5 challenges for civil society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

5 challenges for civil society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Watch any Hollywood science fiction movie, and there comes a point in every storyline where the advanced technologies meant to improve life start to show signs of impending disaster. Typically this is when the skeptical character is finally heard, and the team of heroes regroups to make a plan to move forward together.

From faith-based charities and labour unions working to improve worker conditions in 18th- and 19th-century Great Britain to the rise of global NGOs and the development of public service innovation labs, civil society has constantly stood in the gap for workers, marginalized populations and others when the progress of industry and government during these industrial revolutions failed to trickle down.

Civil society organizations co-evolved in response to major breakthroughs and societal shifts of past industrial revolutions. The arrival of the steam engine, steel manufacturing and railways corresponded with unsafe working conditions, child labour and rising urban pollution and disease. Civil society leaders such as Octavia Hill, Henry Dunant, Isaac Myers, Emma Mashinini and others began to organize their efforts and use private goods and resources for public benefit in new ways. Mass education, health care, safety measures and other social services scaled by governments find their origins as prototypes and policy positions pushed by civil society from the late 1800s to today in most countries around the world.

The civil society sector as a whole has evolved in scope and scale in the last hundred years. According to the 2017 report conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center on Civil Society Studies, the global civil society sector today has mushroomed into a global workforce of 350 million professionals and volunteers, “outdistancing major industries in the scale of its workforce and in its contribution to social and economic life.” Put differently, if the global civil society workforce were a country, it would be the third most populated country in the world following China and India.

Despite the growth of the sector today, several barriers continue to widen the gap between the sector’s ultimate goals and its capacity and agility to respond to systems change. With each industrial revolution, the adoption of widespread systems of social protection to help people respond to the technological changes of the time required several generations of civil society advocacy and policy support. Philip Jennings, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, recently noted in an interview that it took over 60 years of pressure from labour unions during the first industrial revolution for legislation to be passed in Great Britain to improve worker conditions even slightly.

As artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies begin to be deployed widely, what’s new about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how will civil society respond and adapt to coming shifts in technology, industry and power in a rapidly changing and fractured world?

Image: World Economic Forum

The Fourth Industrial Revolution introduces particularly new challenges relative to past revolutions—signs of which we are already seeing today:

1. Persistent risks to digital rights through the sheer interconnectedness of new technologies

As the proliferation of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as Internet of Things, 3D printing, and genetic editing build on advances in digital and AI capabilities, the risks and impacts related to data protection, algorithmic bias, discrimination and privacy are exponentially increased. Digital risks will take on greater physical consequences, deepening existing inequality and discrimination in ways that would be nearly impossible to trace or understand in human capacity. While the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a step in the right direction in terms of digital rights, the emergence of new technologies used by civil society and governments such as humanitarian delivery drones and biometric databases exposes the lack of standards or guidelines for collecting and using sensitive data. Additionally, cybersecurity threats loom over the civil society sector, as hackers have increasingly begun targeting charities, hospitals, and other nonprofits who collect personal, financial, and genetic data from some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, as well as some of the most vulnerable.

2. High-powered propaganda tools in the attention economy

Never before have such high-powered propaganda tools been deployed in society. From the filter bubbles that define our algorithmically curated social media experiences to online bots misrepresenting public voices in an online government comment system, the digital information ecosystem is rife with disinformation, distraction, and misrepresentation.

While search engines and social media provide numerous benefits for collective intelligence and participation, their governance focuses on attention and advertising instead of accuracy, with variation in government policies, protections and accountability. Facebook and Google’s social media news aggregators have driven advertising dollars away from traditional and local news media, calling the digital news business model into question.

However, as organizations committed to transparency, accountability and truth, civil society faces considerable ethical challenges in the attention economy in how the sector wields the data, information and digital identities it collects and manages. Civil society is indeed not immune from spreading disinformation. As new AI-driven propaganda tools may deepen empathy or elicit more funding, what principles govern how civil society handles its digital resources and what legal policies ensure the digital rights of often the most vulnerable people on the planet?

3. Navigating the relationship with new digital social movements

More and more people have begun to participate in local, national and global activism through social media platforms, pushing social problems and gaps in policy to the forefront – from #BlackLivesMatter to #metoo. Varying in political and social mission, these decentralized digital social movements can gather followings much larger than the reach of older, established civil society organizations lacking significant digital footprint. As more people use social media and future technologies for global debate and activism, how will established civil society organizations show solidarity for digital movements in line with their mission and navigate their response with others?

4. Threats to transparency and accountability

Fake news has highlighted lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms as corporate-governed technologies become more widely used. Civil society campaigns calling for accountability and transparency typically respond to evaluations based on evidence that can be seen and understood by human capacities; however, even seeing the input data within a machine learning system does not reveal how the system arrived to a certain decision. As several researchers and policymakers call for algorithmic accountability, who is responsible for accounting for harms associated with algorithms and what kind of practical mechanisms are possible for feedback and inspection to prevent further harms?

5. New context for questions on the ethics of innovations that take us beyond the level of humanity

Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a robot. Do-it-yourself genetic editors are not only possible, but they will soon become readily available. These kind of questions highlight the need for a new ethics around these innovations and leadership from civil society and other stakeholders in order to understand how they should be governed. Which civil society organizations will be ready to consider who will be newly or further marginalized as a result of these new technologies, and discuss with other stakeholders how it should be done responsibly?

Getting ahead of coming challenges: dimensions of civil society preparedness

While the sector has built at least a decade of knowledge on engaging with information and communication technologies (ICTs), the emerging proliferation of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, 3D printing, blockchain and other technologies warrants a new level of preparedness, investment, and adaptation for most of today’s civil society organizations.

As we look to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how can civil society get ahead of these coming challenges and what dimensions of preparedness will be needed to help the sector move forward?

Getting ahead of these coming challenges will mean investing in the sector’s capacities to become more agile and adaptive to new changes in their ecosystems. For example, unions will need to invest in their organizing models to adapt to a new labour force moving jobs more rapidly in the emerging new world of work. Charities and service delivery organizations will need to understand the impacts and implications of their digital resources towards safe, ethical and effective use. Getting ahead of the Fourth Industrial Revolution also means deepening foresight and critical understanding of the impact of digitisation and emerging technologies through knowledge sharing.

The last two centuries of human society have produced unprecedented technologies, but we still need civil society independent from government and companies to keep our Industrial Revolutions “human-centred.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda website



9th January 2018

10 comments

  1. Vern Hughes says:

    Civil society is not a ‘questioning force’ that emerges when the ‘progress’ of industry and government falters. This is a misrepresentation and a quite thorough bastardisation of the concept of civil society – one that is, sadly, quite commonly found amongst the managerial class in state, corporate and NGO sectors.

    Civil society is something quite different. It is the sphere of society that is outside the state (the work of ‘civilians’ rather than state-officials) and outside the market (the work of voluntary exchanges rather than commercial transactions). It is everything else, all that is relational, voluntary, associational and non-coercive – our personal, familial and social relationships, our freely-entered interactions, and our associational life in community, religion, sport, and culture.

    Properly understood, the challenges facing civil society are nothing like the five challenges cited here. They come from the intrusions of both state and corporate sectors into areas traditionally associated with civil society, where familial and social relationships are at risk of being turned into state-citizen obligations or business-customer transactions. They come also from the capture of associations and groups by a managerial class, a class which moves seamlessly between state, corporate and NGO sectors, and blurs the identities between them.

    Politically, the challenges to civil society come jointly from Left and Right, from the individualism of the Right and the statism of the Left, both of which pull apart the relationships of civil society. Individualism and statism are not opposites, but grow together in tandem, as partners, at the expense of civil society.

    The five challenges listed in this article have nothing to do with the specific character of civil society. They are written by someone who knows nothing about civil society but is immersed in the managerial chic of today’s virtue-signalling global elites. Twenty years, one could get away with an article like this which parades its ignorance of civil society proudly, wrapped in fashionable management-speak and tech-talk, but those days are now well and truly over.

  2. Charles Kojo Vandyck says:

    Vern Hughes’ definition of civil society with a focus on civil liberties is absolutely spot on. His definition highlights the intrinsic value of civil society. However, it would be rather naive on his part to think that technology and perceived corporate interests have no impact on civil liberties. It is important to recognize that civil society monitors the fluidity and distribution of ‘power’ and its dynamics.

    Freedom and justice is about access, empowerment, privacy, safety and security. Weren’t these the issues raised in the article? Aren’t they civil society concerns?

    • Vern Hughes says:

      Charles, my definition of civil society says nothing about civil liberties. As a general rule of thumb for those new to civil society, think ‘relationships’ and ‘interactions’ between people, ahead of ‘liberties’ and ‘rights’. This simple exercise will point you in the right direction.

      Civil society is NOT a tool for pursuing freedom and justice. Sadly, the aid and development industry and human rights organisations have learnt to think in this way over the last 30 years as they turned themselves into instruments of governments and funders. Development and human rights are very important, but they are not primarily about civil society. ‘Access’ is not a civil society concept, it is a public sector and philanthropic concept used to refer to the way in which wouldbe beneficiaries of services might become actual ‘clients’ of these services. Civil society is NOT about ‘clienthood’ or ‘service delivery’. ‘Empowerment’, on the other hand, is a core civil society practice. The issue in many settings is whether individuals and communities can be ’empowered’ by governments and agencies, or whether their empowerment can only ever be undertaken through peer-based and mutual activities. The evidence on this issue is now very clear: governments and agencies in most cases create dependence rather than empowerment. ‘Privacy’, ‘safety’ and ‘security’ are terms imposed on civil society by governments and grant funders, usually to minimise their own risk. They are not terms used in civil society by associations of residents, neighbours, families, farmers, workers or consumers.

      I hope this helps.

  3. David Sangokoya says:

    Most of your diatribe (and sub points across both responses) focuses on the definition of civil society. No one in this article is there a direct definition of civil society, but rather a description of the roles that civil society organizations often play among other stakeholders. Perhaps this was a misunderstanding on your end? Categorizations of ‘who counts’ as civil society is often contentious, and typologies often differ; rather than have that be the focus of the article, the content describes the roles and functions that civil society organizations (defined across several platforms and in this case, focusing on mainly registered, organized groups) play in the context of significant global shifts.

    It’s a fair point that this article focuses mainly on CSOs, and not other parts of civil society. There are of course several other factors impacting civil society as a whole; these five are assuredly not the only ones. I can appreciate the importance of getting definitions right, but arguing which concepts are “civil society” or not, or to seems rather unproductive; even in your definition that excludes any notion of civil liberties, do you really think that technology and perceived corporate interest have no impact on our relationships and interactions?

    The hope of this article is to expand thinking here and reflect on challenges coming from new shifts in technology that do warrant concern and I would say–as someone who does know something about civil society)–preparedness from civil society organizations. I’m well aware that I am not the only one who shares this viewpoint, and I’m less aware of those who share your view that the five challenges above have nothing to do with civil society.

    I hope this helps.

    • Vern Hughes says:

      Thanks for this reply, David. The definitional question about civil society is fundamental, not as an arcane academic exercise, but because civil society is widely misunderstood, and indeed, bastardised, through misrepresentation.

      You acknowledge that your representation of civil society focusses on CSOs (civil society organisations) as the more formalised components of a wide spectrum of civil society associations and interactions. This is precisely the problem. By ignoring the vast array of other forms of civil society (family, kinship, neighbourhood, religious association, self-help groups, social enterprise, charity, sport, culture, domestic and informal economies) you are ignoring the majority – the overwhelming majority – of civil society activity. Your defence (that you focus on roles not definitions) does not explain this neglect of most civil society activity, because the roles of family, kinship, reliogious association, etc are just as evident as are formal CSOs. Indeed these roles are much more evident – most societies can function without CSOs but cannot function for a day without civil society in its diverse roles and functions.

      The question then becomes: why have you ignored the majority of civil society forms and activity in order to focus only on formalised CSOs (a tiny minority of the field)? The answer is surely that you are coming at the issue wearing managerial glasses – you are looking for ‘stakeholders’, a corporate and managerial term that has become common in managerial circles in the last 20 years. In looking for ‘stakeholders’ alongside corporates, states, and philanthropy, you see the larger and more formalised NGOs, and you think this is ‘civil society’. No, this is one small component of civil society. To compound this error, the managerial class has called these organisations CSOs, which reinforces in the public arena the equation of NGOs that look like mini-corporates in their structure and culture with ‘civil society’. In reality, an NGOs run by a board, a CEO, a senior executive team and a suite of risk management protocols, looks nothing like what the rest of civil society looks like. The rest of civil society is wholly absent from the conferences where you meet CSOs – these CSOs are the organisations you have in mind when you write about challenges facing civil society. What you mean, actually, is the challenges facing the corporatised NGOs that are likely to be on the World Economic Forum mailing list. With the greatest of respect, this accounts for less than 1% of global civil society.

      These issues about civil society and its importance, and its misrepresentation, have not been subject to rigorous public debate. That discussion is now beginning across the globe, driven by a discovery of voice on the part of the long ignored components of civil society. This discussion should be welcomed. That you label my comments a ‘diatribe’ is revealing: it shows an unfamiliarity with this important discussion, and an insularity from it. You close by saying that my perspectives are unfamiliar to you and your colleagues in WEF as if this indicates their irrelevance – in fact it indicates the tiny self-enclosed bubble in which the global managerial elites associated with the World Economic Forum live. I couldn’t have demonstrated the insularity of this bubble more clearly than your own words.

  4. Vern Hughes says:

    Thanks for this reply, David. The definitional question about civil society is fundamental, not as an arcane academic exercise, but because civil society is widely misunderstood, and indeed, bastardised, through misrepresentation.

    You acknowlege that your representation of civil society focusses on CSOs (civil society organisations) as the more formalised components of a wide spectrum of civil society associations and interactions. This is precisely the problem. By ignoring the vast array of other forms of civil society (family, kinship, neighbourhood, religious association, self-help groups, social enterprise, charity, sport, culture, domestic and informal economies) you are ignoring the majority – the overwhelming majority – of civil society activity. Your defence (that you focus on roles not definitions) does not explain this neglect of most civil society activity, because the roles of family, kinship, reliogious association, etc are just as evident as are formal CSOs. Indeed these roles are much more evident – most societies can function without CSOs but cannot function for a day without civil society in its diverse roles and functions.

    The question then becomes: why have you ignored the majority of civil society forms and activity in order to focus only on formalised CSOs (a tiny minority of the field)? The answer is surely that you are coming at the issue wearing managerial glasses – you are looking for ‘stakeholders’, a corporate and managerial term that has become common in managerial circles in the last 20 years. In looking for ‘stakeholders’ alongside corporates, states, and philanthropy, you see the larger and more formalised NGOs, and you think this is ‘civil society’. No, this is one small component of civil society. To compound this error, the managerial class has called these organisations CSOs, which reinforces in the public arena the equation of NGOs that look like mini-corporates in their structure and culture with ‘civil society’. In reality, an NGOs run by a board, a CEO, a senior executive team and a suite of risk management protocols, looks nothing like what the rest of civil society looks like. The rest of civil society is wholly absent from the conferences where you meet CSOs – these CSOs are the organisations you have in mind when you write about challenges facing civil society. What you mean, actually, is the challenges facing the corporatised NGOs that are likely to be on the World Economic Forum mailing list. With the greatest of respect, this accounts for less than 1% of global civil society.

    These issues about civil society and its importance, and its misrepresentation, have not been subject to rigorous public debate. That discussion is now beginning across the globe, driven by a discovery of voice on the part of the long ignored components of civil society. This discussion should be welcomed. That you label my comments a ‘diatribe’ is revealing: it shows an unfamiliarity with this important discussion, and an insularity from it. You close by saying that my perspectives are unfamiliar to you and your colleagues in WEF as if this indicates their irrelevance – in fact it indicates the tiny self-enclosed bubble in which the global managerial elites associated with the World Economic Forum live. I couldn’t have demonstrated the insularity of this bubble more clearly than your own words.

  5. David Sangokoya says:

    Again in short, major global shifts in technology already are and will affect civil society as a whole and across its many attributes. Not just for CSOs.

    Again, I acknowledge that CSOs have been the main focus of this short blog piece; however this is not representative of all of civil society (as I’ve also acknowledged) and we in fact engage across the spectrum of civil society that you describe above.

    I do not question your analysis in defining civil society. What I question are your comments that these challenges are or will not be not relevant to most of civil society. And here I would invite further debate on this, as much of what’s written reflects ongoing conversations that are happening in civil society at and outside of the Forum.

    Again, the hope of this article is to push this specific discussion on impact of new technologies beyond just this sliver of civil society. Hopefully we can bring forth a broader discussion on these topics and understand more about the impact of these new shifts in technology beyond more formalized CSOs.

    • Vern Hughes says:

      Thank you, David. A backtracking on your part is welcome. My comments were not a ‘diatribe’, as you initially described them, but a contribution to an important discussion. You’ve now realised this, and accepted that my comments on the definitional issues are right. The issue now is whether your five challenges for civil society are equally applicable to the non-formalised components of civil society as they to NGOs. Clearly they are not. Family and kinship networks, voluntary support networks for the old, amateur sporting clubs, and volunteer assistance in homework clubs, for instance, are not nearly as directly affected as formalised NGOs by the threats on your list: cyber-security threats to data protection, or hostile AI-generated digital propaganda, or threats to transparency from algorithmic abuses, or competition from digital social movements. In fact, your list is as far removed from the realities of grassroots civil society interactions in communities around the globe as it is possible to be. This matters – because the real threats to grassroots civil society from states and markets, the concrete destruction of civil society relationships from these incursions day in, day out, in communities around the planet – are displaced from the public attention they desperately need.

  6. Dave H says:

    “With each industrial revolution, the adoption of widespread systems of social protection to help people respond to the technological changes of the time required several generations of civil society advocacy and policy support.”

    I would say, due to this “industrial revolution” or not, we’re in a dangerous position. In the realm of print and social media we should voice skepticism regarding a 5th industrial revolution. The costs of this one are already piling up (though I can’t blame white nationalism’s rise on a bunch of Cambridge Analyticas entirely–as Allan Nairn described it recently in the US, it seems, to me also, basically a sociological phenomenon). We need to reject whatever’s in the pipe along those lines. We need to focus on healing and reorganization in terms of the place we find ourselves RIGHT NOW. No matter whether it’s going to Mars, or regime change in Tehran and Moscow, or a GAI for everyone…we need to stop. As John Heider advocated [“The Tao of Leadership”], we need to reflect. We need to reflect on what we should do…FOR A LIVING for example [I’m not against GAI]. Yes, I’m convinced…”stopping” is involved. Stopping regarding anything else beyond “appropriate technology,” Schumacher. Stopping regarding GMOs. The list goes on.

    Can’t believe I was the only one to comment on OpenDemocracy’s share of this diagram on facebook. Hope there was more on CSF’s page. I don’t do graphics, but it seems like at least “some” work went into it>> https://civilsocietyfutures.org/trends/

    My comments I put under the diagram…

    Reshoring, circular economy, irreversable climate change…second tier phenomena that probably need a first tier grouping/link-up. People around Fukishima ARE being shoved around…so, as activists, it’s true there’s less maneuverability (do I have right sense of “manoeuvre” correct here?). Shoes, ships, and sealing wax COULD be less of our focus [as reshoring on these items isn’t so difficult]…while dealing with radioactive waste and other waste could become moreso…eg. Doesn’t mean we should all be Homer Simpsons working in dangerous conditions…but FOR EXAMPLE the vast AI/roboticized project of KILLING could be switched over to containing waste materials. The state should not retreat, but should subsidize robots handling waste.

    For the time being, with reshoring we could at least make spare parts locally.

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