Navigating the Digital Frontier: Karl Steinacker’s Insights on the Digitalisation

19th June 2024 by Karl Steinacker

Within the sector, the International Civil Society Centre (the Centre) is neither vanguard nor laggard when it comes to digitalisation. The Centre acknowledges there is room for improvement in its digital performance. However, from a modest and realistic perspective, its achievements are remarkable and offer valuable insights for others in the sector. 

Practical Steps Towards Digital Transformation

When the French rock band Feu! Chatterton sings about the new world (Nouveau Monde), it concludes that despite the fact that while we all want it, achievements are, as they put it, zero, and continues: ‘catch the Bluetooth’. Feu’s view that we are driven by, rather than drivers of, digital transformation should not be taken as a factual statement but as an incentive to do better. 

Over the years, the Centre has introduced remote work, moved its IT to the cloud, and set up a media studio to support live streams and many online events. This followed an inductive approach and came about without grand design. Questions about off-the-shelf products vs. open-source and non-proprietary software were handled practically (often in favour of the former) and not ideologically. Cybersecurity, an often-overlooked risk in civil society organisations, was outsourced to cloud-based business partners. When running an organisation committed to social justice on small budgets, pragmatic decisions and cost-efficient software are often utilized. 

Reinventing Convening in the Digital Age

In the first quarter of the 21st century, CSOs must navigate the digital sphere. For a long time, convening was no longer meant to reserve conference facilities or arrange for cookies during coffee breaks. Be it the Centre’s annual Global Perspectives, open to everybody, or the Vision Works and Leading Together events for CEOs and senior CSO staff to discuss key strategic issues, best practices, and opportunities for joint action online as well as offline.  

And when the Solidarity Action Network is addressing civic space restrictions, it looks as much at cyberspace as any other operating condition CSOs may face. Likewise, the Leave No One Behind Partnership, hosted by the Centre delivers practical solutions so that marginalised communities no longer remain invisible to official statistics. Here again, the relevance of the project is linked to its successful delivery of digital solutions. The Accelerating Inclusive Power Shift project would be futile if it did not address access to technology as a determining power factor. 

Collaborations and Global Engagement

For three years, the Centre, jointly with CivicTech Africa, has been organising a monthly online panel discussion known as Digital Dialogues to bring relevant issues on digital technology to the civil society sector. On each occasion, eminent speakers, both from the Global North and the Global South, are invited to discuss the ongoing digital transformation from a civil society perspective. The variety of topics covered in more than 30 panels is incredibly varied, encompassing cyber mediation, digital colonialism, hacking for good, and others. The Digital Dialogues panel discussion on diversity led the Centre to upgrade its websites and introduce international sign language and captions to be as inclusive as possible for audiences. 

While the Centre is seen as a major convener, bringing together traditional social justice actors and with a newly set-up digital focus, it also contributes to the wider efforts within the civil society sector. In 2023, the NetHope Global Summit provided an opportunity for an in-person experience in Munich (Germany) and virtual gatherings, which the Centre was happy to contribute to. We led sessions across time zones, fostering ideas to link social justice, collaboration, and technological innovation. We also provided an Executive Leaders’ forum, co-hosted by the ICSC and NetHope, on how artificial intelligence is affecting the work of civil society. 

The Intersection of Technology and Human Behaviour

Members of CSOs and the non-profit sector met representatives of tech companies in order to exchange ideas and reflect on innovative ways forward for the benefit of the humanitarian, conservation, and development sectors. While there is no doubt that technology matters, the workshop What Next for Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation in a “Post Truth” World? looked in particular at the interplay of technology and human behaviour. The virtual workshop Supporting and Surveilling the Deserving Poor not only provided a historic tour d’horizon of social welfare programmes but also reviewed the ongoing digital transformation of welfare in places as different as India and Denmark. It also explored the potential of unconditional basic income in Finland. 

Sustainability and Digital Development

In an era defined by rapid technological advancement and growing environmental concerns, the need for a more sustainable approach to digital development has never been greater. Hence, there is a need to explore important theories such as the Digital Doughnut. However, only time and further consideration will tell if they provide the answers we are looking for. 

The Need for Continuous Digital Integration

So, our digital journey goes on. As long as CSOs continue to work on relevant issues of social justice, addressing the effects of the ongoing digital transformation will remain inevitable, and many CSOs have integrated digital issues into their overall strategies and programmes and with current advancements in digital technology, this is now more important than ever.  

Artists inspire us. That is why we love them. The Austrian pop band Yukno offers their outlook on the Digital Playground and sings: I will reinvent myself; I will never be alone again! It’s on this positive note that we wish to end this tour d’horizon with the renewed understanding that civil society needs ‘The Digital’ to make our world a better place! 

Karl Steinacker

Digital Advisor

International Civil Society Centre

Karl Steinacker is currently the Digital Advisor of the International Civil Society Centre. He studied political science at the Free University of Berlin and international law at Cambridge University. He then spent three decades working for the United Nations (UNDP, UNRWA, DPKO, UNHCR) in the fields of development, peacekeeping and refugee protection. At the UN Refugee Agency, he held positions in Africa and at its Headquarters and was responsible for Registration, Statistics, and Data and Identity Management as well as for Camp Coordination/Camp Management.