From using drones to detect violations of human rights to mobile phone data informing humanitarian responses, civil society organizations have tapped into digital and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. Their intention is to benefit society, often including the most vulnerable populations.

There are now multitudes of projects and initiatives exploring the use of emerging technologies by humanitarian and development organizations, advocacy groups, labour unions and others. Technology companies, donors and other stakeholders often applaud and promote these efforts as steps towards greater efficiency and impact in the civil society sector. Proponents even describe not using data to address societal issues as "the moral equivalent of burning books".

But it should not be assumed that increased innovation and use of technology — even with good intentions and society-focused missions — will automatically have an impact or contribute to everyone’s social good. Proposed new pilots and initiatives are part of an older history of how organizations with considerable power use new resources that govern the lives of vulnerable populations.

The stakes are especially high when civil society begins to use these technologies, as the “fine line between innovation, experimentation and exploitation” can be blurry when launching projects in contexts with limited legal protections, consent and organisational accountability. Furthermore, it can be unclear how beneficial new investments in technology will ultimately be for the poor and marginalized populations in whose name they are being established.

At the same time, organizations are looking to drastically improve their approaches and operations, in order to become adaptive and agile in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with fewer resources, funding and space for civil society to function. Exploring the use of digital and emerging technologies for civil society’s purposes should require the sector (and others in partnership) to take a deeper look at their values, digital infrastructure and capacities in order to engage “safely, ethically and effectively”.

While the direct use of these technologies may not be the right approach for several organizations, technology-enabled challenges to accountability, transparency, trust and fairness warrant civil society’s understanding, preparedness and response. As the relationship between people, technologies and new platforms changes, now is not the time for civil society organizations to retreat from the digital environment or to lag further behind.

Four questions from civil society on data and technology for good

Civil society organizations are not the only stakeholders weighing these issues on how to responsibly use technology in their work. There are multiple, fragmented discussions across civil society focused on the intersection of technology and societal challenges to accountability, fairness, trust and transparency. The World Economic Forum convened a multistakeholder workshop in April 2018 in order to bring together experts and practitioners from across these global discussions and identify common questions that civil society and grassroots organizations face with the adoption of new technologies.

From the discussions, four crucial questions that civil society organizations keep asking have emerged, all related to digital and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies that require systematic guidance within and beyond civil society.

1. How do we take a right-first approach to digital transformation and technology use?

Non-profit innovation activities often focus on the application and scale of technologies over the rights and implications for the people they intend to serve. As Nathaniel Raymond and other critical thinkers have expressed in their work, this trend should be reversed, especially as several cases have emerged in which non-profits have been complicit in causing digital and new categories of harm to the vulnerable populations they serve.

This, of course, falls against a much larger backdrop of harm associated with social media platforms and algorithmic decision-making systems and their impact on vulnerable populations and democracy.

Defining rights-first approaches will require a greater depth of knowledge and stronger cross-sector connections with academia, industry and philanthropy to inform and influence organizational practice. Civil society stands on the frontline of responsible innovation and, with critical investments in its preparedness, the sector has the potential to lead the way in modelling what responsible, rights-first use of data and technology looks like through their organizational practice.

2. How do we define a digital transformation process that makes sense for us?

Research from governments, industry and civil society highlights how digital transformation can increase efficiency, expand reach and unlock new insights leading to greater impact for organizations. However, defining digital transformation processes looks radically different in non-profit and civil society organizations, in comparison to traditional industry models and case studies.

Civil society and other social good organizations need strategies and resources that take their value-focused objectives, limited resources and commitment to responsible use of data into account, especially in their work with vulnerable populations. Advocacy groups and humanitarian, development and other non-profit organizations need a broader platform for shared insights on driving and developing responsible data practices.

3. How do we develop our organizational capacities for change our people, our management processes, our foresight?

For civil society organizations responding to digital and emerging technologies, the success of initiatives largely relies on how well they can recruit top-level talent, invest in organizational literacy and foster a sustainable culture of learning and adaptive management. While 80% of non-profit leaders want to introduce innovation processes within their organizations, only 40% have the requisite capacity to implement them effectively and sustainably.

Driving organizational change and literacy in technology requires designing long-term approaches and iterative experimentation, rather than blunt imposition of technical tools or the illusion of nominally “innovative” programmes. Shared guidance and practical insights across civil society, as well as critical investments from philanthropy and government, would strengthen the sector’s capacities for change.

4. What’s our role in the bigger conversations on how technology governs and impacts society?

Society needs civil society and grassroots organizations to keep asking these questions for themselves, and more broadly, in order to drive a people-centred Fourth Industrial Revolution. These organizations bring long-term domain expertise, community connections and inclusive approaches that are critical to the human application of technology as they take into account experiences of identity, power and historic oppression that are not often part of governance conversations. This is particularly essential as public and commercial entities explore the use of emerging technologies in areas such as criminal justice, digital identity, immigration and humanitarian response.

Addressing these questions together

Investing in civil society – its preparedness, digital infrastructure and inclusion in the governance of emerging technologies – is critical for ensuring a fairer, human-centred Fourth Industrial Revolution. Cross-discipline knowledge sharing and learning from across the sector will inform and influence broader discussion among industry, government and the public on how technology impacts our world.

The World Economic Forum’s project on Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides a platform to expedite the impact, practice and responsibility of civil society and mission-driven organizations responding to digital and emerging technologies. It functions in four ways:

  • As a network: It supports much-needed translation and knowledge-sharing among ongoing networks at the intersection of civil society, human rights and technology, by developing specific outputs and global working groups, under the leadership of the World Economic Forum and its external advisory board.
  • As a mobilizer: It holds a space for coordination on regional and global policy and practice related to protecting vulnerable populations, including children, workers, displaced persons and others, from harm relating to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • As a knowledge base: It creates shared resources and new knowledge tailored for civil society with partner organizations and experts. These will include reports on topics such as responsible digital transformation, ethical design in tech for good projects, and more.
  • As an accelerator: It can launch new initiatives to address critical gaps and existing internal, organizational challenges, in partnership with other stakeholders committed to "keeping people and planet first" in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.