The Role of Technology – Knight Foundation
Video credit: David Timko

Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, changing how we work, how we learn and how we shop. It’s inevitable that our devices begin to reflect our civic aspirations – our desires to connect with others and to contribute to the world around us.

The Internet and related tools already play critical roles, in areas such as data mapping and visualizations, crowdsourcing and more. Here’s how:

1) They lower transaction costs for group formation and action. While we have always come together to engage in community change through “weak ties,” the potential of the Internet is that we will be able to do this much more effectively.

2) They shift time. Group members don’t have to be in the same room at the same time to “meet.” They can coordinate activities over days and months, and members can chime in at their convenience, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 3 a.m.

3) They facilitate easy communication. Spreading the word now only takes one click and maybe one tweet. That’s all anyone needs to do these days to share something with a social network.

Given these benefits, what role should technology play in fostering engagement? How can technology help citizens become more involved with one another and more active in their communities?

Summit participants explored this very question in one of the first sessions.

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

Engagement technology should: • connect people • build relationships • increase participation in governance • facilitate discovery • reveal common needs and shared values • enhance the ability to act

A clear example is Change by Us, which Kesselman used to build the Brook Park Chicken Coop in the South Bronx.

City governments are also turning to digital tools to improve planning and budgeting so that citizens have greater input. Summit participant Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America has matched programmers with eight city governments to help them create new tools. In New Orleans, for example, a Blight Status page helps users find information about properties that have been abandoned or are in decline.

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

This is the thinking behind Favortree, 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 Favortree 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 the ladder of engagement.

Where does the ladder lead? In the old paradigm, the top rungs belonged to citizens giving input to governments on how to deliver services. Today’s paradigm asks, how is the fundamental relationship between government and citizen changing? Who is responsible for it?

How technology can help people get to those upper rungs where co-creation can happen is the ultimate challenge for this field.

But what do these tools look like? Clay Shirky notes in Here Comes Everybody that 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 community engagement will not be solved by technology alone. But for social innovators, it’s hard to imagine technology not playing some important role.