Civil society fast forward: Getting ahead of technological change, together

May 22, 2019

By Silvia Magnoni, Head of Civil Society Communities, World Economic Forum

For anyone working in the civil society sector, there is no doubt that today’s challenges pose big questions for the future. New thinking, investment, networks and – above all – a novel vision for the sector and its role in contending with the realities of our post-digital world have become imperative.

As we enter a new phase of globalization – Globalization 4.0 – it is critical for the civil society sector to find its own path for transformation and innovation in order to move toward the future. Ignoring the call for change is out of question when a whole array of drivers – societal changes, geopolitical shifts, environmental hardships and the pervasive use of digital and emerging technologies – are impacting the way civil society is fulfilling its mandate and addressing the needs of the communities and individuals it serves.

Innovation and change adaptation are not strangers to a sector that has shown creativity over the course of history and the capability to resourcefully address evolving challenges via new partnerships, tools, advocacy models and forms of social mobilization. Today, however, the rate of change underway and the speed of technological advancements are significantly challenging the ability of civil society to respond using approaches and resources previously proven successful.

Despite a multitude of experimentation efforts and “tech for good” pilots, the resulting change in the sector has been mostly marginal, fragmented and uncoordinated, with limited knowledge-sharing and separation of hype versus impact. The need for systemic, integrated approaches to innovation is very tangible. According to NetChange’s survey of technology use by non-profits, only 11 percent view their organizations’ approaches to digital as highly effective. With tight budgets, conditional grants, a lack of the right kind of talent and the immediate need to create tangible public value, the margins for risks are low (or perceived as such) and the safe space provided by discrete actions of change is often prevailing over riskier ambitions for bold, transformative accomplishments. New technology-related opportunities and challenges to society (such as accountability, transparency, trust and fairness) and for organizations (such as digital transformation) are producing a context of dramatically increasing internal and external demands that civil society organizations are required to manage. All of this is against the backdrop of a working agenda that, over the past years, hasn’t become lighter amid larger-scale security, humanitarian and climate-change-related challenges. Finally, it is unclear how the various intra- and cross-sectoral conversations and initiatives responding to technological change are able to meaningfully deliver, when the political and “North/South” power dynamics surrounding funding, localization and decision-making haven’t been reversed yet.

There is no doubt that, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution matures, the civil society sector needs to be more strategic, collaborative and responsible in its approaches to societal innovation and responsible tech practice.

It is in the spirit of generating missing connections and closing the “innovation-aspiration gap” that the World Economic Forum has partnered with Pact and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to launch the initiative Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a three-year collaborative effort aimed at helping civil society prepare for and respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution in agile and adaptive ways. The initiative serves as a multi-stakeholder platform to fast-track responsible technology practice and the future readiness of the sector. This novel effort is all about generating new capacity and leadership in civil society by sharing learning and promoting cooperation across existing, well-functioning initiatives, while identifying opportunities for critical investments for the sector to be able to lead by example in a time of technological change.

When it is difficult for CSOs to operate and collaborate in an increasingly competitive sector, the initiative has the ambitious goals to build bridges and share insights across relevant innovation programs, scale-up the ones with evidence for impact and identify “innovation gaps” to further mobilize collective action. By so doing, the initiative envisions to accelerate sectoral knowledge and strategic intelligence in digital and emerging technologies across various disciplines and types of organizations, with the idea to inform practice, projects, partnerships and future readiness.

When it comes to disruptive innovation, it is clear that civil society organizations are lagging behind other sectors. Success for this effort thus lies on the ability to stimulate much-needed cooperation among civil society organizations across different domains (such as development, humanitarian, human rights and advocacy) and other key stakeholders (such as donors, tech players and public and private sector partners) aimed at exchanging cross-sectoral guidance and practical insights, while unpacking some of the power dynamics, relationships and structures that are hindering effective change in the sector (for example, new funding models for digital transformation projects and localization of social innovation efforts). A central goal is to make this initiative as inclusive as possible, with a strong focus on integrating grassroots organizations globally to ensure that learnings, and the actions and empowerment that come with it, are reaching civil society organizations of all sizes and across geographies.

The vision is very clear: a more empowered and impactful civil society sector, where organizations are able to deliver on their missions effectively and efficiently, leveraging partnerships and technologies in inventive and responsible ways, while conscious of their roles to shape and influence the governance of digital and emerging technologies to protect and eventually benefit people and the common good.

As Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.” When navigating transformation, it is not change, per se, that makes organizations different, but how they respond to it. The ability to survive and thrive is dependent on what an organization makes of this change, and how it harnesses this energy for the sake of positive impact. Civil society organizations like Pact are leading the way to shape the future of the sector and there is hope that many other organizations will feel the agency, responsibility and passion to take the future into their own hands by following suit. 

This article originally appeared in Pact’s e-magazine, All In.