Spending last week
at the Code for America Summit confirmed it for me: We have come to a critical moment in the history of civic technology.
For years now, we’ve told a story about “civic tech” that made it out to be the hammer we’d use to shape a new world. More than just the “space where a tech-enabled government and its people met”, we’ve sold “civic tech” to ourselves as the key to communal agency — the tools and approaches that will allow people to organize and engage with each other and with their governments, to build their own power and wield it not just at the voting booth, but throughout everyday life.
That’s the vision,
if there ever was one: That the development of civic technology will enable a new way of being not just in a government system, but in society.
But as the civic tech sector matures and its canon reveals itself, we have to ask ourselves: Are we on track to realize this vision? And, either way, are we being mindful about who is (and isn’t) along for the ride?
Civic technology can’t exist in a vacuum.
To be used for social good (the product of a life’s work, not a campaign cycle or product deadline), technology needs to be directed, and for its greatest, most transformative impact, it needs to be directed by those who will benefit the most from the creation of the social good.
In other words: Transformative civic technology needs to be built “with, not for” a community.
Transformative civic tech is both bottom-up and out-and-out — the output of various combinations of real individuals, community groups, civil society organizations, governments, and sure, the private sector, literally working together throughout the entire process within a shared context towards a shared goal.
But all too often, when translated into “the way things really are”, this process of intentionality and collaboration gets cut short—its value seen as secondary (not essential) to the development of social impact technology, whose constrained deadlines for development make co-designing with communities a mere exercise at best, an abstract afterthought at worst.
The vision of transformative civic tech demands more from us.
We need to prioritize the skills, wisdom, and contributions of our peers and neighbors. Our technical expertise alone is not enough to ensure that the social goods we seek to create are the right ones or that the social transformations we hope to bring about “for everyone” will indeed be distributed equally.
If social transformation is the goal of civic tech, it’s time to shake things up.
In my talk
at the Code for America Summit, I issued two challenges to civic tech creators—challenges I myself fight daily to live by and am getting better at with time.
CHALLENGE #1: Get literal.
If your work is with communities, you better be able to LITERALLY define that community. Drill down and outline the individuals, groups, neighborhoods, key players, non-profits, businesses, you name it that make up the “community” you work with or are trying to work with.
Once you’ve identified that “who”, LITERALLY go meet them where they are. (Physically, digitally, otherwise: Find out and show up.)
We’re not doing civic technology right if we are not stepping out of our own contexts and into the contexts of the communities that we work for.
So, go join your community. Take part. Go to the festivals, the street fairs, celebrations and gatherings — the “civic spectacles” that unite people within and across communities—go be part of this existing social space and try integrating your work into it before you ask “people” to leave their context for yours. [Want more helpful advice on how to do this? Check out this case study combining funk music and civic tech in Washington, DC.]
CHALLENGE #2: Build with, not for.
A manifesto, a design principle, and the meme that permeated the Summit: “Build with, not for.”
The status quo of our political, economic, social systems hums to the tune of top-down power. In a top-down world, people take actions, make decisions, and build systems “for” us — most of the time, with either our explicit or structural consent.
But we can build new structures. With ever increasing connectivity and new systems of organizing and information sharing, we don’t have to default to top-down. We can choose to default bottom-up. We can choose to treat each other as partners in our own democratic governance. We can choose to stop working “for people” and to do the legwork it takes to actually start working with them.
“Civic tech” has matured.
At the Code for America Summit this year, we filled a room with over 800 attendees. We (civic technologists) now influence local, state, and federal government spending on technology. We control which projects get the spotlight (literally, figuratively).
In other words, we control the narrative. So, we can choose: either we make room for “community technology” alongside “government technology” in the halls of civic tech — or we don’t.
But let’s not be coy about it. If we’re going to make a go at keeping community agency and community technology in our vision, we need to stop building civic tech islands. We need to integrate: In addition to literally meeting folks where they are and being full participants in the cultures we hope to impact, let’s found civic tech development on values of radical mindfulness, equity, and inclusivity. Let’s own that we are in a phase of experimentation and let’s experiment with a broader range of technologies. Most of all, let’s be brave — brave enough to try to work together with our communities, to critique each other and be critiqued when we’ve failed to do so, and to be brave enough after, to try again.
we have an imperative, as creators of technologies that will literally transform how government and society functions, to ensure that we do not build a new world for ourselves alone.
I believe we have an imperative to identify the real people and communities our work is seeking to impact and to ensure that we are not acting on their behalf, but working together with them (as part of “them”) from day one.
The tech revolution will never belong to us all unless we share it.