Connecting the tech sector to civil society for a renewed social infrastructure

Over the last few months* it feels like the tech sector has been having giant realisations about its impact on society and on our lives. This is a good thing. Whether that is Mark Zuckerberg making a statement about Facebook’s new focus, a bunch of ex- Silicon Valley Bro’s deciding enough is enough (though I share these sentiments), or various individuals across both sides of the Atlantic, and in the UK government, announcing the need to engage with civil society, to really understand what is going on in our society, and maybe even ask the question about what kind of society we all want to live in.

People have been caring about social justice for a long time

As I said above, this is all great, however, as these techies embark on directing their new found social conscience, there are lots of people they could get advice and input from. I feel incredibly privileged that for over a decade I’ve worked with a whole community of people who’ve been hugely committed to understanding and trying to do something about a range of social issues. These are people that always started out with a societal concern as their motivation, and design and digital have become some of their tools for addressing these issues. I now want to make sure that this community have their voices heard, so that civil society can bring their expertise to shape technology and its impacts (and not after the event!) and their expertise and experience can be put to good use.

There’s lots of wisdom found here to be passed on to the tech sector

I wanted to try and pull together a collection of names, of people and organisations who do have a really good understanding of society’s challenges, through having been working on them. It’s not really the kind of understanding you get from doing a bit of user research to design a digital product or service —a lot of these people have spent time at the heart of communities, on the ground, understanding the complexities of place and the root causes of issues.

Initially, I’ve just started a list  and other people have already been adding to it — but I know there are many other names of people and organisations to be included. Please add them. And add new themes too — I won’t have got this right on the first go, and I know people will have lots of other ideas of what should be included. I’ve included a basic ‘criteria’ at the top of the document, which is worth a read but probably the three key things are:

  • At this stage, we are not looking *only* for people with “lived experience” — whilst I know those voices are hugely important, and lived experience should always be central to how anything is shaped in society, that is a different thing to what we’re trying to do here. Often people with lived experience have an amazing understanding of their own experience (obviously), but that doesn’t mean they always have a holistic understanding of an issue from multiple perspectives.
  • And we’re not necessarily looking for the people who have the solutions (often there aren’t solutions anyway), again, more the people who have a really good understanding of place, community and different issues. When I first did a test run of the google doc for others to fill in, quite a few sections got filled out with names of people who are building new alternatives, and whilst this is great, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve a holistic view and deep knowledge of root causes.
  • It seems like other people and communities are feeling unheard and under-valued in the wake of these tech sector revelations. In the US, Jesse Kriss has responded to this by creating an ongoing virtual conference called Listen Up Tech so that the tech sector hears from critical voices outside the industry in an ongoing way. I think this is a great idea! However many names initially put forward for this have been academics, and whilst I think academic viewpoints and research are an important part, I’m keen the bulk of people initially included in this UK version are people who’ve been designing programmes, commissioning work across an issue area, and working directly out in the field.
I’m not saying that this is the only community of people that the tech sector should listen to and would find value in. I’m not saying this community of people are better or more important than other groups or voices. I’m not dismissing the fact that people caring about social justice is centuries old. I am saying that this is one of the communities of people and organisations that have some useful insight and deep understanding to share with the tech sector, to ensure that the impacts of technology are directed in a way that benefits everyone and strengthens society.

Making sure this experience and expertise is visible and used

I’ll leave the document open for the next week and then it could turn into one of a few things. It might just live as an open resource on the web but I will be actively trying to make sure that the tech sector engages with it. We plan to do a one-day event in early Summer intentionally trying to bring together the tech sector as it embarks on its moral awakening, with people in the third sector, in civil society, and in social innovation, social science and social policy. After a initial conversation today, we’d love to do this in partnership with Civil Society Futures, who have spent the last year travelling all over the UK and connecting with what is happening on the ground in communities.

If you want to get involved either in the event or have other ideas of how we can connect these communities in a meaningful way, then please get in touch with me on cassie.robinson@doteveryone.org.uk.

*It could be more than a few months, it just feels like it’s been getting very loud in the last few months.