Building the Field – Knight Foundation

Talking about Technology for Engagement as a field can be a challenge in itself. Academics, innovators and entrepreneurs are still defining the field and trying to decide whether they are all part of it. Are we trying to solve the same problems? Do we strive for the same results? Assuming we do, what’s the best way to support one another and build the field?

Right now, there are many flowers blooming, but they do not tie together as part of a stable, thriving ecosystem. Too many innovations depend on unique personalities and relationships with funders and officials rather than on market forces and peer legitimacy.

There’s no pipeline to educate and bring innovators into the field.

We don’t speak the same language or tell the same stories.

There are no physical spaces where we can easily find each other.

The Technology for Engagement Summit was the first time many participants met and learned of each other’s work.

Many participants agreed that exciting as it is to innovate great tools, the field needs to see the forest and think about changing systems as well as culture. They identified areas for intervention:

1) Tell stories First, practitioners need to tell better stories and celebrate the work of civic innovators. Apps are important but only because of the people who create them and the people who use them. Their stories should be shared through popular channels, such as YouTube and blogs, not just in academic publications and industry reports.

2) Create opportunities When people are inspired by the stories they hear, point them to opportunities where they can enter the field. Even better, create more fellowships for rock-star coders and designers to take a break from companies like Apple and Google so they can apply their talents in a different realm.

3) Support hybrids We are not just activists, academics, techies, designers, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats. People are complex and welcome opportunities to wear different hats and express their different selves. The field should invite all types of talent to contribute.

4) Get physical Practitioners need physical spaces to meet, build relationships and generate ideas. These don’t have to be new spaces. Libraries can become the new hubs for engagement and innovation. They can house knowledge as well as the tools to address community needs. Librarians can curate information to help people solve problems and make their communities better.

5) Share data The field needs more data to show how people engage and disengage and how people interact in communities. Do the different data sets correlate? Are neighbors who know each other by name more likely to form associations and take collective action? Do they engage around needs or other types of social glue? Wherever the data is gathered and shared, it should serve practitioners and academics.

For a field that specializes in building tools, perhaps these challenges present new opportunities to innovate. Could technology help the field overcome its current barriers to growth?

Sidebar: Local infrastructure for engagement:

A physical space that is fun and …

  • Empowers citizens to act.
  • Allows innovation.
  • Allows collaboration.
  • Connects people to government.