5 challenges for civil society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Civil society can champion human rights and values in an era of fast technological change. Image: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook RC - RP4DRIBAJNAA

David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum
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Watch any Hollywood science fiction movie, and there comes a point in every storyline where the advanced technologies meant to improve life start to show signs of impending disaster. Typically this is when the skeptical character is finally heard, and the team of heroes regroups to make a plan to move forward together.

Civil society often plays this kind of questioning role in our rapidly changing and fractured world.

From faith-based charities and labour unions working to improve worker conditions in 18th- and 19th-century Great Britain to the rise of global NGOs and the development of public service innovation labs, civil society has constantly stood in the gap for workers, marginalized populations and others when the progress of industry and government during these industrial revolutions failed to trickle down.

Civil society organizations co-evolved in response to major breakthroughs and societal shifts of past industrial revolutions. The arrival of the steam engine, steel manufacturing and railways corresponded with unsafe working conditions, child labour and rising urban pollution and disease. Civil society leaders such as Octavia Hill, Henry Dunant, Isaac Myers, Emma Mashinini and others began to organize their efforts and use private goods and resources for public benefit in new ways. Mass education, health care, safety measures and other social services scaled by governments find their origins as prototypes and policy positions pushed by civil society from the late 1800s to today in most countries around the world.

The civil society sector as a whole has evolved in scope and scale in the last hundred years. According to the 2017 report conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center on Civil Society Studies, the global civil society sector today has mushroomed into a global workforce of 350 million professionals and volunteers, “outdistancing major industries in the scale of its workforce and in its contribution to social and economic life.” Put differently, if the global civil society workforce were a country, it would be the third most populated country in the world following China and India.

Despite the growth of the sector today, several barriers continue to widen the gap between the sector’s ultimate goals and its capacity and agility to respond to systems change. With each industrial revolution, the adoption of widespread systems of social protection to help people respond to the technological changes of the time required several generations of civil society advocacy and policy support. Philip Jennings, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, recently noted in an interview that it took over 60 years of pressure from labour unions during the first industrial revolution for legislation to be passed in Great Britain to improve worker conditions even slightly.

As artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies begin to be deployed widely, what’s new about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how will civil society respond and adapt to coming shifts in technology, industry and power in a rapidly changing and fractured world?

Image: World Economic Forum

The Fourth Industrial Revolution introduces particularly new challenges relative to past revolutions—signs of which we are already seeing today:

1. Persistent risks to digital rights through the sheer interconnectedness of new technologies

As the proliferation of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as Internet of Things, 3D printing, and genetic editing build on advances in digital and AI capabilities, the risks and impacts related to data protection, algorithmic bias, discrimination and privacy are exponentially increased. Digital risks will take on greater physical consequences, deepening existing inequality and discrimination in ways that would be nearly impossible to trace or understand in human capacity. While the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a step in the right direction in terms of digital rights, the emergence of new technologies used by civil society and governments such as humanitarian delivery drones and biometric databases exposes the lack of standards or guidelines for collecting and using sensitive data. Additionally, cybersecurity threats loom over the civil society sector, as hackers have increasingly begun targeting charities, hospitals, and other nonprofits who collect personal, financial, and genetic data from some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, as well as some of the most vulnerable.

2. High-powered propaganda tools in the attention economy

Never before have such high-powered propaganda tools been deployed in society. From the filter bubbles that define our algorithmically curated social media experiences to online bots misrepresenting public voices in an online government comment system, the digital information ecosystem is rife with disinformation, distraction, and misrepresentation.

While search engines and social media provide numerous benefits for collective intelligence and participation, their governance focuses on attention and advertising instead of accuracy, with variation in government policies, protections and accountability. Facebook and Google’s social media news aggregators have driven advertising dollars away from traditional and local news media, calling the digital news business model into question.

However, as organizations committed to transparency, accountability and truth, civil society faces considerable ethical challenges in the attention economy in how the sector wields the data, information and digital identities it collects and manages. Civil society is indeed not immune from spreading disinformation. As new AI-driven propaganda tools may deepen empathy or elicit more funding, what principles govern how civil society handles its digital resources and what legal policies ensure the digital rights of often the most vulnerable people on the planet?

3. Navigating the relationship with new digital social movements

More and more people have begun to participate in local, national and global activism through social media platforms, pushing social problems and gaps in policy to the forefront - from #BlackLivesMatter to #metoo. Varying in political and social mission, these decentralized digital social movements can gather followings much larger than the reach of older, established civil society organizations lacking significant digital footprint. As more people use social media and future technologies for global debate and activism, how will established civil society organizations show solidarity for digital movements in line with their mission and navigate their response with others?

4. Threats to transparency and accountability

Fake news has highlighted lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms as corporate-governed technologies become more widely used. Civil society campaigns calling for accountability and transparency typically respond to evaluations based on evidence that can be seen and understood by human capacities; however, even seeing the input data within a machine learning system does not reveal how the system arrived to a certain decision. As several researchers and policymakers call for algorithmic accountability, who is responsible for accounting for harms associated with algorithms and what kind of practical mechanisms are possible for feedback and inspection to prevent further harms?

5. New context for questions on the ethics of innovations that take us beyond the level of humanity

Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a robot. Do-it-yourself genetic editors are not only possible, but they will soon become readily available. These kind of questions highlight the need for a new ethics around these innovations and leadership from civil society and other stakeholders in order to understand how they should be governed. Which civil society organizations will be ready to consider who will be newly or further marginalized as a result of these new technologies, and discuss with other stakeholders how it should be done responsibly?

Getting ahead of coming challenges: dimensions of civil society preparedness

While the sector has built at least a decade of knowledge on engaging with information and communication technologies (ICTs), the emerging proliferation of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, 3D printing, blockchain and other technologies warrants a new level of preparedness, investment, and adaptation for most of today’s civil society organizations.

As we look to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how can civil society get ahead of these coming challenges and what dimensions of preparedness will be needed to help the sector move forward?

Getting ahead of these coming challenges will mean investing in the sector’s capacities to become more agile and adaptive to new changes in their ecosystems. For example, unions will need to invest in their organizing models to adapt to a new labour force moving jobs more rapidly in the emerging new world of work. Charities and service delivery organizations will need to understand the impacts and implications of their digital resources towards safe, ethical and effective use. Getting ahead of the Fourth Industrial Revolution also means deepening foresight and critical understanding of the impact of digitisation and emerging technologies through knowledge sharing.

The last two centuries of human society have produced unprecedented technologies, but we still need civil society independent from government and companies to keep our Industrial Revolutions “human-centred.

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