Sep 29, 2020
In this episode we talk to Lucy Bernholz, Director of the
Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University’s Center on
Philanthropy & Civil Society (Stanford PACS) about how
technology is reshaping civil society and the challenges and
opportunities this will bring. Including:
Digital civil society
- Is there any meaningful distinction between “civil society” and
“digital civil society” now?
- Has the current period of enforced digitisation as a
consequence of the COVID pandemic led to more CSOs engaging with
tech and tech issues?
- What dangers are there for CSOs in assuming that platforms are
objective or neutral public spaces? Are these problems likely to be
exacerbated by the enforced pivot to digital for so many orgs as a
result of COVID?
- Are funders (e.g. foundations) getting to grips with the
challenges and opportunities of the fourth industrial
Influencing the wider development & implementation of
- Can nonprofits play a meaningful role in ensuring that tech is
designed and implemented ethically?
- Does the focus on “ethical” approaches to tech risk diverting
attention from the need for more traditional mechanisms of
legislation and regulation?
- Are the inherent power imbalances between CSOs and tech
companies too great for the latter to influence the former, or can
asymmetric methods be used to overcome them?
- What role can foundations and funders play in helping
nonprofits engage with technological change?
Trust & Accountability
- DO CSOs face new challenges to their authenticity in a digital
world (deepfakes, astroturfing etc)?
- Will perverse incentives within the online attention economy
present a particular challenge for CSOs when it comes to
- Do we need to make philanthropy more democratic, or accountable
to the people and communities it is supposed to serve? If so,
Social movements & new forms of organising
- If digital tools enable people to form groups easily and
organise in different ways, does this make traditional nonprofits
less relevant as people look to networked models of social
- What is the major appeal of networked movements? Do people
believe they are more effective, or is it more about their ability
to democratize participation and offer more active modes of
- How can traditional nonprofits embrace some of the benefits of
networked or decentralized approaches? Does this require a major
change of structure, or just mindset?
- Do the affordances of technology genuinely overcome the known
weaknesses of structureless, leaderless or non-hierarchical
organisational models, or will we simply end up rediscovering some
of these weaknesses in the digital context?
Data & Automation
- Could CSOs take a lead on modelling ethical approaches to the
collection, storage and usage of data? Or is this too far out of
- Is AI is a big deal for nonprofits? If so, why?
- As the internet shifts from being something we access via
specific interfaces to a universal digital substrate all around us
(via the growth of IoT, edge computing etc), what new opportunities
and challenges might this create for CSOs?
Predictions and Foresight in civil society:
- What role can historical insight play in shaping our thinking
about the future of civil society?
- How can we get more foresight and futures thinking embedded in
civil society? What role could foundations and funders play?
- Should CSOs be seen as a valuable source of potential knowledge
and insight to guide wider attempts by governments and others to
identify future trends and scenarios?