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Civic Tech in the Modern Society

For those of us in the Civic Tech world, the question What's Civic Tech? surfaces from time to time. Recently, I've been thinking about how to attract longer term support for my own Civic Tech Toronto project Budgetpedia, and this has added urgency to my own quest to understand, so that I can communicate the context of our project. It turns out the conceptual outline may be simpler than I thought.

Here's my current working definition:

Civic Tech provides technical and social support to civil society, government and business for civic action through digital platforms and human collaboration.

With some labelling, this becomes:

Civic Tech provides technical and social support for societal modernization.

Or just:

Civic Tech provides support for modernization.

The pivotal idea here is civic action. Unfortunately this concept doesn't seem to be clear. Meira Levinson, for example, has studied the question for years, and has apparently concluded that, at least in the education system, on the one hand, action civics teaches students the ways of democratic activity and participation to effect change; on the other, it will run into conflict with the program and objectives that democratic control of the schools has implemented in many places... some kind of dialectic. (As of 2013 she was apparently still struggling with this).

There are some descriptions of civic tech taken by observation. Wikipedia gives a definition of civic technology. Lawrence Grodeska describes Civic Tech as a big tent for Democracy. In another post he says In the end, I feel the biggest opportunity is not technology, but the process by which we make decisions together, without elaborating much. New York's Civic Hall wants to populate civic tech with civic community and civic government working together. Christopher Whitaker has a thoughtful piece that starts from a view of civic hacking by software developers. Bill Bushey focuses on tools to improve the public good. Emily Shaw focuses on improvements in government. Mark Headd has an interesting take on coproduction. These collectively touch on all the areas I see, but are a bit hesitant to encompass all that they touch.

For our own approximation, let's start with a definition of civic.

of or relating to a city or town or the people who live there


relating to citizenship or being a citizen.

Let's say civic action is action that benefits both of those. In practice I think it's fair to say that many or most of us that are active in civic tech would say civic action is activity that contributes to the public good. I would assert that this includes quality of life, and egalitarian values.

With this as a rough guide, the next hurdle is the constituency. Civil society and government are relatively easy to include, because their purpose by definition is to benefit cities and their 'citizens'. The inclusion of business is probably controversial. Small business and entrepreneurship is easier to include than large business, because it's a smaller, more personal scale. But large business may be difficult for some to include. After all, although industrial capitalism writ large has helped us exploit nature for our technological and economic benefit, is has failed to prevent obvious harms that are part of the Anthropocene. I would turn this problem on its head: we need to identify a governance and control structure for business that will bias business to contribute to the long term public good without the obvious harms that have been done in the past 200 years. In the meantime I would consider business inclusion in civic action as available but conditional. In fact I would argue that inclusiveness should positively extend to business, but with carefully considered constraints, pending resolution of the business governance question.

The focus on digital platforms and collaboration is easier to justify.

The digital platform turns out to be the most potent expression of the digital economy. As Marc Andreesson famously said, software is eating the world. Fintech, shopping, automated cars, artificial intelligence, and chatbots are just a few of the disruptors that are clearly transformative; the more so collectively. The force of the digital economy is no longer questioned, and is the basis of the enthusiasm for tech by civic tech.

What civic techies and others have found, that may not be quite as front of mind, is that collaboration could be an equal force to the digital economy for social change. In government for example, the old command and control hierarchy is widely regarded as obsolete. Technology now provides a much more efficient and effective means -- through information abundance, organization, and speed of information access -- of promoting transparency and avoiding corruption, the original motivators for bureaucracy. This supports a move toward something like a New Public Service which appears to be highly compatible with the values of the civic tech movement. Technology also supports collaboration as a means to provide design and control inputs that are far better at problem solving than older methods. Software development (agile), corporate practices including communications, project management, and dedicated collaboration software all support collaboration. Just as important, in my view, is that the collaborative model (through methods such as workshopping, brainstorming, and hackathons) has proven to be both more effective and more enjoyable than more traditional hierarchical methods of working.

This leads to a vision of society that relies primarily on both digital technology and collaboration everywhere all the time.

More difficult and somewhat insidious is the question of the control of the massive resources required to develop the software, and big data, needed to fully exploit these opportunities. This in my view is another reason to at least make the effort to include big business in our tent.

The final piece of my prototype definition of civic tech is the pairing of technical and social support within civic tech. Technical support can encompass design methodologies as well as technological support such as website development. Social support includes pro-active social inclusion and personal networking opportunities, as well as competence in formal skills such as user research to favour outcomes that benefit people first. There is a strong moral imperative for social support and inclusiveness.

Overall, there's a vision here, which encompasses digital technology and collaboration (and governance for the common good) as the core means to adapt to the transformative changes that the world in undergoing (I don't think I have to list those here). I would call this modernization.

And so I would argue that the mission of civic tech is to help modernize civil society, government, and business to help bring about the modern society.