We live in a world of major geopolitical shifts and life-changing technological innovations. It’s fair to wonder, then, what our biggest hopes are for society in the coming decades.
It’s certain that the world has become a better place, according to nearly every measure of human well-being, and yet there is a need to acknowledge that new and looming challenges are looming. From the rise of nationalism, to increased demands for privacy, following widespread data leaks; from balancing growing human needs with planetary and environmental limits, to the impacts of sophisticated automation on people’s lives.
The list is long, and there is undoubtedly space for all stakeholders – policy-makers, civil society, corporations, media, academia – to take responsible action that brings about a stable, sustainable and peaceful world.
In this context, the work of civil society has become of even greater importance.
Civil society is a dedicated and committed problem-solver, but it seems clear that it needs to step up its efforts to adapt to a new reality of rapidly changing interconnected problems. When we look at the numbers, it appears the sector has the size and scale globally to be able to robustly adjust to change.
In the past, civil society organizations have found it difficult to statistically measure the economic impact of their work and the size of their sector; but data and new research has changed that. Recent figures provide evidence of a far larger force than previously predicted, amounting to $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures, and employing the equivalent of an estimated 54 million full-time workers globally, along with over 350 million volunteers.
But adapting is not enough. Innovation, creativity and transformation are imperatives in the sector if it’s to tackle the big challenges of our time.
So what's next for civil society? Here are the key considerations:
- Reworking the relationship with the private sector
Meanwhile, businesses have become more visibly engaged with the social and environmental agenda.
Multinational companies, and those operating on a global scale in particular, have been increasingly proactive in the field of sustainability. With 10% of publicly owned companies accounting for 80% of profits, the market dominance of a growing concentration of multinational corporate power – while worrisome in some regards – provides leverage to positively influence public policy and accelerate societal investments.
On an engagement spectrum ranging from bland PR to corporate activism and forceful campaigns addressing sensitive social and political issues, the corporate sector has emerged as a partner for change on social and environmental issues.
From the implementation of the Paris Agreements to the United Nations development goals, the international community is expecting businesses to be as responsible as government and civil society for progressing the sustainable development agenda. It expects business to contribute private-sector competences, such as innovation and efficiency, as well as resources, like assets and financial support, in the process.
In this respect, civil society’s relationship with business has become more nuanced and sophisticated, with interesting examples of forward-looking collaborative partnerships and unlikely alliances emerging.
This relationship is helped by the increasingly online nature of political organizing and civic engagement. On the one hand, online tools make it easier for individuals and civil society actors to mobilize and join efforts; on the other hand, corporate ownership of these tools has implications for the ability to safeguard individuals’ privacy and internet access rights.
- Technology matters
Civil society is facing a dramatic transition as it moves into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This raises key operational concerns and questions about its ability to stay agile, to understand and respond to the impact of technology on the communities civil society organizations have traditionally served.
Some of these transformations mean an enhanced role for civil society; others challenge the sector to define its responsibilities and contributions in the context of a hyper-connected world. The sector has built at least a decade of knowledge on engaging with information and communication technologies (ICTs); but digitization and the emerging proliferation of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, 3D printing, blockchain and other technologies warrant a new level of preparedness, investment and adaptation for most of today’s civil groups.
It is not simply a matter of integrating innovations and capacities in services, products and programmes. The widespread use of big data across sectors has ushered in new challenges associated with accountability, fairness, trust and transparency that could negatively affect societies by engendering discrimination, injustice and the exclusion of vulnerable populations.
The sector needs to develop a nuanced understanding of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its implications for society and, consequently, its impact on how civil society champions human rights, delivers services for sustainable development, and fosters dialogue on society’s values.
Civil society leaders should develop a vision of their role in influencing the development and deployment of emerging technologies in the market to ensure these are harnessed for social good, and that beneficiaries – and humanity in general – are protected from harm.
- Innovation is the new normal
Innovation has become even more critical in the non-profit sector in recent years. This applies in all contexts, whether it is devising new ways to deliver services, adapting to difficult legislation, creating new partnership models with the private sector, setting new benchmarks for workers’ rights in the digital revolution, or rethinking the relationship with technologies and their governance.
New responsibilities are falling on the shoulders of civil society leaders, and the sector needs to show its ability to remain agile and adaptive, and to pioneer new approaches and solutions to social development through responsible innovation and inclusive technology. It needs to do this the civil society way.
Working with innovative organizations committed to improving the state of the world is at the heart of the World Economic Forum, as the international institution for public-private cooperation. Over the next few days we will be featuring on our blog platform, Agenda, inspiring stories of how civil society is transforming itself and embracing and influencing a technology-enabled world.
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This article was written by Silvia Magnoni Head of Civil Society Communities and first appeared on the World Economic Forum website: https://www.weforum.org