Civil society in our extremely digital world

Cassie Robinson

Senior Head, UK Portfolio, the National Lottery Community Fund

To thrive in a digital world, civil society must play an active role in responding to the opportunities and challenges of technology. Doing so, means both making use of technology for social good and influencing its future direction, developing new local digital infrastructure, and supporting this work with responsible funding and philanthropy.

The pandemic has underlined how essential civil society is to all of our lives. Social norms have kept us safe; communities have looked after our loved ones and helped us feel connected; neighbours and volunteers have made sure we have food, support and activities to sustain us. Throughout the turmoil, uncertainty, grief and fear of these past months, civil society has held us together with rainbows in our windows and acts of mutual aid and care.

It’s also exposed how intertwined the internet has become with our social fabric. Lockdown moved all social connections online overnight, confined to digital spaces of Zoom or Facetime. New communities emerged on Facebook and WhatsApp to make sure we could stay in touch and organise. These past 6 months have been an acceleration of how we – as a society – are making a huge, uneven transition, from a world that runs on paper and mechanical technology, to a world that runs on computing technology and the internet. Civil society is not exempt.

‘Technology’ – the tools, craft, techniques of a way of making or doing things – is not in itself good or bad. It’s how it is applied that matters. Civil society has always had to adapt to the way technology has changed industry and society and respond to the new behaviours and expectations that such changes can bring. Yet there are few parallels to the sheer scale and pace of change we are experiencing now, and the dilemmas this creates for civil society in our extremely digital world.

How can civil society support more people in a world where technology both individualises and connects individuals, families, workers, learners and whole communities? What does it mean for civil society to rely on privately owned platforms that exist to generate advertising revenue? How should communities respond to the effects of technology on local economies – from automation’s impact on jobs, to online shopping’s impact on the high street?

“Digital social infrastructure — where many of us conduct our most important relationships — has emerged organically throughout the 21st century: Google, Facebook, Amazon and many other businesses now power most of the do-it-yourself, self-organising bits of the web that bring people together in the ways community centres and street corners used to. The spread of these amenities and community platforms, which are mostly (but not all) free at the point of use, has seen the locus of many (but not all) communities shift away from the physical world to the digital world.” Rachel Coldicutt, Careful Industries[1]

This essay explores the vibrant and varied ways civil society can respond to the opportunities of technology, and how a more powerful, active civil society could prevent the threats technology poses in terms of equality and social inclusion. I believe this needs to go beyond how civil society can use technology as a consumer, and confront how civil society can play a role in shaping the direction and application of technology in policy and development. Finally, I want to reflect on the role of funders in supporting this work, and helping civil society to thrive in a digital world.

Using technology for social good

Technology is ethically neutral but many civil society organisations – from large charities to informal community groups and networks – are grappling with ways to adapt and use technology in how they deliver their mission. In the past decade, we’ve seen a huge change in how organisations use websites and other digital channels, as well as applying technology to help them work more efficiently, for example tools to recruit volunteers. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, with many organisations now reliant on these platforms to do their work.

At the same time, there has been a groundswell of entrepreneurs and start-ups using technology to tackle social issues – everything from healthcare to ageing to climate change. Social ventures like DrDoctor[2], GoodGym[3], Provenance[4] and Organise[5] have all grown and established new markets that span across the private, public and household economies, showcasing a new path and potential for civil society in using technology for social good. I mention these whilst also recognising that many complex social and environmental issues can’t be “solved” by a venture or legitimised as a market.

But this work on individual applications or services does not necessarily, of itself, create an environment where technology can be seen as a social good.  Without systemic work to ensure freedom of access and agency online we risk new digital divides being just another form of exclusion or deprivation.

Beyond being a savvy user of technology, civil society has a crucial role in making sure that technology works for and is a force for good for everyone. Unlike our role as consumers in a market, or recipients of services from governments, civil society is about us taking part. For me, this is about more than better understanding or improving digital skills; we need civil society to have a stake in what technology is for, who owns it, and how it shapes our lives.

Civil society influencing technology

Shaping the future upstream

There is a powerful, under-explored and under-utilised role for civil society: that of using its collective intelligence and wisdom to shape the future. Orienting us in both the public’s and the planet’s interest will never be achieved by market forces.

Civil society organisations often have unparalleled insights into people’s lives and experiences that could and should shape policy decisions and legislation. From a societal point of view, social sector organisations have a kind of sensing opportunity to understand where the biggest challenges are across our communities: where you see particular peaks of demand or where you see the implications of policies, it’s often felt first by charities having to provide, having to step in. This insight should be shaping how technology is used in their lives and communities, instead of the other way around. If we positioned civil society further upstream, instead of perpetually pushing it downstream only as the problem solver, then some of our larger societal challenges could be prevented or addressed sooner.

Communities participate in shaping the future

New technologies are creating new inequalities and exacerbating existing ones. This is especially the case in a pandemic world, which is creating a new class of the ‘tech left-behind’: kids without laptops who can’t do school work from home; elderly relatives in care homes without good Wi-Fi; people living homeless without access to data to reach support from services.

But in a world where you can write yourself into being with your social media account and an app created in a bedroom can challenge a national policy on immigration[6] it’s not enough for people just to be passive consumers of technology.  It’s important therefore that civil society is also well-placed to equip communities with greater understanding of technology, beyond improving digital skills and confidence. While new skills are helpful in terms of using new technologies, skills don’t shape the future. To shape the future, communities need to understand how technologies work: the rules and structures they rely on, and their implications. This is the first step towards having more power and agency over technology and its role in our lives. The Community Tech Fellowship in Greater Manchester is a good example of how to do this.[7]

As Doteveryone says:

“Digital understanding is not about being able to code, it’s about being able to cope; it’s about adapting to, questioning and shaping the way technologies are changing the world.” [8]

No one can – nor should they have to – comprehend the workings of each and every digital interaction they encounter in their lives. The complexity is mind boggling and ever increasing. But there are underpinning dynamics to technologies – the economic contract implicit in the exchange of data for services, or how algorithms are used to direct decision-making or consumer choices – which are important to grasp. These skills would mean that communities are better able to realise that prices can vary online, be alert to illegitimate companies, know how tech companies make money, and be aware of their consumer rights online.  More importantly, with this understanding communities are better able to advocate for themselves and ultimately reshape the technology sphere to greater levels of fairness and mutual interest.

New local digital infrastructure and civil society

Many of the platforms we rely on in our day to day lives (WhatsApp, Google or Facebook, for instance) are free to use and instantly accessible. But they generate income from the data they capture about us, and use this to drive advertising. They are also run by US-based private companies, who could change how they work or their pricing model at the drop of a hat. As charities and civil society organisations grow more reliant on these tools, we may see a future where much of our social and civil society infrastructure is run by these ‘tech giants’ and as such could be at odds with civil society’s unique role and purpose.

There are some examples – set out below – of civil society starting to build its own foundations for a new local digital infrastructure, where communities have more control over how these tools are used and importantly the value that is created.

Building community power

In both New York and Detroit they have Community Tech initiatives that demonstrate what happens when a community’s understanding of technology is used to go further than advocacy work, and instead has led to imagining better community futures. The Detroit Community Technology Project’s mission is to “use and create technology rooted in community needs that strengthens neighbors’ connection to each other, and to the planet”.[9] They have a neighbourhood-level digital infrastructure that was built by the community, is owned by the community and is maintained by the community. In the UK, the Equal Care Co-op is a cooperatively owned technology platform that is co-created by and accountable to members, putting power into the hands of people who give and receive care and support.[10]

Generating value

The Open Food Network is building an important piece of everyday digital infrastructure for a fairer food distribution system. [11] This vibrant, richly-connected network of independent Community Food initiatives work to meet the needs of local communities with healthy, sustainable food. The platform is open source, owned and controlled by the people who grow, rear, process and eat the food.

Creating meaningful dialogue

The vTaiwan initiative[12] – developed by the civil society movement g0v at the invitation of the Taiwanese government, following the 2014 Sunflower Movement protests – is a leading example of how digital platforms are being used to build consensus between industry, civil society and the public around complex policy issues. The platform has been a great success: it’s supported the ratification of new ride-sharing regulations and the resolution of a disagreement between civil society activists around internet alcohol sales. It is a leading global example of digital democracy, demystifying the process of policymaking and involving citizens directly in decisions.

These examples are stories of how civil society can create new forms of social infrastructure that provide a foundation for different ways of community engagement and organising – that in turn can achieve social change. In our fractious and polarised world, civil society has a crucial role in self-organising and creating links between different communities, whether through local places and activities, or through actions that form new connections and shared experiences, like voting.

The role of funders and philanthropy

A strong civil society is more important than ever – one that is led by communities, and is able to anticipate, adapt to and shape the future. For this to be possible, and for communities to thrive, funders have some clear responsibilities in relation to technology, digital and data.

Working to ensure that civil society has a role in shaping new technologies and technology infrastructure

The first responsibility is to ensure that we make visible the tensions and trade-offs of technological change. Data and technology have dramatically changed society over the last two decades, and have created great opportunities; but they have also deepened existing inequalities and brought with them new social challenges. The roll-out of cashless payments for instance, is fraught with such tensions. Without acknowledging them, resources cannot be put in place to take care of those who might be left behind, or to limit the velocity of change. Levelling up has significant meaning when it comes to technology in our communities.

Ensuring that we have in place the social infrastructure to match our technological ambitions

The second is to support how civil society responds to new technology. To address the systemic changes technology is bringing to society, there is an important role for philanthropy to ensure social infrastructure keeps up. As everyday life becomes more screen-based and automated, there is an urgent need for new and different thinking about the support structures we need as individuals, and the shared amenities that communities need to thrive and survive.

WhatsApp might be a convenient and accessible venue for many people but it doesn’t mean that everyone with WhatsApp on their phone is also a good host. What was learnt from the Glimmers research published earlier this year, is that new online communities came together during Covid because of good facilitation which was often supported by offline activity (such as leafleting and flyering) and existing community expertise.[13] It also revealed that mutual aid was quite asymmetric in some neighbourhoods: lots of people wanting to help, fewer people wanting to ask for help. If the underlying social structures and inequalities are writ larger then further roll out of mutual aid will not be a means for levelling up, but for deepening local inequalities.

Similarly, the low take-up of the NHS volunteering app showed this asymmetry. Catalysing a community response requires more than just technology, it relies on there already being social infrastructure in place. It showed that this is not just a matter of opening the floodgates but how necessary it is to create meaningful, long-term and durable structures for the development and maintenance of social infrastructure.

Making sure that social and civic infrastructure is maintained

Thirdly, it’s not enough just to build these things once.  Infrastructure in all its forms needs care, maintenance and futureproofing to ensure that it is not overtaken by the next wave of social change.  This doesn’t bring the currency of novelty but requires the deep and reflexive work of iteration and refinement.  For platforms and networks to thrive in a constantly changing world they need to be supported to change and develop themselves.

By choosing what kinds of work to support, funders send a message about what kinds of work are valuable. Alongside a renewed social infrastructure, the creation and maintenance of digital infrastructure is essential to the resilience and renewal of a digital society.  However, these activities suffer from being perceived as neither very innovative nor very visible – both qualities on which funders especially tend to focus attention. “The world at large needs more maintainers rather than resource takers”[14] to contribute to the local fabric of our life together.

A more equitable, digital future

Lastly, philanthropy has a role in raising aspirations of what is possible and setting out a better, more equitable future for more people. It needs to support the creation of a civil society that is not just instrumental but that is imaginative, with social infrastructure that is renewed for these technology-driven times. We need much bigger transformations than looking for the first-order efficiencies created by data sharing, better administrative systems and the reliance on for-profit platforms: this is an opportunity to regroup, to rethink structures, and to imagine the unimaginable. Technology cannot do that on its own – it needs the power of community.






[6] E Cresci, “Chatbot that overturned 160,000 parking fines now helping refugees claim asylum“, The Guardian, 6 March 2017