Technology for community organising

Digital organising is becoming key to movement building and community organising. But are all digital platforms equal?

On Friday I had the great pleasure of participating in a panel on the Transition Network’s What Next? Summit which is going on right now. This is being held by Transition: Bound Forward and runs over three weeks from 3rd-20th March and each week is themed the following: What is, What if, What next? You can have a look at the website and sign up for free to the conference here:

The panel was on the theme of digital tools and organising using technology, aimed at the Transition Towns community and other grassroots networks. I am already speaking at a session next Wednesday 10th March on the Power of Everyday Imagination, but when Rob Hopkins got in touch about joining another panel on digital tools and technology, I couldn’t resist as it dovetails so well on the work I recently wrapped up at The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund, supporting civil society on working with digital.

When I was asked to join I agreed to facilitate and put a call out on Twitter to find a third panelist alongside me and Indra Adnan — here is that Twitter thread, there were almost 70 replies, and so many good suggestions of thinkers and doers in the field, there’s enough to host a whole conference in case anyone’s planning one! Out of that Divya Siddarth joined us, who is an amazing researcher and activist working on civic tech and digital democracy, data collaboration and online and offline participative governance structures.

Screenshot of a Tweet that says: “Who would be good to invite on a panel about imagining digital spaces for communities — building relationships virtually and digital tools for collective intelligence & organising?”

Some of the themes feeding into the panel

During my time working as a grantmaker I was fortunate to be able to do sensemaking about the sector and communities in relation to digital. I hosted monthly sensemaking sessions with the Digital Fund grantee cohort, monthly sensemaking sessions with our support partners and conversations with people in the sector horizon scanning what might come next for communities, civil society and digital.

The schedule for the What Next? Summit

Last year I published this Communities Essential Guide to Digital Tools off the back of previous work with London communities. That thinking kept developing over the pandemic as we saw the vast portion of civil society onboarding onto privately owned digital platforms and tools like Zoom, WhatsApp and others in a matter of weeks. The conversation around what kind of digital tools are fit for civil society when it comes to ownership, incentives, privacy and security is still at its nascency.

Don’t Go Back To Normal was a platform we created to showcase and signpost to open-source, decentralised and co-operatively owned alternatives to tools for things like messaging and video-conferencing, as well as other things like buying food, ethical banking and organisational structures.

What could an “ethical suite” of open-source, decentralised technology would look like that communities and civil society could choose that aligns with their values? What the sort of investment would be needed to develop these to a level where they could compete with the Big Tech alternatives, while maintaining the very features that make them attractive alternatives — e.g. could Jitsi be a good target for philanthropic investment, but if it’s a for-profit entity does this really make sense and how can we be sure that such platforms stick to their promises or original values or continue to offer their services for free?

The folks doing really good thinking around this are Rachel Coldicutt and Gill Wildman and I would read their recent Glimmers Report to see their analysis of the relationship between civil society and technology in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular this chapter on Building a Community Tech Stack.

What would an anti-surveillance, safe-by-design set of tools for civil society look like? Something built with a long-term, open source, Net Zero vision, that adhered to the Design Justice Principles, had an ethically rigorous approach to data governance, and prioritised solving real-world problems in communities over profit for investors or shareholders.

Rachel Coldicutt introduced me to this Facebook alternative coming out of the Netherlands called Gebied Online — an online interactive platform developed for and by active citizens, organised in a democratic cooperative, actively managing how they store their data. A community pays £100 to access the platform per year, which divided by e.g. 100 community members is just £1 per member per year. With larger communities, the cost almost becomes negligible. But the cost saved is having control over your data and having an active say in the platform’s development. You can read more about the positive alternatives of the platform here.

Across the pond the conversation around ‘Public Interest Tech’ is very active too and has multiple foundations resourcing the field, and the recent festival by New Public showcased some brilliant thinking and dialogue on the topic. One of the metaphors I’ve found really helpful has been thinking about what the equivalent of parks, churches and libraries (publicly owned common spaces) would be online — we have Wikipedia but what’s the equivalent for socialising, building relationships, coming together? Where’s the digital Civic Square? This article by Eli Pariser lays out some of the thinking behind why “venture-backed platforms make poor quasi-public spaces”.

The panel discussion

My fellow panelists Indra Adnan and Divya Siddarth are both, in their own ways, deeply involved in the question of digital organising for communities. Between us, we brought a range of different experiences and focuses and complemented each other well. More on each speaker here:

Divya Siddarth https://twitter.com/divyasiddarth

Divya Siddarth: Divya’s work covers a broad range of research and applications in the space of democratized technology, data collaboration, and online and offline participative governance structures. Her current research focus is around promoting and preserving the digital commons, building the technology and policy infrastructure for data coalitions, and devising frameworks for collectively-focused, rather than centrally concentrated, AI. She is a researcher with the RadicalXChange foundation and the Digital Civil Society lab, and Associate Political Economist and Social Technologist at Microsoft’s Office of the CTO.

Indra Adnan: Co-intiator of The Alternative UK, political platform that has asked the question “If politics is broken, what’s the alternative?” for four years. The Alternative now produces a daily blog, works with new system builders and develops cosmo-local Citizen Action Networks on the ground.

Indra is concurrently a psychosocial therapist, consultant on Soft Power and author — new book The Politics of Waking Up out in May.

The provocation we used for the panel was:

“In a world of covid-19 and other potential disruptions, we have to get good at the digital/virtual. If you look at the movements Extinction Rebellion and the Hong Kong protests, digital organising is becoming key to movement building and community organising. Digital allows us to build communities with people who don't live next door. But how can we work together and build relationships more effectively using digital tools now? And are all digital platforms equal? What if we could create digital spaces that were in the public interest, and put humans first?”

We had a fantastic panel discussion, expertly hosted by Richard Couldrey and the Transition Town team, with a lot of questions from participants. The conversation returned many times to the question of how communities can choose good platforms to safely and freely converse on, and how they can choose technology truly aligned with their values. We shared a lot of links during the panel which you can find towards the end of this article.

Tweet from during the panel by Transition Towns that says: Rich discussions from the imagination rebels @solarpunk_girl, @indraadnan & @divyasiddarth on equitable technology tools, universal digital infrastructure & deep human connection online & offline. How can we use tech to fulfil human-centred goals?

Questions raised during the discussion

Here are the questions fielded in the chat during the discussion, which I’ve grouped into common theme areas:

Where is technology failing or working against community building?

  • Where is tech failing or working against the community building we are doing?
  • How to deal with algorythmic Apartheid?
  • How do we make sure that the technologies we use don’t destroy the very attention spans that our focused activism and capacity for imagination that they so need?

How to avoid platform overwhelm?

  • I love the potential that tech gives us but I can get easily overwhelmed by the sheer amount of platforms and volume of posts and often end up withdrawing. Any tips?
  • How do we ensure that those who currently lack access to digital & connectivity are not left out/behind — or decisions/movements made in their name, not with them?
  • How do you cope with the plethora of platforms?

What tools that are aligned with our values and ethics do we use for our community building?

  • How to choose the right organising tools (and get people to use them!) for those that are used to hugely long (and exhausting) email chains?
  • Would you recommend the Losing Control platform for community building outside of the What Next summit?
  • What are you favourite tools, that you use a lot, for building and maintaining community?
  • What open source tools are there for MASSIVE participation for 1000 + participation — citizen action- and even town / village/ city scale participatory democracy, organising and redesign?
  • How best to enable and facilitate direct peer to peer networking between the members of our community — using tools and platforms that are in line with our values and ethics?

How to bridge digital and in person organising

  • I’m really curious about how we blend all the digital magic and beautiful ways people are using tech with real world convening in hyperlocal contexts (e.g. High Street, neighbourhood) in ways which generate helpful and healthy relationships between both, which support those who straddle and don’t isolate those who prefer to / are mostly only able to be in one or other of the ‘spaces’.

Digital divide

  • The digital divide is massive here in Wolverhampton. Lack of access to devices, data and the know-how to use them are all massive issues for us.
  • I would love to know what we can be doing to help those who lack digital access or devices and who are being left behind… How do we make learning about technology and how it can be helpful less scary and more inclusive regardless of what generation you are from?

Digital or start with basic infrastructure?

  • Lest we forget folks that the majority of the population on this planet does not have much of an infrastructure at all. If we want inclusiveness, shouldn’t we start there?

Provocations we shared into breakout rooms…

Half-way through the panel, we sent people into breakout rooms to discuss a series of provocations I put in the chat…

  • Why is Facebook not owned by everyone?
  • Why is Zoom not co-owned by the public?
  • These are spaces we use for our public lives, our civic lives — they shouldn’t belong to a corporation
  • Where are the big billionaires who could fund the ethical, open source Facebook? We’re happy to give them the credit if they give us the ownership!
  • Would public sector infrastructure always be guided by the current political system? What’s the role of co-operatives to build this? (from Indra Adnan)

Feedback from the breakout rooms

“I shared the frustrations as a community builder of the growing divide of people who have access to technology and those that do not have technology… the majority of workshops and resources all seem to be happening online when those that are most excluded do not have access to even get online to learn how to be online and use technology for them”

“This is fascinating. The main discussion and my conversation in the breakout has opened my eyes to so much. Very interested in exploring some of these open source platforms as they seem to fit so much better with the values we are working towards.”

“More collaborations needed between people on the ground (community organisers or literally with regenerative agriculture farmers)- tech people- and activists / and micro to macro regenerative economists.”

“What are the user needs? What do the needs and digital stack look like for improving global networking across a community of changemakers vs growing local community to create local actions?”

“Coop development people need to chat to tech people for the business models needed to help us co-own.”

“Needed desperately to help with user friendly useful platforms and ensure lack of activist burnout.”

“In our breakout room we began by talking about a need for awareness/consciousness about where/how we spend out time. Then parallels with challenges around money and perhaps needing the same kind of thinking to shift things. We further picked up the challenge of platform effects and people staying with Facebook, Windows etc because that’s what people use. We all felt that moving people from the unhealthy platforms happens through real world connections and movements, and for me this links to work on inner self to develop intentionality — back to the point on awareness.”

“My suggestion is to bring people into these conversations that would not show up here otherwise”.

As you can see, there is a whole range of where people are at when it comes to engaging and participating on digital platforms, from people pointing out the stark divide between those who are using digital platforms and receiving training to improve their skills in this, and those who cannot even access platforms in the first place to receive such training.

It was also interesting to hear so many people speaking about the need to connect up the people thinking about topics like data governance, digital platforms, security, privacy, open-source and ethical tech stacks with the communities themselves, to have a conversation and exchange learning.

Communities want to better understand the questions they should be asking around which tech platforms to use, and the things to take into consideration. Software developers and data governance experts need to be in touch with and better understand the needs of the communities they wish to serve. Too many conversations about the ‘high level’ thinking happen without communities being part of them.

Equally, even with the right alternatives made available, communities need to understand why they should consider alternatives to the platforms that currently hold the majority of users. Due to network effects, the value of a platform largely lies in how many people are using it, and Big Tech platforms have got there faster than the alternatives that have had less investment and have fewer people working on building them.

The conversation continued after the panel on Jitsi and will continue asynchronously on the Nudj platform, and we have also included the links shared in the panel below for you to follow up on. Nudj, interestingly, is a new platform being built by members of the Losing Control team and being used to run the What’s Next? Summit. One of the core developers, Max Deacon, from Nudj joined us for this panel, and is interested in speaking more with people about the topics above, especially about how Nudj could consider adopting some of the practices like open-source. Follow Nudj on Twitter here.

Links shared in the panel

  1. https://ethical.net/resources/
  2. https://dontgobacktonormal.uk/
  3. https://www.radicalxchange.org/kiosk/papers/Taiwan_Grassroots_Digital_Democracy_That_Works_V1_DIGITAL_.pdf
  4. https://info.vtaiwan.tw/
  5. https://www.loomio.org
  6. https://pol.is
  7. https://www.cobudget.co
  8. https://www.enspiral.com
  9. https://platform.coop/holochain
  10. https://www.devonclimateemergency.org.uk/devon-carbon-plan/citizens-assembly/
  11. https://openreferral.org/
  12. https://thealternative.org.uk
  13. https://gebiedonline.nl/ons-platform

Thank you!

A big thank you to Transition: Bounce Forward for having us, our wonderful participants for the engagement and questions and work you are all doing, and to Indra Adnan and Divya Siddarth for the great conversation.

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Phoebe Tickell — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.