Guardian.co.uk). Our mission:

  • To popularize and legitimize new media in Georgia for both journalism and civic activism purposes
  • To fill the niches that are currently unfilled by both mainstream media and current bloggers
  • To create at least one showcase local project - defined by the local audience/blogosphere and designed by the local participants

We've only got two days to achieve all this(!) and I don't want to parachute in with irrelevant training. I've posted below about the background and opportunities and I'd be happy to get any tips here or off-list.

The time is ripe?

According to the project brief "The time appears ripe for new media projects in Georgia, as the situation with the mainstream media continues to deteriorate. Throughout the region, blogs are underdeveloped - even as Internet usage continues to rise - and knowledge of worldwide trends regarding citizen media is largely missing. Few blogs can be characterized as locally driven and influential, as members of the Diaspora or other Caucasus-watchers operate the majority from abroad".

Decreasing media freedom

Freedom of the media in Georgia is on a downward trend. "Significant problems still remain with press freedom advocates pointing to murky media ownership structures, oppressive Internet policies, restricted information access, harassment of journalists, self-censorship, and the cozy interdependence of the state authorities and media outlets...The media in Georgia are relatively free when compared to neighboring countries; however, international organizations have noted the authorities’ creeping control - both direct and indirect - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003".

Potential for new media

On the other hand, both the recent war and opposition demonstrations have revealed some of the latent potential for social media to have an impact: after the war with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia "many Georgians turned to the Internet to find information not provided by the country’s three major stations. Youtube, for example, provided video of Gori being bombed and other shots unavailable on Georgian media, some of it filmed by normal people with their mobile phones - true citizen journalism". And "the Resistance Georgia blog was launched one day after the Georgian authorities forcibly broke up the 7 November opposition demonstrations, and subsequently attracted numerous citizens with diverse opinions. The discussions, impressions, rumors, and analysis posted on the site helped to better shape on the ground coverage of the unfolding events, and after only a week, even The New York Times was quoting it".

Online civil society

There's a strong interest in developing an online civic space where there can be level-headed discussion of controversial topics across communities. Ahgain, there are positive signs: "another interesting blog, run by a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia, cyxymu.livejournal.com attracts an average of 1,261 visitors a day. Showing the strength of the interactive blog format, the blogger Sukhimi is able to discuss issues surrounding the frozen conflict in Abkhazia with Abkhaz, Russians, and Georgians, all at the same time. The discussions are generally lively and vibrant, and provide valuable insight into what the dialogue between the conflicting sides looks like".

But like most other places the existing NGO sector seems poorly prepared to make the most of the digital opportunities: "many throughout the civil society and NGO sector are unfamiliar with these new technologies, do not understand how to use them effectively, or lack tools for their particular setting. Despite the growth of new media in recent years, NGOs have yet to adjust their outreach strategies, ignoring the possibility of using platforms such as blogging and social networking sites to promote their activities and research, in the process attracting members of the younger generation".

Looking for impact

My starting point for digital impact is to match the memes (patterns) of the social web to the faultlines of the social situation. In other words, how can the power of the web to increase transparency or organise mass collaboration be used to strengthen civil society.

Of course the best way to do this is with inspiring examples, like the ones we used in the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' in Riga a few months ago. I want to show how straightforward it can be to assemble an online campaign from the giant toolkit that the web has become.

Mashups and Mobilisation

Mashups are great next step because they combine compelling visualisation with the potential for engagement that we also explored in 'Crowdsourcing for transparency'. Here in the UK, initiatives like Mash the State and Tony Hirst's Googledoc ninja skills are starting to put the power of mashups in the hands of the non-programmer. (Tony's gone in to overdrive recently with the data on UK Members of Parliament's expenses).

And it's the potential for engagement and mobilisation that the social web offers to nascent social movements, especially in an environment where discontent is high. I want to shift the conversation in Tbilisi from 'websites' to the social web as a cloud of possibilities for participative campaigning. How much that applies to the online and offline situation in Georgia is something I hope to learn when I'm there.

Twitter activism and repression

The spectrum of online campaigning was well represented in our Riga workshop, from the sophisticated probing of MySociety projects to the guerilla activism of the Tunisian blogosphere. But in Tbilisi I plan to explore more about Twitter activism, examples of which are breaking out all over the place. Those sterling folk at DigiActive have produced a Guide to Twitter for Activism which is a good starting point. The reality becomes more complex when contesting claims that recent protests in Moldova were a Twitter Revolution. And Guatemalan police recently arrested someone for a tweet they claimed was "inciting financial panic" - in reality, the twittering was part of a widespread & outraged response to the assassination of a lawyer for threatening to expose government corruption.

Social innovation and civic futures

Although online campaigning is of interest to both journalists and NGOs, the real innovations will come from people thinking outside of those disciplines. If the web is going to catalyse in Georgia then people need to to think differently and feel more empowered.
In the UK we've pioneered SocIal Innovation Camps to unlock the potential of the internet to deliver different solutions to social problems. I'm co-organising a SICamp for CEE countries in Bratislava in September, and while there's no space in Tbilisi for that, it'd be good to run a version of the 'SICamp express' that we use at meetups.

Journalism and tipping points

One big win of doing the training alongside Kevin is that we'll be able to cover the blurred zone where mainstream & social media collide with online activism. The events around the G20 protests in London are an interesting case study which has challenged the previous dynamic of police impunity on protests. It sounds like civil rights in Georgia may be approaching a critical point and there's a chance that new media can help tip the balance the right way. At the very least I hope the participants in the training come away with an idea of what's possible, feeling inspired and feeling able to act on that. Your thoughts, as ever, very welcome.


Tbilisi by pazavi There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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.

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