Social Innovation to Ignite Social Change: Personal Democracy Forum in Warsaw

On February 1, 2013 the Personal Democracy Forum took place in Warsaw. During the conference, Fundacja Techsoup led a panel discussion on the ways social innovation can be used to strengthen the role of citizens in working with government to facilitate social change. Convened by myself and the community team of Fundacja Techsoup in Warsaw, the panel included Maria Novković from UNDP in Montenegro, Alexey Sidorenko from Social Technology Incubator (Russia), and Michał Mach from CiviCRM Poland.

The discussion focused on two topics:

  • a social innovation toolbox exploring technology and new means of communication in order to better fulfill the mission of citizen organizations;
  • igniting creative thinking around technology in order to create a “safe space” in which participants can adjust technology to meet those needs.
  • SOCIAL INNOVATION TOOL BOX

    The social innovation tool box includes virtually everything that comes to mind when talking about new technologies: both hardware (computers, laptops, mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, hardware created specifically for organization/activist needs), and all sorts of software and social media. The discussion raised the question of how to deal with this rich variety and how to choose the right tools. One of the key issues relevant to the application of innovation is the avoidance of fetishizing the tool, letting it dominate the suitability of the solution. These are situations in which we want to use the same program for different purposes, or give up and start mindlessly using fashionable programs.

    An interesting moment in the discussion occured when panelists showed applications that they think are a good example for the use of new technologies in social activities:

  • a Russian version of FixMyStreet called RosYama.ru to facilitate the repair of potholes in roads;
  • RosPil.info which combats fraud in public procurement;
  • Roszkh.ru which makes communal services work better.
  • Panelists also emphasized the importance of creating and using open source software (or hardware) in social change projects. This openness and flexibility definitely encourages the development of ideas by enhancing the ability to expand their success. This is illustrated in the reuse of the RosYama.ru application in the RosDostup.ru platform (which helps disabled citizens gain access to public spaces).

    Other interesting cases of technology innovation for better democracy include the “Comment Neelie” site that aggregates the speeches of EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes and then makes it easy to post comments in response to specific remarks. Projects which visualize how public money is spent are always interesting because they support a better understanding of the public finance system. Examples include Open Budget (Australia);  Where Does My Money Go? (United Kingdom); and Nasza Kasa or Open Budget (both from Poland).  Another interesting idea comes from Finland under the name “Open Ministry,” a crowdsourced service in which citizens can submit and discuss ideas and public initiatives.

    IGNITING CREATIVE THINKING

    The second part of the discussion examined innovative methods to inspire creative thinking around technologies for social change. The panelists addressed the challenge to create tailor-made tools and how to avoid “one-size-fits-all” solutions, which usually do more harm than good.

    One interesting point discussed was the need for well planned meetings between people in the IT industry and social activists in order to avoid the misconception that technology is some kind of "black magic" solution.  The format of such meetings doesn’t matter. It can be a programming marathon (such as those conducted by Random Hacks of Kindness), an unconference, or simply a short meet-up about technologies for social change (such as TechSoup Global’s NetSquared meetings).

    One of the most discussed issues was the role of translators or “bridge-people” who connect the worlds of IT and social activism, acting as interpreters for both sides. Such people are not only facilitators, but also educators. Since they understand both worlds, they can effectively lead a process which begins with the definition of the problem, then find solutions tailored to these needs and available resources, and finally implement a solution and maintain it afterwards. This is a difficult, demanding (and often unglamorous) role, so it is particularly important to appreciate such individuals.

    The discussion ended with the conclusion that while it is worth the effort to connect the world of activists and the world of technology, it’s important to think about the circumstances in which the process will take place. This will not only help in appropriate design, but will overcome potential barriers, and reinforce subsequent impact.

    We returned to this subject on the Personal Democracy Forum’s second day during the barcamp session in which Agata Jałosińska, editor-in-chief of Technologie.org.pl, led a discussion about “people-bridges” and whether they are really needed.

    A video of the panel discussion will be available online soon at http://personaldemocracy.com/.

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