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Global Perspectives 2022 brought together over 360 people from around the world on 30 November to participate in a range of panel sessions looking at transforming civil society futures. While we missed being able to meet in person, we found it even more rewarding that our free online format made it possible for so many of us to connect. These are some of the key takeaways that we still carry with us two weeks after the event and will take to heart in our work moving forward:
Several sessions highlighted how CSOs are usually caught in – or even depend on – a perpetual sequence of crises. As current and future trends take hold, it is absolutely vital that organised civil society is both ready for different scenarios but equally holds a strong vision for the future. But being futures-ready (and -relevant) does neither come by itself nor should it be confined to an elite academic exercise by the few or a single department with an ICSO. Instead, we need to embed futures thinking widely and recognise that we’re all capable of the necessary signal scanning and building futures narratives. As our panellist, Barbara Weber from Amnesty International advised: Let’s build that anticipatory muscle by treating it like brushing our teeth – do it every day if you want to stay healthy.
Access to a data-driven world and data-driven development is key in a digitally transformed world and therefore, specialised CSOs are relied upon heavily to ensure inclusivity is taken into account when building digital tools for development. Many actors are lobbying heavily to make sure this is mainstreamed better across (international) CSOs so that organisations are pulling into the same direction, especially when it comes to the digital inclusion of Persons with Disability. But while there is a lot of focus on building capacity for digital inclusion, the most important ingredient is still called internet infrastructure!
Part of the puzzle of futures-readiness is innovation. It was claimed that there is little to no room for failure in our sector and that this is keeping us from learning – as it is only through failure that we learn the most and from each other. We need to create organisational cultures where experimentation is rewarded so we can challenge ourselves, find new ways of working and explore different scenarios to imagine and build the world we want. The third edition of our Innovation Report again shows us how civil society organisations reinvent themselves and experiment if the context requires it. They can be a great inspiration for all of us!
As many organisations are seeking to become more locally led, it is imperative that they adopt a southern identity, and being a global organisation is no longer synonym for being a northern organisation. This is no small transformation for many organisations and thus requires taking bold steps and risks. Professionalised civil society organisations should be in the business of working themselves out of a job, so a certain risk is built-in anyways.
Equally, in the panel on south-south cooperation, Cecilia Milesi reminded the audience that the decolonising journey has been travelled by civil society in (formerly) colonised countries since independence and not since the Grand Bargain, realising southern chapters fair well independently during Covid, or Black Lives Matter. While all of this rightfully motivated many northern organisations to change, humility is still called for.
All sessions highlighted in one way or another civil society’s (perhaps not so) secret weapon: collaboration. Think Power Shift: Taking a route less travelled and partnering with local actors both as experts and interlocutors makes the difference and can produce different kinds of conversations and outcomes. Think Digital: only through collaborating with tech firms will we be able to both influence the tools generated for digital development and complement our capacities. Think Civic Space: by coming together as small organisations but in larger numbers, we are able to challenge powerful institutions, just like the example of the CSO alliance influencing the powerful Financial Action Task Force has shown.
But all of this can only work if we stay connected with the people in our communities, the (non-)citizens that make up civil society. It is to them that we are accountable. Only with them can we work towards the futures we want!
This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the International Civic Forum 2022 (ICF 2022), the Centre’s annual civic space platform to network, build trust and identify opportunities for collaboration on emerging issues. The ICF 2022 focused on “Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space”. It kicked off a three-year initiative to strengthen anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals working to defend civic and civil society operating space.
Every one of us wants to change the future.
That could mean making a difference to the life of one person, altering the entire course of history through revolution, or stopping the rise of the oceans as our climate crises deepens.
We’re all here because we want to make an impact on complex, messy issues, and that takes time. So, every day we make decisions, we implement plans, we deliver services. We move forward.
All of these actions are intended to influence the future. We’re working to create something new or to prevent something worsening, to change somebody’s life or to remove injustices that affect us all.
But how well do we understand the future? How often do we explore the possibilities? When do we visit plausible future worlds to understand the challenges and the opportunities?
Or is ‘the future’ obscured, a grainy, opaque continuation of today with a bit more technology, a change in government, new fashions and a flying car or two?
Something that happens to us, rather than something we actively shape.
Part of everyone already lives in the future; a little corner of your brain and a collection of emptions is always there.
You might never have noticed but they are. Listen to them now.
I want you to put yourself on this grid. Move yourself up or down, depending on whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Move left or right depending on whether you think you can make a difference or can’t make a difference.
When I do this exercise with humanitarians, activists and civil society organisations, I always see lot of green and blue…
We tend to have a relatively pessimistic – or maybe realistic – view of the future but feel we can make a difference, which can give us hope. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.
But not everyone feels like that… because people don’t all have equal access to the future.
Entire groups of people are down there in the bottom left; disempowered, scared, angry, ignored and excluded by the system that is shaping the future they will have to live in.
Participants at the International Civic Forum share their feelings about the future.
Who shapes the future?
So many people are not asked or involved in reimagining the future, even by the people who say they’re here to support them. They are just expected to exist in it once it arrives. They are stripped of power now, and they are denied power over the future.
What can civil society do? We can give people a path to other side of that grid, where they feel they can make a difference, where they have the power to imagine a world that has a place and protection for them. (That means involving people, amplifying their voices, championing their perspectives).
And the institutions we run have to constantly navigate and shape that future. They have to become better at anticipating shocks and considering the implications of emerging trends. It has to be part of our daily operations, the mechanics of how our organisations function.
How do we do that? Thankfully, all humans have an amazing ability to time travel….
Storytelling is deeply human. It is part of who we are as a species. We tell stories as individuals, as families, as organisations, as sectors and societies.
And that is what gives us this amazing ability to time travel; we can project ourselves into possible futures and tell others about it.
We all do it, all the time. It is how we make plans to meet at the weekend, how we set ourselves goals, how we organise our communities to take on a new challenge, it is how we mobilise people in politics and it’s how we ferment revolutions.
We tell stories about different visions for the future and ask for help to make it happen.
Strategy and possible futures
Organisations already tell stories about the future all the time. We create visions and strategies, growth trends and budget projections.
We tell the story via formal documents and spreadsheets (to make it seem rational and reliable), but it is still a story about how we want the world to be, and how we will work to make it happen. And they are full of assumptions about what the future will be like.
But how many organisations consider what the world might be like when that strategy is supposed to thrive….? How many create different versions? And how many keep an eye on the weak signals and emerging trends that will shape the world tomorrow?
A nice strategy or vision is not enough. Our organisations need to be constantly engaged with possible futures, constantly anticipating risks and moving fast on opportunities, and we need to shift to anticipatory governance models to enable that.
Anticipating the future
This is critical because, left to their own devices, humans are actually not great at anticipating the future.
There are lots of psychological reasons – from optimism bias to data blindness, shifting baseline syndrome to an overreliance on past experience – so we need a more systematic way to explore the future, to add evidence to our imaginations, to create, examine and explore different possibilities.
Strategic foresight is a useful set of ideas, tools and methods that can help with this.
Emerging trends and change
Where do we start?
The world constantly changes. It can seem overwhelming. We are already living in a pretty dysfunctional dystopia. How do you start to make sense of today, let alone things that haven’t even happened yet?
There are some forces which shape human history and society, and always will. So, mapping some of those big drivers of change is a helpful starting point.
For example, politics shapes our lives and the history of our country and communities. It will continue to be a powerful force even as the personalities change, the institutions erode, and new movements emerge.
Civil society can act as a sensing network to spot things early and understand their impact in different places.
We must gather evidence, add detail, identify emerging trends and layer on different types of information. Add anthropological research and consultation to the mix, asking people about their changing world and hopes or fear for the future.
All of these elements help us to start spotting patterns and see the connections between seemingly random issues – they let us start to make sense of that overwhelming change.
And from this we begin to structure different possible futures and detailed scenarios. These artefacts become really useful tools for discussion; they open space for people to connect, talk and challenge assumptions about the future and imagine different possibilities.
What do we do with it? Strategic foresight can be used in several ways.
We have already mentioned strategic planning: by expanding the range of alternative futures we plan for we are better prepared for the challenges we face.
Foresight also helps us deal with uncertainty and complexity by improving our understanding of emerging risks, issues and their potential implications.
In a sector well known for being risk-averse, this can only be a good thing.
I think that considering the future is a critical element for good innovation. Plausible, powerful scenarios are useful places to innovate in because there are new opportunities and challenges there.
It is also critical to consider the world any innovation will grow into – is your latest product or service ready for the future? Can you build anything into it as it grows which will make it stronger tomorrow?
And it is not all about speculation and innovation. You can use strategic foresight to stress-test decisions that have to be made now.
When you are choosing between option a and option b, you can walk them into the future and see if they will cope with a changing world or if they need to be rethought or refined now.
Critically, strategic foresight allows you to bring people together, to explore and negotiate a better world. It can create a shared vision that generates new energy, enthusiasm and hope.
All of this means we become better at anticipation: “identifying and preparing sooner for new opportunities and challenges that could emerge in the future” (UN) and we can bring people with us to face them, we can redirect finances, and we can mobilise resources.
I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. – George Burns
Anticipation, surprise and action
Why is it important?
Strategic foresight is not about predicting the future. It is about avoiding surprise and shocks, about having more time to respond, and about actively working towards a future we believe to be better than today.
Because if we – as Civil Society organisations – don’t do that, we’re carrying the inequities of the past into the future and accepting that the injustices and inequalities that we’ve inherited from the past will inevitably be part of the future. We can do better than that. We can imagine a more hopeful future, and we have the power to deliver it, or at least fight for it.
Shaping the future
A lot of futures and foresight work is currently carried out by governments, corporations and the military. If they are deciding what humanity’s future should look like, it will reflect the biases and privilege of the people with power in those institutions.
Remember, Civil societies great strength is its reach and its diversity.
As my friend and futurist at the UN Aarathi Krishnan says: “Being more anticipatory necessitates being more participatory”.
We can surface new information and new stories. We can challenge the fact that not everyone gets an equal say in the future.
Done well, futures and foresight work can bring very diverse groups together and open up new options for action.
It can be a radical approach as it challenges short-term interests and hierarchy. It can create a new space for debate and a new horizon – beyond the election cycle or the next shareholders meeting.
Start by changing today
Good futures should challenge the world to consider different perspectives, different impacts, different needs and hopes so we can create new futures with new power structures, new representation and inclusion, and new ways to deliver powerful change.
We can imagine and champion these different futures.
It will take time to make them real. And that is why we need to start today.
This report contributes to the Centre’s multi-year initiative Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space to strengthen the anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend civic and civil society operating space. It is intended to provide a basis for further activities, especially in identifying gaps that require collective sector commitment.
The report is the outcome of an exercise to map the current landscape: the issues impacting civic space, the strengths and weaknesses of civil society organisations’ (CSOs) responses and their reflections.
Civil society organisations are innovators. They test new approaches to both traditional and emerging problems. Rapid digitalisation is one of today’s most prominent and influential global drivers of change, but decisions on how future digital development and data use proceeds still sit almost exclusively with the governments and businesses already powerful and privileged enough to influence and receive its benefits today, further growing the equity gap to the half of humanity who remain unconnected.
While civil society organisations have achieved some success in shifting power around these challenges, there is a significant opportunity for organisations to learn and benefit from the lessons others have encountered.
The report will share effective and inclusive innovation approaches, solutions and new ways of working which are helping to shift power in the digital ecosystem, and achieve more people-centred or nature-positive outcomes enabled by digital technology, by showcasing eight case studies from international and national CSOs around the world. Get inspired by real-life examples of new approaches.
Listen to our Futures and Innovation Podcast – an audio series streaming on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud – and hear the stories of their inclusive innovation approaches to advance people-centred digitalisation, to either address system power imbalances or capitalise on emerging people power and technological capabilities.
Visit our Innovation Webpage to find out more about the aims of the report and all the case study content.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to deepen inequalities around the globe and threaten the overall progress of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, this year’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) brought together contributors from diverse backgrounds and geographies to highlight different impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across all Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and reflect on the actions required to build back better from the pandemic.
On July 12, the Centre co-hosted a virtual side event at the 2022 HLPF together with the German Development Agency (GIZ), with the support of the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) to explore inclusive data practices in communities (which are mostly overlooked in high level policy discourses) as a strategic tool for building back better after the pandemic.
The insights from the speakers and panellists not only reaffirmed the fact that there is a massive lack of high quality and relevant data on Persons with Disability (PWD) and other marginalised groups, but the discussions further highlighted the important role Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) and other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) can play in filling the existing data gaps, especially during emergency situations like COVID 19. Through Community Driven Data (CDDs) and other forms of inclusive data, CSOs and OPDs help bring innovative perspectives on certain population and their needs, issues and trends.
Six months into the year, you surely had your share of physical meetings and conferences yet. How did they feel? A combination of personal warmth, anxiety, confusion, and an irrational sense of ‘newness’? At least that’s how it felt when 17 of the Centre’s member CEOs met in person for their annual ‘Vision Works’ retreat in Switzerland, last month.
There’s much to say about the re-discovery of informal conversations and building personal networks in such conferences. Besides the benefits of peer-to-peer exchanges for one’s mental health, one also wonders how today’s leadership challenges in a complex world have suffered from the two years of minimised personal meeting opportunities.
The complexities of our environment have been described in more recent debates as characterised by Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty and Ambiguity (TUNA). And the difference to previous futures narratives being the acknowledgement that ‘we don’t know anymore, what we don’t know’.
Leading in a ‘tuna world’ requires specific approaches and talents. The steering ‘on sight’, the prioritisation of values over outputs, the ability to use scenarios, increase diversity, the flexibility to embrace emergent change with a long-term view, change direction and unlearn if needed. And it also asks for personal credibility, empathy, approachability, and open discourse – all more difficult to maintain in virtual communication.
So now that we have moved into a ‘new normal’ mode, trying to combine the best of virtual and personal, and being faced with a world that has changed again (and keeps changing), how do we talk to each other? And how do civil society leaders steer their organisations, support their staff, and provide confidence and direction, particularly as there is a continued struggle with overload, the pace of change, change fatigue, and exhaustion and tiredness of the workforce (not least because of the COVID impacts).
And how do you lead a new generation of colleagues, and ensure new leadership takes up responsibilities? How do you intensify cross-cutting ethical ambitions, and focus on values, mandates and purpose when operational demands still dominate the work?
Compare these challenges with the latest results of the Interaction survey of member CEOs, confirming the high pace and significant depth of changes in the environment, the business models, operating models and programme priorities. Many organisations shifting power to the global South, yet how do you ensure alignment by letting go of overly centralised management?
Looking at the high relevance of megatrends like climate change, power shift and digitalisation (including the navigation of cybersecurity), we find that civil society organisations involved in development cooperation and humanitarian aid, even if they are urgently needed in the global discourse around those trends, are often still in reaction/crisis mode, partly constrained by restrictive donor policies, operational challenges, homegrown problems and colonial legacy.
CSO leaders grapple with complexities and interconnectedness, and the scale of the crises is challenging established management and governance practices.
When we met in Switzerland, some promising ideas were developed around authenticity in the non-profit world, increased ambition around our mandates, new forms of political communication, more focus on values and the tackling of double standards that are being seen around us – whether it is the special treatment of the crisis in and around Ukraine, or the need to accelerate decolonisation in the sector.
The growing responsibilities (and opportunities) for civil society organisations became more evident in this space. We need more innovative and bold actions to take shape. It is no longer enough to set up intentions or keep our spirit. We must collaborate and implement these ideas to rise to the “tuna” challenge.
The global pandemic has further exacerbated the long-standing structural inequalities and governance weaknesses around the world. As a result, an increasing number of communities are falling further behind the ambitious plan of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to “leave no one behind.” From 30 May to 3 June 2022, this year’s World Justice Forum brought together hundreds of leaders and experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines and geographies in the Hague to talk about these challenges and find effective measures to build fairer and healthier communities
Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN echoed:
Justice means equality. Justice means fairness. Justice means accountability, fighting impunity and offering redress. It also means leaving no one behind and leaving no one behind means involving marginalised groups in decision making.
In this episode, we speak with Philip Goodwin, Chief Executive Officer of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the leading global international development organisation working through volunteers to empower communities in some of the world’s poorest and most overlooked regions.
Philip talks with Vicky Tongue, the Centre’s Head of Futures and Innovation, sharing insights and organisational experiences of uncertainty, strategy, leadership and narrative. We learn how VSO operates in framing strategy and action, using the principles of dispersed leadership, connecting logic, emotion and action as a way of aligning people, and above all being reflective in practice – constantly assessing what VSO is doing and how that might require the organisation to change. In this way, they have achieved a space where interactions, particularly across the wider global leadership group, maintain momentum and generate opportunity in meeting the organisation’s mission.
picking up on themes from two publications:
This conversation shared some exciting food for thought on leadership, which the Centre will be picking up on in our sector leadership convenings in 2022. We think it will inspire you as much as it has us, so please listen and enjoy!
In an increasingly digitised society, access to digital tools does not always equal participation, and as such, access to digital technology is not enough as a measure of inclusion. Oftentimes, the digital divide persists even when people have access to technological tools, because their knowledge may be limited, thus limiting their ability to fully participate on the internet. This redefines the concept of digital inclusion significantly; requiring more introspective questions about what real inclusion means and looks like in relation to digital participation.
The Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) and the International Civil Society Centre (ICsCentre) partnered up for a Digital Dialogue Series and the first dialogue of this series focused on ‘building inclusive civic tech communities’. Onica Makwakwa and Astha Kapoor made up the panel of speakers while malebo sephodi facilitated this dialogue.
Makwakwa opened the discussion by stating that the drive for access to digital technologies is not enough; that those with access to digital tools and the internet needed to be meaningfully connected in order to truly participate in the digital world and economy. According to Makwakwa, to be meaningfully connected means that users are not just merely consumers of content but also active participants who contribute to the internet.
Those who are meaningfully connected…are able to use the internet for more essential activities, such as accessing healthcare information, taking classes, [and] engaging in dialogues like this one. So 30 to 33% of those who are meaningfully connected, are able to use this access to digital technologies in a way that’s empowering, and also enables them to do good in their communities
Speaking from a civic tech perspective, Kapoor criticised the singular lens of access from which civic tech initiatives work. She proposed an additional lens from which to work which involved interrogating digital technologies from the perspective of negotiation. Kapoor encouraged the audience to think about their ability to negotiate with technology and what the next step to access might be.
What happens once you engage with technology? And what happens as we’re generating all of this data? How do we use the data meaningfully [and] resist the sort of extraction of data that we’re all sort of going through? How do we meaningfully engage with both the state and the private sector using technology? And again,…how do we negotiate on questions of our rights? asked Kapoor.
Kapoor continued to say that while access and inclusion are important and should be rigorously pursued, there are questions about how digital technologies affect how governance happens, and how we can interact with the State. Kapoor shared that people’s ability to negotiate with the State diminishes when services are digitised and so does their ability to organise. This is because they lack the language and understanding of how these tools work in the first place, and as such are unaware of when these tools are being used to exploit and abuse their rights.
This lack of awareness creates new challenges, and it has the power to alienate citizens who feel that their struggles are individual and not part of the collective. This is because the dominant narrative around technology is that it is a private experience and not a collective one. This assertion weakens the ability of citizens to collectively challenge the State.
Advocates for inclusion thus need to interrogate what access to digital tools means for how citizens are able to interact meaningfully with their world and with the State; not simply operate from the stance that basic access eliminates the challenges of the digital divide.
Access to digital tools does not automatically eliminate other challenges associated with the digital divide. The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic gave us many examples of this. Makwakwa recalls governments employing what she calls ‘uncoordinated digital development strategies’ in South Africa and other developing countries as a response to the necessary lockdowns at the time. The government’s deployment of digital platforms for service delivery and learning was done with the assumption that citizens were educated about how to utilise these tools and that they had access to high-speed internet connection to connect them to the platforms they need. She recounts the story of school children in South Africa who needed to learn remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
… the assumption was that parents are digitally literate, that homes are connected, and that teachers are also digitally literate, to be able to conduct instruction over the internet. So there were a lot of assumptions that we made that just really did not match with the reality of what we were actually dealing with. said Makwakwa
Kapoor mentions that civil society organisations offline efforts played an important role in closing the knowledge gap and ensured that citizens could use these tools and access their civil entitlements. Their efforts ensured that citizens would be well informed and skilled enough to use these tools in the first place.
Inclusive communities should therefore not just be about giving access to communities without digital tools but should also be about these communities being able to engage meaningfully with tech tools without harming them in the process. Inclusive civic tech communities should be made up of not only tech innovators but also those that experience and get to use these innovations. These communities should have a say in what and how they would like to experience civic tech tools in their lives.
Makwakwa is Head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet; a global coalition working to drive down the cost of internet access in low and middle-income countries through policy and regulatory reform.
Kapoor is the director and founder of the Aapti Institute; a research institution that generates public, policy-relevant, actionable, and accessible knowledge from the frontiers of tech and society, about our networked lives, to support the creation of a fair, free, and equitable society.