It is a time of transformation for the civil society sector - and it should be perceived as such by those civil society organizations who, amidst major geopolitical shifts, rising environmental challenges and ongoing social changes, are coming to understand - and experience - the impact of the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Building directly on the third digital revolution, which has connected billions of people through mobile devices and the internet, the technologies of our post-digital world are poised to further change all aspects of our lives. They are radically altering our ability to create, access and use information; to relate to each other and to issues that matter to us; and to create resources of value. These changes are generating new needs and social issues that must be appreciated and addressed by civil society organizations working with individuals and communities.
Some of these challenges are both new and extremely complex, which means societal actors often lack the mechanisms and experience with which to mitigate them. Examples include discriminatory outcomes in algorithmic decision-making; individual and group privacy violations resulting from data-sharing projects and maps; high volatility associated with crypto-philanthropy; lack of agency on the part of workers pushed to sign off on the use of their data; and bias and misrepresentation in virtual reality storytelling.
For civil society organizations this new context requires, more than ever, that they have eyes and ears on the ground in order to capture and respond to these new needs and challenges in a timely way. And beyond this, the rate of change today and the speed of technological advancements require these organizations to look at the big picture and fundamentally rethink their roles and mandates, acquire new capacities and skills, and transition to organizational, partnership and funding models that will allow them to become more empowered, agile and informed agents for social good.
What is civil society?
Whether you call it “third sector”, “social sector” or “volunteerland”, civil society includes an array of different causes, groups, unions and NGOs. Their combined aim is to hold governments to account, promoting transparency, lobbying for human rights, mobilizing in times of disaster and encouraging citizen engagement.
Ranging from small online campaigns to giants such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, civil society employs around 54 million full-time workers and has a global volunteer force of over 350 million.
The World Economic Forum is committed to accelerating the impact of civil society organizations. With a view to this, it created Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a multi-sectoral platform to support the transformation of the social sector and its inclusion in the governance of emerging technologies.
Civil society is a key stakeholder for driving public-private collaboration and advancing the Forum’s mission. Through dialogue series and platform initiatives, civil society actors from a wide range of fields come together to collaborate with government and business leaders on finding and advocating solutions to global challenges.
There are good stories to tell around how the sector has been embracing emerging technologies to pioneer new ways to fulfill their missions. Algorithms have been used to predict how forest fires spread and how best to stop them; distributed ledgers have been used in the provision of aid and resources to refugees; unmanned aerial vehicles have been used to deliver vital medical supplies in hard-to-reach areas; and VR technologies have been used to create immersive experiences that highlight issues such as environmental conservation in ways that were not possible before.
At the same time, the transformation at hand goes beyond the mere adoption of technologies and other innovative tools. It is a deeper, more fundamental transition to new roles, new structures and new systems for the delivery of social good. Here are three considerations for civil society organizations as they continue along their journey of change.
1) Be ready to play new and different roles
A key function of a thriving civil society sector within democracies is its ability to promote accountability, fairness, trust and transparency in society. This role is more important than ever in the current context, whereby technological change - if not governed appropriately - risks creating new inequalities and reinforcing existing ones. There is a huge need for civil society involvement in influencing how the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds and how, on the one hand, its positive impacts can be directed towards those groups in society most in need of help, and on the other hand how its negative impacts can be prevented in the first place. Civil society organizations are expected to enter radically new spaces and to demonstrate their (historical) value as, for example, advocates, watchdogs or capacity builders against the complex and ever-changing context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
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2) Be ready to address and resolve a range of tensions in order to perform those roles responsibly
There are a series of hardcore questions that organizations will need to grapple with as they navigate their approach to innovation and technology. What is driving civil society’s motivations to use technology? Which problems are we solving? How do we design systems, organizations and cultures for innovation? How do we remain independent while still relying on algorithmic tools or corporate-owned digital platforms for our work? How do we learn and share best practices? How do we allocate limited resources on technology in the short versus the long term? The ability for a civil society organization to successfully and responsibly navigate technological change is dependent on what the organization makes of these tensions and the decisions taken around them.
3) Be ready to work with other stakeholders in shaping the future of the sector
The nature of technological change, combined with other drivers such as closing civic spaces, means that civil society organizations cannot change on their own, or in silos. To a certain extent, their engagement with other sectors for their partnership, operational and funding models requires support and benefit from multi-stakeholder actions to incentivise radical change. Philanthropy, government, industry: they all share responsibility in creating the supporting structures, collaborative platforms and enabling conditions to accelerate civil society’s readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is ultimately a game of systemic change that all actors must play in concert.
It is time for civil society to stand on the frontline of responsible innovation. The challenges ahead are manifold and undoubtedly present a risk; but the opportunities and need to put people at the core of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are too critical for the sector not to take it.
Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Preparation and Response: read our full whitepaper here. It is part of the Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution initiative led by the World Economic Forum in partnership with social sector organizations.