Whether we realise it or not, we all are shaping a new civic space. The recent implementation worldwide of robust “social distancing” measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 has led to an explosion in social networking.  Although with us for some time already – from social media chatter to keeping in touch with remote or isolated family and friends, from online fun to fact checking and  online learning, to the serious business of workshops, seminars, even major conferences “going digital”, e-communication is set to become the new normal.  Suddenly a new civic space is developing all around us, offering those of us who are “connected” as citizens and consumers, the chance to shape it as we see best.

Your Public Value asked Beris Gwynne, former diplomat and international relations expert, to share her thoughts on the implications this might have for global efforts to accelerate action along transformative pathways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals:

The impact of social distancing on the digitisation of social networking and implications for the restoration and preservation of “civic” space

“Having had three of four events on my calendar (the World Summit on the Information Society 15thAnniversary Forum in Geneva, the World Humanitarian Forum in London and the Triple Bottom Line Investing (TBLI) Conference in Zurich) postponed in the space of a week, when TBLI Chair, Robert Rubenstein asked on LinkedIn for views on webinars as an alternative to COVID-19 related cancellations, I responded immediately.

“Many of us have protested for years that there’s no substitute for face-to-face! We’re social beings, we thrive in positive environments that have a “personal” touch. We learn more from observation and first-hand experience of other cultures and points of view. But we are entering a phase where urgently needed conversations are being pre-empted, for very good reasons.  These include climate change/air miles, time and resource constraints and, perhaps less persuasively in the hub-bub of international conferencing, the recognition by some of the barriers to participation for a very significant number of people operating in less privileged societies. With the COVID19 pandemic, whether we “like” it or not, we need a rapid change of gear to mobilise the full capacity of digital communication to avoid loss of momentum and to “accelerate action along transformational pathways” to paraphrase the theme for the 2020 UN High Level Political Forum.

Although not in the mainstream, a lot is known already about when and how to conduct online meetings and existing socially-responsible public-private partnerships are well placed to

  1. increase free or low-cost access to the best in design and delivery for “online learning”, crowd consulting, networking/communities of practice, “match-making”, etc.;
  2. promote/provide orientation/training in the required skill sets (from remote facilitation to technical competencies) optimising “open source”, but also to
  3. support the development of localised (preferably SME and social economy) business models – purposefully inclusive and redistributive rather than extractive).”

The conversations that followed online were significant in several respects: 

Crisis or Opportunity

Virginie Coulloudon (Your Public Value) observed that the required social distancing offers a unique opportunity to reflect on #thefuturewechoose and on how each of us has a role, perhaps a responsibility to help shape the #world we want.  And she’s right.  If our frame of reference is crisis and disruption, our negativity will encourage them and us, zero-sum game thinking, undermine the broader Agenda 2030 vision and inhibit our chances of dumping strategies that are no longer fit-for-purpose in a world that is in a state of “#planetaryemergency”.  Our attachment to outdated and unhelpful world views and systems is holding back the mobilisation of resources to take known remedies to scale and delaying the discovery of new, paradigm-shifting solutions.  In the Anthropocene epoch, abdication of human agency is not an option as decisions are being made now that will frame plausible scenarios for present and future generations.

Our attachment to outdated systems is holding back the mobilisation of resources to take known remedies to scale paradigm-shifting solutions

Understanding public value as “value-created for all through positive action in the name of society and the environment“, Your Public Value has taken its multi-stakeholder consultations online with its first Digital #PublicValue Lab on 31 March and is planning to reproduce digital labs twice a month.  The Geneva Learning Foundation followed a similar line (opportunity not crisis), offering to share its considerable experience, to de-mystify and deal with sometimes exaggerated concerns  at an online event “Don’t cancel or postpone… Go digital!” on 24thMarch. Max Hardy confirmed, Yes, it’s possible to engage well, online. The tools are there. We just need to apply solid principles with the right tools. It can be done!”, providing a number of pointers at an online webinar the following days.

Instead of being discounted as a less desirable substitute for the heart-warming and ego boosting “theatre” of face to face events, Max suggested that competent management of increasingly sophisticated online meeting platforms can add value by extending and democratising participation, providing opportunities to optimise the presentation of complex issues, enabling dynamic and robust consultation and capturing different points of view. Jessica Chen, Soulcast Media uploaded a series of short video presentations on ways to prepare for video conferencing, introducing many of the skills and techniques that help to personalise e-communication and compensate for the lack of physical proximity. 

Within a matter of days, with COVID19 pushing all other global issues aside, these three contributions from public spirited entrepreneurs, came as a call to action, demonstrating the potential to use video conferencing for good. But they also triggered, for me a least, a concern that despite the game-changing potential of digitalisation, it is NOT a magic bullet solution for current complexities. There’s a “dark” side.

Digital dividend or digital divide

In response to Max’s comments about community engagement, I jumped in to suggest that other constituencies be included, nervous that use of “community engagement” or NGO language might deter public sector or corporate partners and reinforce the tendency for colonisation of multi-stakeholder processes by the rich and powerful, even the best intentioned.  Without careful attention to the many asymmetries, authentic consultative processes are discounted as time consuming and unhelpful and particular points of view and advantage some at the expense of others.

Without careful attention to the many asymmetries, authentic consultative processes are discounted as time consuming and unhelpful.

Around since the 1990s, web-based communication has revolutionised communication for for-profit or public purposes, but global statistics reveal that while 86.9% of people living in (so-called) developed countries used the internet in 2019, the percentage for “developing” countries is less than 50%. Behind statistics, even a cursory analysis gives further cause for concern as nations weigh the costs of

  • accelerated consumption and indebtedness alongside a growing sense of inequity,
  • increasing levels of alienation, anxiety, and disengagement in wealthy societies alongside growing desperation among the less advantaged, and
  • declining confidence in the adequacy of existing political and socio-economic institutions to navigate the challenges ahead.

Our world is at a crisis point, suffering from an economic status quo that aggravates climate change and poverty. The world economy must urgently embrace solutions to positively impact on society and the environment. The Public Value approach allows business to do this while ensuring their own resilience and sustainability. Expectations are growing for corporations to develop a growth strategy that addresses the world’s sustainability and societal challenges.  Your Public Value

Embracing complexity

That the Eurasia Group expects the current pandemic to shift global attention and resources away from addressing climate change is a matter for concern, given the predisposition of current response mechanisms to reinforce the current distribution of power and resources, pre-empt the kinds of corrections that are needed to assure sustainable futures, increasing inequality and vulnerability and undermining the foundations of international solidarity. Worst case, we could see incentivisation of consumption-led growth and longer than desirable transitions to green economies and climate-smart practices at the food/water/energy nexus.

With this scenario in mind, we can only welcome the growing support expressed by the real “leaders” of the world, some well known, others unrecognised, for the Open Letter published recently by the Planetary Emergency Partnership. Calling for a holistic recovery plan, the letter draws on the work of the Club of Rome and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and others to remind opinion and decision makers of the underlying drivers of urges a lasting balance between people, prosperity and our planetary boundaries .  

Doing well by doing right

For decades, in low, middle and high income States, community development experts have pronounced on the importance of a “holistic approach grounded in principles of empowerment, human rights, inclusion, social justice, self-determination and collective action”.  In parallel, the United Nations system has spearheaded the elaboration of frameworks for multi-stakeholder governance, encouraging multi-stakeholder partnerships, drawing on widely endorsed norms of behaviour for civilised societies – whether faith-based or secular. Leading business schools have long taught a variety of “relational skills” to improve positioning, productivity and profit. 

AI, Big Data, Deep and machine Learning may well hold the key to our being able to re-balance people, prosperity and planetary boundaries, but not if they are not directed, unambiguously, to this end. The potential for ineffective or careless or purposeful misuse of these capabilities has to be acknowledged, requiring that determined steps be taken, firstly, to prioritise the competencies that The World Economic Forum and others have said will be key to success in the Fourth Industrial Revolution as critically important goals in global education systems; and secondly, to allocate resources for professionally managed partnership brokering and facilitation – beyond current box-ticking to overwhelm silo thinking.

Re-building trust in a new civic space

For the second year in a row, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that no institution – not NGOs, Business, Media or Government – was seen as both competent and ethical, and identified divergent trends in relation to the trust-worthiness of all four constituencies, with greatest pessimism evident in OECD countries and optimism highest in emerging economies.  Ethical drivers (integrity, dependability, purpose) were estimated at three times more important to establish company trust than competence, but at the same time, trust was found to have declined across the board, with the most significant losses in the technology, entertainment, consumer packaged goods, energy, automotive, and education sectors.

In this respect, a third imperative emerges, which is to invest in new approaches to performance measurement and reporting (eg Blue Marble Evaluation and Relational Analytics) that incentivise and report transparently on progress towards more holistic approaches and more disciplined, more responsible behaviour. 

Mobilising people power for public value

Although not unmindful of the carbon footprint of digitalisation, while the digital economy, advertising and entertainment, and social networking continue unabated, the world cannot afford to suspend conversations/negotiations regarding the “accelerated actions and transformative pathways” recommended by the HLPF as necessary if our species is to optimise outcomes. In our VUCA world, effective stakeholder engagement is a matter of common sense but it can quickly be subverted if poorly or only partly aligned.  We need to mobilise people power for public value – enabling and encouraging convergence within and between communities and constituencies to re-civilise and re-take “civic” space, local to global.”

Your Public Value is interested in how you envisage the “After COVID-19” world. Please send your thoughts and contributions to contact (AT) yourpublicvalue.org 


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