Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Experts Predict More Digital Innovation by 2030 Aimed at Enhancing Democracy

2. Tech is (just) a tool

Many of these experts pointed out that technology is neither inherently helpful nor harmful. It is simply a tool. They said the real effects of technology depend upon how it is wielded. It can be used to inspire and catalyze change just as easily as it can be used in ways that are detrimental to society. Technology’s influence in the world is highly dependent upon extraneous factors. These factors can be much more important than tech evolution itself in determining what the future holds.

A pioneering technology editor and reporter for one of the world’s foremost global news organizations wrote, “I don’t believe technology will be the driver for good or bad in social and civil innovation. It can be a catalyst because it has always been a strong factor in organizing people and resources, as we saw early on with ‘flash mobs’ and have seen used to deleterious effect in the disinformation operations of Russian agents that sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I believe the social and civic innovation that can rein in excesses of surveillance capitalism, of Big Brother tech such as the abuse of facial recognition and other biometrics for social control, can only come from moral leadership. Tech is a tool. Artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are technologies. How we choose to use these tools, the ethical choices we as human societies make along the way, will define us.”

This section includes a broad selection of comments about digital technologies as a tool for social and civic innovation. They are organized under four subthemes: Factors other than technology per se will determine digital technologies’ effects; technology can be used as a tool for good; technology can be used as a tool for ill; and deeper human/social forces are shaping the future of democracy.

Factors other than technology will determine digital technologies’ effects

Tools are made to be used. How they are used, who uses them and what they are used for determines their impact. Some of these analysts referred to the impact of revolutionary technologies of the past and the ways they were used to affect change.

The inability for algorithmic-driven tools to understand the social context means they do not have the capacity to drive civic innovation without significant human intervention. Mutale Nkonde

David Bray, executive director for the People-Centered Internet Coalition, commented, “The benefits or harms are determined by how we humans choose to use tools and technologies. Fire can be used to cook a meal and thus be helpful. Fire can also be used to harm or destroy. Rocks can help build shelter. Rocks can also be used to injure someone. So, the bigger questions worth asking involve how we humans, both individually and in communities, choose to use technologies. Ideally, we will use them to uplift individuals. Also, tech doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Human laws and narratives also influence outcomes. Our tool use is connected to our use of narratives, laws and technologies to distribute power. Starting with the beginning of history, we used fire and stone tools to make the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to one where we began to settle and plant crops. Our use of tools help give rise to civilization, including the advancement of writing, development of calendars for crops, and the start of navigation of the seas. …

“While some civilizations generated social order through sheer physical force imposed upon other humans, compelling obedience, other civilizations generated social order through an initial system of laws that sought to protect communities from the greed, envy, or other hurtful elements of others. Such a system of laws was not developed for purely altruistic reasons. The same system of laws solidified the power of rulers and included different forms of taxation over the labor of their subjects. Laws and the legal process of humans distributed power, and in several cases of early civilizations, solidified the power of community members to compel or oblige other humans to perform certain actions. Laws and the legal process also enabled humans to coexist more peacefully in larger groupings insofar that the distribution of power did not motivate any part of the community to revert to sheer physical force to change this distribution.

“As human communities grew, so did their use of tools and development of more advanced tools such as metal tools and weapons, bows and arrows, and later both gunpowder and flintlock firearms. Such tools as technological developments had the effect of expanding civilizations and disrupting the distribution of power within societies. … Certain technological developments, like railroads or radio, allowed certain individuals to aggregate power or allowed the distribution of communications across communities that challenged the distribution of power. For some civilizations, these technologies helped highlight discrimination against groups of humans in societies and prompt civil rights laws. The same technologies however also allowed a mob mentality that failed to uplift humanity in ways that were intended, such as Nazi Germany’s use of ‘People’s Radio’ sets leading up to and during World War II that created dangerous echo chambers of thought during that dangerous time period.”

Mutale Nkonde, adviser on artificial intelligence, Data & Society, and fellow, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, “Technology alone is a tool. The inability for algorithmic-driven tools to understand the social context means they do not have the capacity to drive civic innovation without significant human intervention.”

Jeanne Dietsch, a New Hampshire state senator and pioneer innovator of affordable robotics, wrote, “Technological innovation creates tools that are used to achieve the ends of those who create and/or can access it. The values of those people, the relative power of people seeking democracy vs. oligarchy, will determine how technology is used. This question asks us to make political and economic projections. I do not believe that anyone can accurately do that. We are in the midst of a chaotic equation and the butterfly effect may determine the outcome.”

Robert Cannon, senior counsel for a major U.S. government agency and founder of Cybertelecom, a not-for-profit educational project focused on internet law and policy, said, “I can observe, as I did previously, that people want to have scapegoats and will accuse technology of horrors – when in fact it is PEOPLE who have the need for the scapegoat – while the tech just marches on – and in fact has been very positive.”

Srinivasan Ramani, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer of the internet in India, wrote, “I do not believe that we can simplify the issues by asking if technology would be bad or good. The horrors perpetrated upon millions of people in the name of a science, ‘eugenics’ for furthering social objectives is very well documented. The good or bad is not in technology. It is in us.”

Marius Oosthuizen, board member for the Association of Professional Futurists, Johannesburg, South Africa, observed, “Technology is value-neutral. However, in the adoption or implementation of technology, enormous value assumptions and value judgements are made. These are then entrenched and systematised, institutionalised and embedded in social norms over time. Technology will be curtailed, rolled back and counteracted with innovations that society finds unbearable or undesirable. This will take the form of peer-to-peer review systems, accountability and transparency systems, and the development of ‘ethical algorithms’ that seek to systematise societal values and norms, appropriate to particular communities. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather enclaves of evolutionary and counter-evolutionary technology adaptation and adoption towards more socially desirable ends.”

[the Internet of Things]

John Leslie King, a professor of information science at the University of Michigan, wrote, “People know how to leverage communication technologies. Not surprisingly, they leverage them for their own ends. There will be surprises and what appear to be setbacks, but the net effect over time will be lots of experimentation that will affect things on the margin.”

Arthur Asa Berger, a professor emeritus of communications at San Francisco State University, responded, “Innovation is a two-edged sword: It can be used for negative purposes (new viruses, for example) or positive purposes (diagnose medical problems using smartphones.) The development of Twitter is now used as a propaganda tool by the president – a negative innovation as I see things. The internet can also be used to create flash mobs for protesters of the political order or champions of it. So, a good deal depends on the ingenuity of those using innovations for their own purposes.”

Andrew Lippman, senior research scientist and associate director at MIT’s Media Lab, wrote, “There are social reforms that would be good, such as changing Section 230 of the Communications Act that relieves ‘platform’ companies of responsibility for what is done on those fora. While the law might have been a good idea when it was passed, it needs updating and better application. If a company processes the information that is contributed or selectively distributes it, then they are not a simple platform, they are exerting editorial control. Also, there are technologies that can protect privacy and personal data if we choose to use them. We have not done so in the past, but one never knows. Working against this is the network effect – large companies such as Facebook have a potentially overwhelming advantage. Society may change its attitude toward that as well.”

Paul Lindner, a technologist who has worked for several leading innovative technology companies, commented, “Technology both harms and helps. To predict its outcome, we need to answer Shoshana Zuboff’s questions of ‘who knows, who decides and who decides who decides.’ If the answer for this is the citizenry then yes, technology can have a positive impact. If it’s a smaller set of actors, then technology will increasingly be used as a form of control. Andrew Feenberg states it well: ‘What human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools no less than in the action of statesmen and political movements. The design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences. The exclusion of the vast majority from participation in this decision is profoundly undemocratic.’”

Lawrence Wilkinson, chairman at Heminge & Condell and founding president of Global Business Network, the pioneering scenario-planning futures group, predicted, “I expect a Hegelian dance between tech as a contributor/enabler of change and tech (and tech companies) as a preventer of change.”

Michael Pilos, chief marketing officer at FirePro, London, said, “I am betting on humans using the tools at their disposal in creative and (mostly) constructive ways. Surely some people can use the web to damage humanity and/or themselves, but 99.9% of humans use it to learn, love, share and communicate. I am bullish on humans and the logical learning curve!”

Kevin Gross, an independent technology consultant, commented, “Technology has the potential to assist social and civic innovation, but such innovation is often perceived as a threat to those that control the technology who will work to dampen such uses of their technology.”

Roger E.A. Farmer, research director for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, and author of “Prosperity for All,” wrote, “Like all technologies, social media advances have the power to create great good but also great evil. The manipulation of the internet in China by the Chinese government is an example of the use of technology by an autocratic state to suppress individual freedoms. In the U.S. the technology is controlled not by the government, but by a small number of private individuals. Concentration of the ability to shape culture is a powerful tool that can shape the social fabric.”

I am betting on humans using the tools at their disposal in creative and (mostly) constructive ways. Michael Pilos

Frank Kaufmann, president of the Twelve Gates Foundation, responded, “All tools that support and enhance natural human capacities and human qualities can do no other than enhance the chance for improvement. The dangers lie in unethical, impoverished tech geniuses with no sound basis for the power their capacities afford, and subsequently, the lack of ethics then gets replicated in tech structures. Protection against these real dangers cannot come purely from tech but can be enhanced by using tech constructively.”

Glenn Grossman, a consultant of banking analytics at FICO, observed, “Technology is a tool. People will harness it for needs. I can see contributions to improve our social norms along with possible harmful actions. Look what China is doing with its social norms score. I don’t agree, but technology is looking to help them with this score. It can also lead to changes like a revolution if the score is used improperly.”

Predrag Tosic, a researcher of multi-agent systems and artificial intelligence and faculty at Whitworth University, said, “There is already a fairly broad consensus that rapid rise of genetics, AI and other technologies raises new complex ethical and other challenges, which require broad debate over new social norms, laws and regulations. Example: If a self-driving car kills a pedestrian, who is to be held accountable? I expect public debate, and then new legislation and the rise of new social norms to mature and progress along those lines. A major concern: Technology and its multifaceted impact on our lives are traveling at a much faster pace in recent decades than the response by policymakers and legislatures. Again, broad public awareness and debate of emerging moral, legal and other issues are the key.”

Puruesh Chaudhary, a futurist based in Pakistan, said, “Communities of interest are more likely to benefit from social and civic innovation. The scale, however, will only be possible if there’s significant national consciousness around the interest. These interests as we’ve seen evolve are mostly around different cultures, traditions, beliefs and norms.”

Daniel Rogers, expert on disinformation and co-founder, Global Disinformation Initiative, wrote, “The problems catalyzing ‘techlash’ won’t be solved by technology. Perhaps there will be places where technology will help, or be used to implement solutions, but fundamentally these problems will be solved by policy, diplomacy and civil society interventions. I remain cautiously optimistic that human resiliency will prevail before these problems destroy our ability to solve them, but only time will tell for sure. Some examples of the kind of interventions we could hope for would be strong privacy regulation at the federal level, antitrust actions against large tech platform players, strong diplomatic interventions in the areas of cybersecurity and counter-disinformation, and civil society interventions within the tech community around issues such as content moderation and platform governance standards.”

Regulation could play a key role in determining tech’s effects

Several experts suggest that regulation of tech and tech companies will play a significant role in determining technology’s effects.

Warren Yoder, longtime director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, now an executive coach, responded, “In the West the GAAF platform monopolies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook – Netflix is no longer in the list) have grown to a size they are stifling innovation without adding significant social value. But the EU and U.S. governments are finally addressing the issue. While it is too soon to be certain, I expect action to breakup or regulate them to have a positive effect, allowing new social and civic innovation.”

Michael Muller, a researcher for a top global technology company focused on human aspects of data science and ethics and values in applications of artificial intelligence, said, “I hope that the democracies can develop a major tech effort to identify malicious tech activity and to counter that malicious tech activity swiftly and effectively. Of course, I would prefer to see this done as an international effort – perhaps as a form of mutual defense, like NATO or the UN. I suspect that it will require separate funding and governance bodies in the U.S., EU and probably the UK, as well as the struggling Asian democracies and of course Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps these regional efforts can nonetheless meet and exchange innovations through an international body. ‘A harm to one is a harm to all.’”

Kenneth R. Fleischmann, an associate professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote, “We will have to find ways to regulate social media use; they will need to build trade associations to self-regulate, or else governments will need to step in. Individuals may not need to respect laws and boundaries, but companies do need to be based somewhere, and if they do not comply, countries can block them. Given the complex and contentious nature of ‘truth,’ however, it will be easy to portray regulation as biased censorship; thus, provenance will be key, and the key thing will not be to determine the ‘truth’ of content, but instead the authentic identities of those who post the content.”

James Gannon, a cybersecurity and internet governance expert based in Europe, said, “I think that in 2030 the journey will still be ongoing, as defined in the Tunis Agreement laws apply online as well as offline. However, this is an untenable position for governments to take in the modern era, where the internet is borderless (I do not believe there will be a Balkanisation of the internet or fragmentation of it). NGOs and civil Society have yet to come up with a common position to move forward on these strategic-level topics. I think that progress on tactical issues will drive society to more common positions and thus over the next decade progress will be made.”

Emmanuel Edet, a legal adviser at the National Information Technology Development Agency, Nigeria, wrote, “I think the social norms for the use of the internet and other technology will improve basically because of the human need to survive. It will come through consensus building and government exercising its primary role of citizen protection.”

Sharon Sputz, executive director of strategic programs at the Columbia University Data Science Institute, responded, “New laws and policies will be needed to protect citizens from the misuse of technology. One example is around ensuring the use of machine learning systems do not have bias or unfair outcomes.”

James Hochschwender, futurist and consultant with Expansion Consulting, said, “Some success in social and civic innovation will be achieved by 2030, but that success will require legislation and enforcement thereof to protect citizens rights over transparent data sharing with full rights to opt out of the same, as is being done in Europe already to a much greater degree than in the U.S. Also, it will require two other things in order to be positive innovation: 1) the elimination of digital monopoly and oligarchies through application of effective antitrust legislation; 2) a massive effort to educate inclusively the entire population about positive and negative uses of the internet and 5G technologies and corresponding digital tools. And finally, social and civic innovation will require substantial reduction of corporate and deep-pockets lobbying that has excessive influence of legislative branches of government.”

However, some experts are concerned about what regulation might look like and if it will be a step in the right direction.

Bill Dutton, a professor of media and information policy at Michigan State University, said, “The focus on harms noted in your questions are one aspect of a growing dystopian perspective on the internet that is essentially top led, and not driven by users of the internet as much as by the press, politicians and academia. Unfortunately, the focus on potential harms will foster a great deal of inappropriate regulatory responses that will slow technological and social innovation in significant ways.”

Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, commented, “I believe (or at least hope) that over the next decade we will see a number of efforts – regulatory, legislative, legal, and in evolving social norms – that attempt to deal with at least some of the problems of the current networked digital environment. These problems are hard, and right now we don’t really know what the right solutions are in most cases. We have train wrecks like GDPR and the ‘right to be forgotten’ in Europe, for example; well-intentioned but horribly flawed. One very fruitful approach is to move away from regulating data collection towards punishing bad uses of data. It’s also important to note that while you can regulate relatively ‘good’ actors (for example, most commercial entities), when we are dealing with adversarial or criminal behaviors (for example information warfare campaigns) this is not going to be very effective. And you’ll see a technology arms race that at least currently seems very asymmetric, with advantage to the aggressors rather than the defenders.”

[National Security Agency]

Jean Russell, co-director at Commons Engine, focused on building tools and capacity for a commons-based economy, wrote, “I hope regulation becomes a last resort, but yes, I do think we will continue forming coalitions/unions/cooperatives for human dignity for our digital world. I also believe we are growing the awareness and tools to better assert rights for privacy, dignity and freedom.”

Social and civic innovations, including changes in norms, may be key in shaping technology

While this study posed to experts the question of how humans’ uses of technology will influence innovation, several of the experts in this canvassing suggested that the process moves in the other direction: that is, innovation influences technology. They said future innovations will include tools made in reaction to social and civic needs and in response to the problems caused by people’s current uses of digital technologies.

Ibon Zugasti, futurist, strategist and director at Prospektiker, wrote, “Social innovation platforms will contribute to faster and better technology development.”

Nick Tredennick, an engineer, technology innovator and administrator, vice president of Jonetix Corporation, commented, “Social and cultural norms that have developed over the centuries are the framework with which technological progress operates. It’s the difference between the carrier and the signal. Social and cultural norms are the carrier and technology progress is the signal; they should not be mixed.”

Stephan G. Humer, a lecturer expert in digital life at Hochschule Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, commented, “The ingenuity and creativity of unexpected actors has always been stronger than the unintended side effects of technical development. I see no sign that the negative aspects will prevail in the case of digitisation. So far, the internet has brought more positive than negative aspects, and this has come mainly from inspired users and improved institutions.”


James Sigaru Wahu, an assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, wrote, “Most people still place technology use at the center of the conversation. This is evidenced in the framing of the question. The issue shouldn’t be whether tech use will hamper social and civic innovation but rather how social and civic innovation will curtail overreliance on technology while democratizing and unbiasing technologies and their use.”

A postdoctoral scholar studying the relationship between governance, public policy and computer systems said, “Technology is constituted of society, reflecting the needs and prevailing ideas present during its development. It also creates needs for social and civic innovation, which create needs for technological innovation in a virtuous cycle. Society creates tools which solve perceived problems and then adapts around those tools to make them useful as perceptions of the true problems change and mature. There is a lag between when the technologies are created and brought into the world and when new norms are developed and broadly understood enough to gain normative force. For example, as the ability to circulate information has been democratized, the monopoly of journalists on creating broadly disseminated media has broken, giving way to a world where everyone can create on an equal footing. But this has caused a breakdown in the norms around information dissemination: In the past, journalists would attempt to convey the truth, even if that effort had a particular political or social bent or bias. Today, anyone can disseminate any information, true or not. As a result, those used to truth in journalistic products can be surprised by ‘fake news’ – misleading information dressed in the trappings of traditional journalism. However, those who understand the fluidity of new media also understand that there is a higher burden placed on speakers for establishing the veracity of their claims, and also understand how to cross-check those claims with the world as understood or with other tools such as search engines or social validation. Risks balance benefits here, too.”

Technology could be used as a tool for good

These experts shared many ideas as to how technology will or should be used for the betterment of humanity, from improving education to enhancing people’s social lives. Some emphasized the need to do a better job of harnessing technology for good, expressing concern that the alternative is unthinkable.

Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer CEO of ICANN, confidently predicted, “We are in a technology-fueled Age of Innovation. ‘Technology got us into this mess and technology will get us out of it.’”

Engaged citizens and residents can use social media tools to gather support, promote causes and point out problems. Ben Shneiderman

John Battelle, co-founder and CEO of Recount Media and editor-in-chief and CEO, NewCo, commented, “Technology is how we communicate. So, if we are to make any progress, we’ll use technology. And I’m an optimist, so while my response in a previous survey question as to the likely near-future of democracy equivocated, the lens of history will mark the next 10 years as fundamental to overall progress across a historical timeframe.”

Ben Shneiderman, a distinguished professor of computer science and founder of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, said, “Social and civic innovation through community, consumer, business and other grassroots organizations will emerge, even as platform owners and government agencies make related efforts to control and regulate malicious actors. Additional sources of innovation could be professional societies, academic researchers, journalists and community leaders. Engaged citizens and residents can use social media tools to gather support, promote causes and point out problems. I see many opportunities for improvement.”

Bryan Alexander, a futurist and consultant at the intersection of technology and learning, wrote, “Technology remains a tool for social organization and it will keep playing that role as we organize flash mobs through mixed reality and hack AIs to plan demonstrations. The techlash can go in a variety of directions, including an anti-AI movement a la Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune.’ But the digital world has progressed too far for most to withdraw completely. Few are willing to go full Unabomber. Instead, people will loudly retreat from one digital platform and move to another or write about how much they despise Silicon Valley on a shiny new iPad or show their fine handwritten letter over Instagram.”

Michael R. Nelson, senior fellow and director of Technology and International Affairs program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented, “Digital technologies are empowering local and state governments with tools and information that previously were only available to large national government agencies and offices. In many countries, that has meant that the number of employees working for national governments has shrunk as programs previously run by national governments are put under the control of institutions that are closer to the citizen. In some cases, functions that were previously run by governments are being run by private companies. In some cases, decentralization and privatization has made room for more experimentation and innovation, lower costs and more customized services for citizens. Local and state governments are sharing best practices and lesson learned – often using online collaboration tools and video conferencing.”

Jeff Jarvis, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York, wrote, “It would be a mistake to connect all these questions to internet technology alone, both because technological determinism would be misplaced and because there are so many other factors at work (and because predictions are meaningless). The question, again, is not about technology’s impact on people but on people’s use of technology. Will we be able to come together as social and political entities to negotiate reversal of climate change, retraining of the workforce facing change, reducing the anxiety we put especially your children through and so on? Those are nearly eternal questions. The internet is just one new factor in a complex mess of considerations.”

Adam Powell, senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, wrote, “Historically we have mastered technologies – gunpowder, nuclear – so I am optimistic we can do this, too. Yes, I believe innovation can make significant positive changes – except for the industry itself, because there is so little incentive to do so. Maybe DuckDuckGo and Firefox can show the way.”

Matt Larsen, CEO at Vistabeam, said, “I am hopeful that technology can help some groups find more common ground. It will be a difficult challenge to overcome many of the potential negative issues, but there is a lot of potential process improvement for social and civic groups that utilize technology.”

Alan Inouye, senior director of public policy and government, American Library Association, said, “Today, there are nearly infinite opportunities to provide input – if you only have the time. I foresee a time when we’ll have agents (use of artificial intelligence technology) that provide this input or make requests on our behalf. You’re having a discussion with your travel partner and you are queried about a comment to Trip Advisor. You say yes and it is generated automatically. Ditto if you are discussing the state of STEM learning and you are advised that senator has a bill – would you care to send a comment to her office? If you reply yes, it is done automatically on your behalf. The next level agent takes these actions automatically based on your preferences.”

[internet and communications technology]

Janet Salmons, a consultant with Vision2Lead, said, “I hope that the more that people come to rely on technology, the more they will see the need for parameters and improved practices. These could include social norms as well as policies and regulations. I also hope that the more that people understand what technology can and can’t do they will make decisions about its place in their lives. For example, electronic communication is valuable when we’re apart but does not replace the human touch or the nonverbal communications needed at significant life moments. Will social norms move away from the practice of staring at a screen to read a post from someone, somewhere, while ignoring the actual person whose eyes might convey a more meaningful message? Electronic voting might seem like a cool idea until we see how unregulated use of these tools allows for vulnerabilities that make our votes meaningless. Will people insist on mechanisms that make democracy more viable or let big corporations, special interests, anarchists or foreign entities decide who runs the country? Will people insist on some right to protection of private data or let companies buy and sell every digital footprint? I hope for social and civic innovations that celebrate and balance the best of both worlds, technologic and human. Education, health care, the workplace benefit from flexibility and access to information offered by technologies but are inadequate without human interaction. Access to unlimited information is only helpful when we have the ability to make meaning. I feel that attention to digital literacy is critical to innovations that will be positive for social and civic life in democracies.”

Gary L. Kreps, a distinguished professor of communication and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, wrote, “Open access to relevant information will inevitably spur social innovations and public collaborations. The ongoing evolution of new and powerful channels for digital communication will provide increased opportunities for information sharing and creative development of new and relevant social applications.”

Joshua New, senior policy analyst for the Center for Data Innovation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, predicted, “Connected and data-driven technologies can dramatically reduce barriers to social and civic innovation, such as challenges related to accessing human capital, network building, fundraising and advocacy. One particularly likely result of this will be the creation of significantly more decentralized social and civic innovations. Whereas the social and civic innovations of the past have relied on local communities, technology can allow for the connection of people with similar needs across local, state and even national boundaries.”

Matt Belge, founder and president of Vision and Logic, said, “Digital tools such as Facebook, email, websites and sharing sites are easy for the average person to access and use to organize others. They are much easier to use and access than previous-generation tools such as printing presses and television stations. For this reason, I expect that small groups with limited funds will have better access to organizing themselves than in previous generations. The downside is that these same tools can be manipulated by wealthy corporations and individuals as well as governments. We’ve already seen examples of that in the 2016 U.S. elections, when foreign, well-funded trolls attempted, and to some extent succeeded, in manipulating points of view. However, on the whole, the masses now have more access to tools that help them organize and get their ideas out than they have ever had in the past. For this reason, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy, although it is being severely tested at the time when I write these words.”

Gina Glantz, political strategist and founder of GenderAvenger, commented, “Digital communication, decision-making and technological innovation will have been an everyday experience virtually since birth for emerging leaders. Social innovation that allows technology to create human bonds and community action – begun by dating apps and the emergence of social-change organizations such as Indivisible – are bound to grow. Despite all the pitfalls accompanying issues of privacy and detrimental outside interference, the development of tools that create opportunities for the exchange of intergenerational experiences and the exposure and discussion of competing ideas is essential. There is no stopping technology. It must be harnessed for good.”

Jon Lebkowsky, CEO, founder and digital strategist at Polycot Associates, wrote, “Pessimism here is not an option: We have to leverage the aspects of technology that will support social and civic innovation and suppress the detrimental aspects that have emerged recently. One question: Who is the ‘we’ that will take effective action, and what actions might we take? Regulation is not enough: We must encourage broad and popular commitment to innovation and civic values. A first step to doing this is to overcome the noise and distraction promulgated by social media as a market for attention.”

There is no stopping technology. It must be harnessed for good. Gina Glantz

Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, said, “BOTH options are likely. Tech will be used BOTH to encourage and to attack civic/social innovation. Cryptocurrency is one example, as we move beyond the cash/credit system. Despite its supposed protections, crypto will be hacked in some way, and some people will suffer, if only from inability to use/understand the tech. Yet, its ultimate value – as well as the entire blockchain infrastructure – will prove very valuable for all kinds of secure transactions. I expect the march of tech will NOT be positive for many individuals.”

Amy Sample Ward, a director with the Nonprofit Technology Network, said, “Innovations are a response to a challenge, and we face many social and civil challenges now and will in the years to come. Interestingly, some of those challenges are the current technologies themselves. The internet in general, smartphones, applications are all tools that could fuel new ideas, and likely new technologies.”

Marc Brenman, managing partner of IDARE LLC, said, “Technology will influence social and civic innovation in both good and bad ways. We cannot predict what those new technologies will be. Perhaps science fiction writers can. We can extrapolate current developments. One technological development affects another; for example, climate change, global warming and ocean rise create the need for new technologies. But we may not be able to ‘technologize’ our way out of these problems. … The only improvements in the human condition that I see as a result of technology involve health. People will become more bionic. Genetic engineering will increase. Diagnosis will improve. Privacy will continue to erode.”

Shannon Ellis, an expert in data science and teaching professor, at the University of California, San Diego, said, “Note that the internet can remain free while data, information and systems can be regulated. There is space for both. I see the most potential for positive changes in social and civic innovation in the protection of individual privacy when it comes to their data. I look to the right to be forgotten and the ability to know where one’s data is being shared as critical in this space. As for social media and mental and physical health in this space, I think a lot still remains to be seen to see if there will be a positive outcome here.”

Peter Lunenfeld, professor of design, media arts and digital humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine,” wrote, “We will use technology to solve the problems the use of technology creates, but the new fixes will bring new issues. Every design solution creates a new design problem, and so it is with the ways we have built our global networks. Highly technological societies have to be iterative if they hope to compete, and I think that societies that have experienced democracy will move to curb the slide to authoritarianism that social media has accelerated. Those curbs will bring about their own unintended consequences, however, which will start the cycle anew.”

Matt Colborn, a freelance writer and futurist based in Europe, said, “Technology will BOTH contribute and prevent social and civic innovation. The main issue is that I think constant tech use is addling people’s brains, destroying attention spans and preventing critical thought. I’ve seen a number of instances where critical thought seems to drop to zero on the internet. One problem is that in virtual space, reality falls away, and only opinion is real. The potential for civic innovation is significant, but only if tech is seen as a facilitator and not the be all and end all. Actually, the main innovations shouldn’t be in technology (we’re awash with those) but in the social, economic and political spheres. Brian Martin has suggested a social experiment, with comparable funding to technology, where new political, social arrangements are tested small scale and scaled up. New tech could help facilitate this in an ancillary role. … One this is done, it will be more obvious where tech innovation will help, not the other way round.”

Technology can be used as a tool for ill purpose

Many of these experts describe how technology can be harnessed for malicious purposes. From damage caused by anonymous bad actors online to the market-driven systems built by powerful companies, these experts warn that many current uses of tech can be harmful.

The overriding emphasis on attention, money and control makes social and civic innovation difficult. Deana A. Rohlinger

Kenneth A. Grady, an adjunct professor and affiliate of the Center for Legal Innovation at the Michigan State University, commented, “The Industrial Age was fundamentally different from the Information Age in at least one key respect that affects how social and civic innovation will proceed: data. Today, those who have abundant data are positioned to influence social and civic innovation in ways that were not possible during the Industrial Age. Through tools such as targeted social media, gerrymandering, lobbying and PACs, those who hold the data can do far more to control the outcome of change efforts than their peers could 100 years ago. In some ways, this comes down to trust – citizens do not know who to trust for information. Those who have superior tools to influence that trust can do more to affect social and civic innovation.”

Deana A. Rohlinger, a professor of sociology at Florida State University whose expertise is political participation and politics, said, “It is possible that technology could contribute to social and civic innovation, but I am not terribly optimistic because of the tendency to monetize attention and the ability of stakeholders to cloak their identities in virtual spaces. First, social and civic change is less about involving people in causes and connecting them to one another in meaningful ways and more about getting attention (and funds) for initiatives and causes. This shift means that community roots are not very deep, and, ultimately, we need people and technology working together to affect change. Second, not all social and civic efforts are designed to help people. Astroturf groups such as Working Families for Walmart intentionally work against innovation and corporate change. In recent years, astroturf groups have increasingly attached themselves to legitimate organizations in an effort to maintain control over virtual spaces (e.g., telecom companies giving money to civic groups and asking them to oppose net neutrality in return). The overriding emphasis on attention, money and control makes social and civic innovation difficult.”

J.A. English-Lueck, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, co-founder of the Silicon Valley Cultures Project, observed, “Social movements are the most impactful of the mechanisms for cultural change, and communication’s technologies can accelerate such movements’ ability to gather members. New technologies that enhance immersion and empathy, such as artificial reality and virtual reality, are particularly powerful. It is important to remember that social movements that foment change do not all head in the same direction. For example, civil rights activists and white supremacists coexist and represent radically different perspectives on the dilemma of multicultural America. The dark side of the change-fomenting technologies is the fragmentation that will unfold as different communities deepen their commitment to a particular form of change and the distances between communities broaden.”

Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, said, “The options in this question are constructed very problematically. Innovation and improvement are not the same things. Many ‘innovations’ have done far more social damage – in the short run and in the long run – because of the weakness in our moral and political capacity to turn these innovations to constructive social purpose. So, of course, there will be innovation. Whether it turns out to be positive or negative depends in large part on who hold the power to make choices about its use and how wise those choices are. We have to look at the power question in order to evaluate possibilities.”

Forget the tool and focus on the root cause of change; human nature is shaping the future

Many of these experts say that change is coming but technology use is not the thing to watch. Technology may be used while the change is unfolding or by activists who want to produce it, but technology is not the root cause of the change. From political shifts to climate change, the experts in this canvassing suggest many tumultuous areas that will play a role in the changes that will occur in the coming decade. In many cases, these experts assert that human element will be essential in deciding the type of change these noteworthy areas will produce.

danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, wrote, “Technology will be used by those who are thoughtful about social innovation, but it won’t actually serve as the driving factor. When we talk about the opportunities for social innovation, we have to culturally contextualize ourselves. I’m going to start with the U.S.: Technology in the U.S. is caught up in American late-stage (or financialized) capitalism where profitability isn’t the goal; perpetual return on investment is. Given this, the tools that we’re seeing developed by corporations reinforce capitalist agendas. Innovation will require pushing past this capitalist infrastructure to achieve the social benefits and civic innovation that will work in the United States. China is a whole other ball of wax.”

Serge Marelli, an IT professional based in Luxembourg who works on and with the net, wrote “Technology is just a tool. Technology will not ‘create’ any (magical) solution to mitigate misuse of the same technology. Compare this with our miserable failure to mitigate the effects of pollution and global warming. We know what is necessary, but we humans as a group find ourselves unable to effect change. We are facing the powers of huge companies and lobbies who are looking for short-term economic rentability (growth) whereas Humanity and politics should look for long-term sustainability. We could use technology and the rule of law to reduce the negative influence of technology, or of companies or of lobbies. We haven’t done it in the past 30 years – how and why should we suddenly change this? (Even though I believe such a change is more than necessary, our survival, survival of our societies and of our civilisation depend on such a change.)”

Barry Parr, technology marketer at Delphix, previously an innovator and analyst in online journalism, commented, “Civic and social innovation depends on spheres that are less influenced by technology and more by people and money: health care, social insurance, increased democracy, accountability, antitrust.”

Richard Lachmann, professor of political sociology at the State University of New York, Albany, said, “So far the internet and other technologies have had a marginal effect or at best reinforced existing developments. Journalistic coverage for the Arab Spring, for example, way underplayed the role of the Muslim Brotherhood or labor unions and instead gave an exaggerated heroic role to Twitter or to a single Google employee in Egypt. We now see, thanks to the work of real Middle Eastern specialists, that these early stories were misleading and, as much U.S. journalism does, strained to give pride of place to American individuals, corporations or technology. Real social and civic innovation comes from real social interactions between live individuals who create or revive organizations such as political parties, unions, churches and social movements.”

Sanoussi Baahe Dadde, a self-employed internet consultant, observed, “We must understand that as the population of the world grows we are getting better scientists, young leaders with the motivation to enact lasting development, creative people and so many wonderful things. … So I think there is success in social and civic innovation.”

Real social and civic innovation comes from real social interactions between live individuals who create or revive organizations such as political parties, unions, churches and social movements. Richard Lachmann


Dick Hardt, an entrepreneur and speaker on digital life and politics, said, “Some technologies will have a positive impact on social and civic innovation. Other technologies will have a negative impact. In the end, the technology will not be a major factor in social and civic innovation. New thinking and observations will be the major factor in social and civic innovation.”

Richard Jones, an entrepreneur based in Europe, said, “Today’s adults have to embrace responsibility for things with ramifications beyond their understanding or control. Insurance was a concept developed to address changes at one time faced on new investment and activity as was clean air legislation. It seems similar innovation is required to address the vulnerability of people to issues beyond their control. I wish I had a crystal ball! I know subject/citizen pressure will call for platforms to fix bias, propaganda, lies and a whole range of perceived problems. Currently I’m concerned this constrains free speech and thereby makes ‘approved think’ troubling. The whole edifice is built on shaky foundations so whether the pressure resolves itself positively is just my stab at whether it’ll be resolved or fail.”

Sam Punnett, futurist and consultant at FAD Research, said, “I don’t believe technology use through social and civic innovation will ‘significantly’ reduce challenges of the digital age. I believe it will address some problems and create others. Digital affairs will continue to be a disruptive force. Credibility of media, disruption of financial business in banking and insurance, cyber and ransom attacks of institutions, all will continue to challenge society’s capacity to adapt. Our ability to deal with digital age problems should improve with an evolution in leadership away from pre-internet incumbents. While it is difficult to be optimistic, I am compelled to be so. There is quite a gap in social and civic innovation between my own country, Canada and the United States. In my opinion the U.S. has regressed with its current administration and failed to keep up with the rest of the developed world during previous administrations in the areas of social and civic innovation. The problem is political, centering around vision and leadership. Having grown up in the U.S. I have confidence that America can change course.”

Prepare for changes in democracy

Some respondents to this canvassing believe a tipping point is at hand in government and civic behavior. They said the realities of 2030 will be determined by the changes that emerge from this tipping point.

Kevin Carson, an independent scholar on issues of post-capitalist and post-state transition, wrote, “Once we experience a leftward demographic tipping point we’ll be well underway into a decades-long post-capitalist and post-carbon transition. Relatively near-term reforms might include universal basic income, modern monetary theory and a rollback of the kind of maximalist ‘intellectual property’ legislation that is at the core of most economic rent extraction by corporations. I also expect the proliferating municipalist experiments in Barcelona, Madrid, Bologna, Preston, Jackson, etc., and the commons-based local economic models they are developing (land trusts, stakeholder cooperative utilities and services, etc.) to be the most significant seeds that the successor society will grow from. Governments will become more platform-like on the partner state model.”

Tony Patt, a professor of climate policy at ETH Zurich and author of “Transforming Energy: Solving Climate Change with Technology Policy,” said, “We are emerging from a period of several decades dominated by neoliberal political beliefs during which it was assumed that the private sector – firms motivated primarily by profits – would make the critical decisions for the organization of society and the meeting of human wants and needs. This was not a good time for social and civic innovation, which is about leadership coming from other types of human organisations: public agencies steered by democratic governance and nonprofit organisations steered by a desire for social development and justice. We are reawakening to the need for these two latter sets of institutions to play a critical role in shaping society. As we wake up, I believe we will realize that it has been a mistake to leave the management of data – including social-networking data – to the for-profit private sector, and that leaving it to the private sector can create sharp divides in society. In previous generations we created institutions like public libraries, public and nonprofit schools and universities, even postal services, to manage the information and data of the data in a manner that met other societal objectives. These will be a model for the future. I haven’t thought hard about what the institutions will look like.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, wrote, “Useful civic technology already exists in programs like Taiwan’s, the Enspiral Network’s Loomio and OpenPlans. The problem is that these solutions are nascent and not yet contagious. Just as LinkedIn ate the modern resume and Facebook ate our social lives, what if a new platform became more credible than voting? We don’t need better voting every four years; we need credible, distributed, ongoing collaboration among citizens.”

Knowledge of issues is needed to form solutions

Two experts expect that greater emphasis will be placed in better identifying the most vital issues and then informing people of these issues. These experts emphasize a growing focus on discussions and connections. Others are not sure, though, that this type of change will come soon.

Paul Jones, founder and director of ibiblio and a professor of information science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote, “Identifying problems and challenges is the first step toward solutions to those problems. We will require and acquire a consensus as to management of the data and tools that can bind us and serve us. One thing that has become quickly obvious is that as we continue the irregular and rocky path to becoming truly global, common problems and best practice solutions – while somewhat local – will be part of our discussions. … Relatives and friends half a world away connect us to a more global sense. Not just in the case of disasters or riots, but in the mundane ways our lives are enriched through recipes, entertainments, sports and the urge to travel. People knowing people and in communication with people creates greater communities. Not perfect communities, but overall more connections and commonalities. Expect more global movements and more local movements connected globally.”

Bebo White, internet pioneer and longtime leader of the International World Wide Web conference, wrote, “Relief must come in order for much of the using population to retain faith in the value of the technology. It would be very hard for a general user population to differentiate which technological tools can be trusted and which not. For example, for a general, nontechnical user, why should they trust Wikipedia and not trust Facebook?”

Amali De Silva-Mitchell, a futurist and consultant participating in multi-stakeholder, global internet governance processes, commented, “Social innovation that is effective for social change is critical. However, it is possible there may be a lot of money spent on talk but no action. Talk, however, is essential to have even the minimal foundation for social innovation. It will be worrying if there is no real impact of the majority of voices which are listened to through data collections but brushed over by civil society going after safe funding and by elected officials not seeing a future vision and working only in the present. We require real champions for advocating issues and carrying them to term who will have freedom of expression and no brush over. We have to take care of quick and major shifts due to populism by all parties in the absence of good risk-management practices being upheld or glossed over. Too much of broad-brush stroke policy can also be an issue.”

Climate change is a pressing threat that will shape society

Several experts spoke to how climate change will factor into social and civic innovation in the coming decade.

Tim Bray, a technology leader who has worked for Amazon, Google and Sun Microsystems, wrote, “If we are to survive the incoming environmental devastation, we will be forced willy-nilly to bring all our human capabilities to bear on what amounts to a war footing. Imminent existential threats tend to sweep mercenary self-interests aside and focus the mind on making the best use of the tools available to us, obviously including internet-based social and civic technologies. Among other things, the malignant technology choices that have helped get us into this mess should have become thoroughly discredited.”

We will see tools for collective action at both global and local scales; tools for sharing information and resources, for fact-checking and rooting out malicious actors. Daniel Estrada

Barbara Simons, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, commented, “The bottom line is that climate change will dominate everything else. I would hope that people will finally start addressing climate change as the enormous threat that it is, but it’s hard to keep up hope with all that is happening today.”

Daniel Estrada, a digital humanities and ethics lecturer at New Jersey Institute of Technology, said, “A changing environment, in the form of mass migration, food and water shortages and other health and governance emergencies, will impose a demand for social and civic change. These emergencies will require people to organize networks of support online. We will see tools for collective action at both global and local scales; tools for sharing information and resources, for fact-checking and rooting out malicious actors. We will also see increasing use of AI technologies, both as tools of oppression and as tools to resist digital oppression. The new laws banning facial-recognition technologies and requiring bot disclosure give some hints of the legal and political landscape to come.”

Denise N. Rall, an academic researcher of popular culture at Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia, predicted, “Social and civic innovation will be held hostage to environmental degradation and the global scramble among the economic powers to secure scarcer and scarcer resources.”

Social changes in the technology industry are looming

Several experts see change beginning to occur within tech companies. They expect that, depending upon the real-world results of these turning points, wider-reaching changes may occur.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, previously senior adviser to national security adviser Susan Rice, said, “As technology companies grow in size, we should expect to see social movements WITHIN companies have increasing effect (e.g., the anti-war/anti-military backlash against Project Maven), not only within companies themselves but externally. This path is fraught with potential upsides and downsides, but the political norms and values of tech workers will begin to have as much sway as, for example, Texas textbooks do in shaping American society.”

Tom Dietterich, director of intelligent systems at Oregon State University, commented, “I predict that the service providers on ‘sharing’ platforms, such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, etc., will form ‘digital unions’ (or similar organizations) and that, with the help of legislation and regulation, they will level the playing field between the companies and the service providers. We are already seeing some digital-enabled strikes (Lyft drivers organizing via social media). This will promote a negotiation over the prices that the companies are charging. An interesting question is how the customers (riders on Uber, renters on Airbnb) will be engaged. Will they support these job actions? I suspect they will, because they have more direct contact with the service providers than they do with the companies. In the policy space, we are already seeing the crowdsourcing of data collection in cities. I predict we will also see the crowdsourcing of data analysis and auditing to support policymaking and policy execution. We will need to empower the public to audit the automated decision-making processes of government and corporations. Social media platforms will need to change to reduce the risk of ‘cognitive infections’ that spread misinformation. At this point, we need much more research to develop policy ideas and counter measures. I think we should treat this from a public health perspective.”

Marcus Foth, a professor of urban informatics at Queensland University of Technology, said, “People usually do not put up with societal issues and challenges and in turn seek to address such challenges. There is emerging evidence that the planetary health, climate emergency and societal challenges we are facing today are contributing to the rise of social and civic innovation already. Examples I am thinking of include: A labour union for tech workers in Silicon Valley type of platform companies: Blockchain technology for good: Privacy-by-design and autonomy-by-design policy responses to tech and data ethics challenges.”

Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media at MIT, wrote, “On the bright side, there is a growing movement among technologists to rethink the ways we develop and deploy technology. Unfolding movements like #TechWontBuildIt are based on tech workers’ desire to hold their companies accountable for harmful activities. There is increasing interest in how to co-design technologies together with marginalized communities, as reflected in the emergence of groups like the Design Justice Network. Newer generations of technologists are deeply invested in how social justice values might be reflected in the companies and products they dedicate their time to.”

Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, commented, “Tech worker movements are a promising form of resistance that seems to be picking up momentum. Not too long ago, it seemed reasonable to expect that a hyper-competitive labor market would have left tech workers too afraid to speak out and challenge management on ethical, legal, and political issues. When a key message of capitalism is that everyone is fundamentally replaceable, fear easily dominates the workforce and manifests in chilled speech and action. Fortunately, we’re seeing promising signs that conscience is not so easily suppressed and solidarity is achievable.”

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