Beyond clicktivism: exploring ways technology can engage citizens in improving their communities

Communities / Article

Photo Credit: Flickr user TEDxHonolulu

Knight Foundation is convening its first summit today on the theme of Technology for Engagement, bringing together leaders and innovators to “think together” about lessons learned and what’s next.

Co-hosted by MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the “unconference” is designed to give thought leaders in the field a rare platform to compare experiences, speak openly about successes and failures and identify areas for collaboration. Participants will collectively set the agenda and goals and define topics for discussion for the 24-hour event.

The summit marks a new milestone for Knight’s Technology for Engagement Initiative, launched in 2010 to fund better ways to harness the power of technology for community engagement. The initiative asks: Beyond clicks and comments, how can people use the Internet, online social networks, apps, and mobile devices to take “real life” action and improve their communities?

Over the last two years, Knight Foundation has funded more than a dozen organizations to experiment with possible answers. Initial grantees included Code for America, a “Peace Corps for Geeks” and Community PlanIt, a platform that uses gaming to involve citizens in community planning efforts.

Many of the fund’s grantees are attending this week’s summit, including Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America, Eric Gordon of Community PlanIt, Lee Fisher of CEOs for Cities, and Nancy Lublin of

While the discussion topics have yet to be decided, they are likely to address key themes emerging in the field:

1) Bright Spots – What are the clearest examples of tech-enabled engagement leading to on-the-ground action? What successes should be copied or scaled? What’s standing in the way of their spread?

2) Small vs. Big Asks – Under pressure to quantify engagement, many new tools make smaller and smaller asks (i.e., sign petitions, “Like” videos, retweet links). In addition to simple challenges such as mapping potholes, should users tackle bigger problems?

3) Engagement Metrics – What are the right metrics to measure engagement? Can metrics blind us to what is really needed to encourage people to become more engaged?

4) Engagement Mechanics – What techniques have been most effective at drawing users up the ladder of engagement?

5) What is the field? – What are the best ways to share knowledge about what’s working and how?  Is this an emerging academic field?  What additional infrastructure or community is needed to facilitate this dialogue?

You can follow the conversation today with the hashtag #tech4engage. Over the next few weeks, Knight Foundation will share the results of the summit through blog posts, videos and a report on key insights of the group. 

We’d like to hear from you as well. How are you using technology to engage people to take action for their communities? What examples do you see around you of tech-enabled engagement and why do you think they are successful?

Author Charles Tsai is covering the Technology for Engagement Summit for Knight Foundation.