Digital Organizing in the Future

How can digital organizing complement and amplify other forms of community organizing and movement building? And vice-versa? Where can we find examples of organizing today that blend the best of digital movements and community organizing? What is possible for organizing in the future?  These were the core questions behind a two-day Digital Organizing Summit put on by the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation in San Diego last week, where I had the pleasure of exploring those questions, learning about the incredible work of the Jacobs Center, and meeting some of the most insightful and effective leaders in movement building. 

I’m no expert on the inner workings of foundations, but I have experience with participatory platforms and community engagement, and I found the ways Jacobs works with the community in Southeast San Diego to be remarkably robust and inspirational. Some community organizations may have their residents participate in parts of the initial visioning. Others might involve them in some aspect of strategy connected to the core mission. And still others may have residents join in for direct actions, such as cleanups, building construction, or art installations. But I’ve rarely seen a foundation allow a community to be so tightly and meaningfully integrated into all core processes— from vision to strategy to design and implementation. This was not just told to us abstractly, it was also deliciously demonstrated by the food served to us by True Roots, a neighborhood catering company supported by Jacobs that is providing opportunities for residents. Finally, and perhaps most boldly, Jacobs Center is putting a plan in place to completely hand over the assets of the Foundation to the local community to control and self-manage by 2030. Therein lies a golden opportunity for Jacobs to innovate around community governance and decision-making models, and I have little doubt they will. 

There were many brilliant insights and examples from the participants, many that could only come from those who can see both the long-term systemic issues,  but who are also working “on the ground” with real people facing real challenges. This kind of empathetic visioning is critical to making better futures for more people. Documentation on the key takeaways can be found at the Jacobs Center DOS blog, especially relevant for digital community organizers, but from a futurist’s perspective, here are a few of my personal highlights:

The necessity and power of feedback loops
We know from the study of persuasion, as well as game design, that right place/right time feedback mechanisms are critical for (return) engagement. From as small as a personal phone call after a donation, to as large as the justice for a person wrongly killed, feedback and “wins” (large and small) help people stay interested to give their time and energy to the cause. Feedback also helps participants to “level-up,” and only tackle challenges that are right at the edge of their capacity—keeping them engaged, focused, and rewarded.

Growing a “middle-class” of activism
By middle-class, I don’t mean activism for the middle-class, per se, I mean a robust population of organizations and movements that provides a stabilizing force to sustain civil society.  In our collective mental ecology, we are highly aware of “blockbuster” moments like the ALS ice bucket challenge. These blockbusters tend to skew the thinking of organizations that want to make their campaign “viral.” This blockbuster/virality thinking, much like in the Hollywood business model, redistributes resources to ideas, issues, or communities that have the potential for mega-success, siphoning off funds and energy from other campaigns that might not be as sexy, or as immediate, as others. There are many other kinds of campaigns that might be more localized, less newsworthy, and longer term than many of the more publicized movements. Designing a structure of activism, fundraising, and community organizing that supports these vital, but not sensational, needs is important, and perhaps overlooked.

Sensory Data-Driven
Taking a slightly more oblique angle on the idea of data-driven community organizing, I was fascinated by classy.org Mike Spear’s description of the work of Apopo. They train rats to detect landmines, and diseases, such as tuberculosis. We often think of data as something tied to computers, but there is a great potential to use other kinds of data. Organizers might need to be trained in best practices around non-computational data management. Imagine this scene: you walk into a medical clinic, and instead of being met by a doctor or nurse, you are first “screened” by a zoo of animals trained to detect any disease or condition you might have. 

Andrew Hapke and the Jacobs Center team were wonderful hosts, and the super-stars of digital and community organizing lived up to their billing. This was a terrific opportunity to exchange ideas, learn about examples of organizing at its best, and to explore the novel tools, dynamics, and forces that will shape movement-making in the future. 

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