The role of funders in forging a new social contract between civil society and big tech.

Cassie Robinson.
Oct 8 · 3 min read

Happy Ada Lovelace day! I wonder if Ada could ever have imagined when she recognised the full potential of computing, where things would be now.

There are so many ways that technology is changing our society, and really if we’re thinking about the future, I believe we’re faced with 4 huge and urgent challenges — the climate crisis, growing inequality, reparations and compensation for oppressed communities (of which there are too many to list), and tech power.

A lot of civil society is focussed on becoming more digital or using ‘tech for good’, and as part of this some organisations are also recognising how technology is changing people’s needs, expectations and behaviours — but this is at a services level. Very few organisations are looking at the ways technology is changing the wider contexts and communities in which we live, let alone anticipating them or designing for them.

This is an issue for several reasons.

A new social contract

Firstly, civil society needs to be right at the forefront of shaping and negotiating the role that technology has in our lives, and the impacts and potential unintended consequences that play out because of it. The values that underpin civil society — values of kindness, care, community, solidarity, collectivism are needed at the heart of how technology is considered and developed. This will be an important counterbalance to the extractive and individualistic ways in which technology has predominantly been developed so far.

A longer horizon, and more informed view

Secondly, if civil society doesn’t engage with longer timeframes — drawing on foresight, futures and horizon scanning practices, then it won’t survive. Technology is changing things at a pace that makes it very hard to keep up, let alone one step ahead. Part of civil society organisations becoming more responsive and adaptive means the whole sector not just optimising for the present, but foreseeing what’s needed further ahead — and the sector staying informed and confident enough to orient our collective futures in the right direction.

This is the first film in a series about civil society, technology, and a new social contract. In this first film we explore why it’s important to be asking these questions, and in particular what role civil society and Foundations can play.

In the US funders have recognised the need to invest in organisations like Data & Society, the AI Now Institute, the Algorithmic Justice League, and run programmes like this Tech Fellowship. In the UK we’re lucky to have public interest organisations like Doteveryone, CAF and Liberty looking at these challenges, but it’s not enough.

So what’s next? And what can you do?

If you work in a Foundation then please sign up to this breakfast event where we will be discussing practical steps forward that we can take together.*

We’ll be creating more content and doing other events with a wider range of partners across the sector in the UK, and further afield, all with the aim of strengthening civil society to take a leading role in shaping the impacts of technology on our lives. And making sure Foundations and philanthropy are helping to resource this.

*Please note that we will only be accepting sign ups from people who are working as a funder.

Cassie Robinson.

Written by

Head of Digital Grant Making at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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