Mosquitos can take on elephants

Reflections from Civitates’ and the European AI Fund’s ecosystem building workshop


copyright: Harry Burton
copyright: Harry Burton

In the battle to shape digital technologies so that they serve the public interest, civil society is up against the vast resources and influence of the tech industry. That’s a daunting challenge for a sector that’s still small and emergent and to meet it, civil society needs to collaborate. That’s why   last November, Civitates and the European AI Fund brought together 40 people from their grantees that work on different aspects of digital and tech policy to foster connections and identify the best ways to support each other. Along with participants from our funding partners, they exchanged inspirational ideas for collective action from other sectors like the climate movement, gained insights into EU advocacy strategies, and reflected on the infrastructure that is needed to work better together.

The event (the first time many of the participants had been able to meet in person) created fantastic energy and generated a multitude of ideas to develop further. These are some of the most striking themes.

Grow the pie: the more civil society organisations that work on tech issues, the better. Powerful interests are at play in tech policy and though civil society may initially seem like a mosquito taking on an elephant, a swarm of mosquitos could make a real difference.

For civil society to become a swarm of mosquitoes in the tech field and to have a positive impact on the wide range of regulation being developed by policymakers in Europe requires breadth of representation and roles, depth of capacity, and connection. That means the pie needs to grow in several aspects: the number and diversity of organisations, the amount of funding, and the capacity of the organisations to do this work.

copyright: Harry Burton

Communication and narrative: tech companies won’t give up the influence they have in shaping policy and public debates easily. For decision-makers to be able to reimagine the digital sphere, they need a new narrative. There hasn’t been a better time for civil society to step in with a new range of politically viable possibilities. Investment in strategic communication can help to promote new ideas and alternatives for responsible and public-interest-driven technology.

Continue to build trust: participants want consistent and deep engagement and community-building to nurture relationships in the field. This would mean that organisations that don’t traditionally work on tech should be part of these conversations and gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

Connecting the different layers of the ecosystem: The negative impacts of technology are felt by people and communities, not in policy circles. To strengthen the ecosystem, it is important to have a strong connection between the local, the national level, where much of the enforcement of relevant legislation happens, and the EU level, where regulations are drafted.

Making the ecosystem more resilient: a resilient ecosystem means long-term core-funding and support for leadership and management. While both Civitates and the European AI fund share this view and try to implement it in our grant-making practices, more is needed to ensure that philanthropy is doing its share responsibly and supporting grantees in the way that is most needed. There’s also a need to support smaller grassroots organisations, as well as organisations representing marginalised communities and build a stable ecosystem of funders in this space.

It’s encouraging that a number of ad hoc initiatives and collaborations have emerged from the event and are already bearing fruit. But without time and capacity to nurture these connections they can be hard to sustain. Civitates and the European AI Fund will continue to work together to ensure we build on the ideas that were generated at this meeting and work strategically to cultivate an ecosystem that will empower civil society to create lasting change in the public interest.

copyright: Harry Burton
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