Friending your neighbor vs. mowing her lawn: how technology can deepen engagement

Communities / Article

Earlier this month, Knight Foundation, as part of its Technology for Engagement Initiative, gathered thought leaders to talk about the best ways to use new tools and platforms to bring communities together around important issues. Here author Charles Tsai and videographer Dave Timko contribute the first post in a series on the opportunities and challenges uncovered. A full report is forthcoming.

For many parents, educators and sociologists, the term “Technology for Engagement” may seem like an oxymoron, much like “Fast Food for Health.”

When we see how much time we spend on smart phones, video games, Facebook and YouTube, it’s hard not to worry about how disengaged we are from one another, from community, from the “real world.” The consequence of this digital revolution is summed up in the title of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together. The MIT sociologist describes how we seem to demand more from our technology and less from each other. The result: we’ve let technology diminish us.

Civic technologists and social innovators believe it doesn’t have to be this way. After all, technology is simply a tool. We can use it however we want or make better ones. 

But how can technology be used to deepen engagement so citizens become more involved with one another and more active in their communities?

That was the main question Knight Foundation posed at the recent Technology for Engagement Summit, sponsored by Knight at the MIT Media Lab. The rare “unconference” brought together more than 60 innovators, funders and thought leaders to speak across sectors about challenges in this nascent field and identify a way forward.

An initial challenge involved the term, “technology for engagement” – what it means and what a working definition might look like.

Technology for Engagement, the group said, should create and support opportunities and capacities for people to transact with others for the common good.

To that end, such tools should: 

  • connect people
  • build relationships
  • increase participation in governance
  • facilitate discovery
  • surface common needs and shared values
  • enhance the ability to act

A clear example would be Change By Us, an online platform launched in New York and Philadelphia to solicit ideas from citizens on how they want to improve their cities. Users can submit ideas online or by text. They can also browse citizen-led projects to see where they can lend their support. All the ideas and projects help city officials understand community concerns, which is why the platform has received government backing in both cities.

Change By Us replicates what many local organizations and governments already try to do in analog forms. But the platform demonstrates three clear advantages of using technology to engage citizens. 

1) It lowers transaction costs for group action.

Offline efforts to connect people, facilitate discovery and surface common needs usually entail bringing groups together in physical spaces. They pose challenges and incur costs for both participants and organizers. Once assembled, getting like-minded folks to interact is an additional challenge.

2) It shifts time.

Assuming people want to meet, finding the right time to do so can be nearly impossible. Online platforms allow “meetings” to happen at each participant’s convenience, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 3 a.m. 

3) It facilitates easy communication.

Users can interact through text messages or on the web (in the form of text, images or video). Each person’s message can be read by everyone. That means everyone can be heard.

These advantages explain why many engagement activities, including petitioning, fundraising and volunteer matching have all gone digital. Witness the popularity of and Volunteer Match. For, one of the largest youth-serving organizations, the key to successful engagement lies in SMS, at least for the foreseeable future.

City governments are also turning to digital tools to improve planning and budgeting so that citizens have greater input. Summit participant Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, has matched programmers with eight city governments to help them innovate new tools. Early projects include Adopt-A-HydrantWhere’s My School Bus in Boston and Text Your City in Philadelphia.

But participants seem to agree that engagement tools should go beyond improving existing civic processes led by governments and non-profits. Perhaps the real potential lies in how they might connect citizens to one another in new ways, and how they might create new models that make the old ones obsolete.

This is the thinking behind, an online platform that allows people to share resources and exchange services. You can borrow a power drill from a neighbor or mow their lawn. The website helps you unlock your neighborhood’s varied assets that are so often hidden behind closed doors.

For founder Micki Krimmel, the real purpose of Neighborgoods goes beyond helping people save a few dollars. It’s really about getting to know your neighbors and building “social capital,” which, she believes, is the fuel that drives more involved and more sustained civic action. Interacting with your neighbor means stepping on the first rung on that proverbial ladder of engagement.

Where does the ladder lead?

Beyond doing favors for one another, beyond giving input to your local government, engagement may ultimately lead to creating and implementing solutions with others. How technology can help people get to those upper rungs where co-creation can happen is the challenge Knight Foundation is putting to the field.

Now two years and into its Technology for Engagement Initiative, Knight Foundation believes there is still a ways to go in creating ways for people to solve their common problems, together, using technology.

What might those tools look like? Will they involve eyeglasses that augment reality or even more sophisticated smart phones? Perhaps.

But as Clay Shirky noted in Here Comes Everybody, tools don’t get interesting until they become technologically boring. The most powerful tools are the ones that are so pervasive that they are nearly invisible. That’s when their true potential is revealed.

The lack of  engagement will not be solved by technology alone. But for social innovators, it’s hard to imagine technology not playing some important role.

Jennifer Pahlka: “If we’re letting our devices tell us what we do any minute of the day, tell us what to care about, we must insert civic notions into our technology. Your identity as a citizen should be reflected in your devices, because your devices reflect your life and your priorities.”