What is the role of foundations and philanthropy in forging a new social contract between civil society and big tech?


Cassie Robinson


There are so many ways that technology is changing our society, and really if we’re thinking about the future, I believe we’re faced with 4 huge and urgent challenges — the climate emergency, growing inequality, reparations and compensation for oppressed communities (of which there are too many to list), and tech power.

A lot of UK civil society is focussed on becoming more digital or using ‘tech for good’, and as part of this some organisations are also recognising how technology is changing people’s needs, expectations and behaviours — but this is at a service level. Very few organisations are looking at the dynamics of technology and the ways it is changing the wider contexts and communities in which we live, let alone anticipating those changes or designing for them.

This is an issue for several reasons.

A new social contract
Firstly, civil society needs to be right at the forefront of shaping and negotiating the role that technology has in our lives, and the impacts and potential unintended consequences that play out because of it. The values that underpin civil society — values of kindness, care, community, solidarity, collectivism – as well as the insight that comes from the frontline and grassroots, are all needed at the heart of how technology is considered and developed. This will be an important counterbalance to the extractive and individualistic ways in which technology has predominantly been developed so far, and position civil society as not simply a consumer of technology and a poor cousin to the private sector.

A longer horizon, and more informed view
Secondly, if civil society doesn’t engage with longer timeframes — drawing on foresight, futures and horizon scanning practices, then it won’t survive. Technology and its dynamics are changing things at a pace that makes it very hard to keep up, let alone one step ahead. Part of civil society organisations becoming more responsive and adaptive means the whole sector not just optimising for the present, but foreseeing what’s needed further ahead — and the sector staying informed and confident enough to orient our collective futures in the right direction.

This is the first film in a series about civil society, technology, and a new social contract. In this first film we explore why it’s important to be asking these questions, and in particular what role civil society and foundations can play.

In the US funders have recognised the need to invest in organisations like Data & Society, the AI Now Institute, the Algorithmic Justice League, and run programmes like this Tech Fellowship. In the UK we’re lucky to have public interest organisations like Doteveryone, CAF and Liberty looking at these challenges, but it’s not enough.

Cassie Robinson is the Head of the Digital Fund at The National Lottery Community Fund in the UK, a Co-founder of the Point People, and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, London.

Tagged in: Next Philanthropy

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