Tech and Innovation to Re-engage Civic Life

Hollie Russon Gilman at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Sometimes even the best-intentioned policymakers overlook the power of people. And even the best-intentioned discussions on social impact and leveraging big data for the social sector can obscure the power of every-day people in their communities.

But time and time again, I’ve seen the transformative power of civic engagement when initiatives are structured well. For example, the other year I witnessed a high school student walk into a school auditorium one evening during Boston’s first-ever youth-driven participatory budgeting project. Participatory budgeting gives residents a structured opportunity to work together to identify neighborhood priorities, work in tandem with government officials to draft viable projects, and prioritize projects to fund. Elected officials in turn pledge to implement these projects and are held accountable to their constituents. Initially intrigued by an experiment in democracy (and maybe the free pizza), this student remained engaged over several months, because she met new members of her community; got to interact with elected officials; and felt like she was working on a concrete objective that could have a tangible, positive impact on her neighborhood.

For many of the young participants, ages 12-25, being part of a participatory budgeting initiative is the first time they are involved in civic life. Many were excited that the City of Boston, in collaboration with the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project, empowered young people with the opportunity to allocate $1 million in public funds. Through participating, young people gain invaluable civic skills, and sometimes even a passion that can fuel other engagements in civic and communal life.

This is just one example of a broader civic and social innovation trend. Across the globe, people are working together with their communities to solve seemingly intractable problems, but as diverse as those efforts are, there are also commonalities. Well-structured civic engagement creates the space and provides the tools for people to exert agency over policies. When citizens have concrete objectives, access to necessary technology (whether it’s postcards, trucks, or open data portals), and an eye toward outcomes, social change happens.

Using Technology to Distribute Expertise

Technology is allowing citizens around the world to participate in solving local, national, and global problems. When it comes to large, public bureaucracies, expertise is largely top-down and concentrated. Leveraging technology creates opportunities for people to work together in new ways to solve public problems. One way is through civic crowdfunding platforms like, which cities can use to develop public sector projects for citizen support; several cities in Rhode Island, Oregon, and Philadelphia have successfully pooled citizen resources to fund new public works. Another way is through citizen science. Old Weather, a crowdsourcing project from the National Archives and Zooniverse, enrolls people to transcribe old British ship logs to identify climate change patterns. Platforms like these allow anyone to devote a small amount of time or resources toward a broader public good. And because they have a degree of transparency, people can see the progress and impact of their efforts. ….(More)”