I had the honor of hosting a panel on the “Power of Technology to Transform Democracy,” sponsored by the Knight Foundation, at this year's annual TEDxWomen conference last weekend. There were 300 people at the event in Washington D.C. and more than 150 independently organized TEDx events in every time zone in the world—nearly 150,000 people total—tuning in via live stream!
Here are five of the smartest lessons I learned from the incredibly smart women flanking me on both sides:
1. It's not just you. No one's got it quite right yet.
If you're trying to innovate at the intersection of democracy (small d—not just voting, but just about everything else) and technology, and finding yourself struggling to manifest your big, shiny dreams, you're not alone.
The Knight Foundation's vice president, Paula Ellis, put it best: “We’ve seen several promising ideas take shape, but we aren’t quite there yet. We won’t in fact crack the golden egg until we move from using technology to fix potholes to tackling the larger problems of our day. Here’s the challenge: We know that online tools are good for sharing opinions and ideas—but they aren’t as good at enhancing the deliberative process. Yet.” That's saying a lot from an entity that has invested $10 million in 24 projects over the last few years.
This great piece by Sarika Bansal in last weekend's New York Times underscores the fact that failure is a natural part of innovation. In it, Jill Vialet of Playworks advises leaders to fail “out loud” and “forward”—“meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself.” In this light, conversations like these are the key to pushing this field forward.
2. Don't build it. They won't come.
Too often, when we are thinking about building an “action platform,” our first question is, “How can we get people to come to our site?” In fact, the question should be, “Where are people already?”
That's the wise question that Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), asked, and it's been paying off big time ever since. HPA describes itself as “an army of fans, activists, nerd-fighters, teenagers, wizards, and muggles dedicated to fighting for social justice with the greatest weapon we have—love.”
Lauren Bird, a recent NYU grad, is the creative media coordinator & vlogger for HPA, and she detailed how they manage to go into existing fan communities online and inspire people to take real world action by aligning with the powerful themes of the fans’ favorite books.
3. You are not the target user.
Marci Harris founded and runs POPVOX, an online advocacy platform that bridges the gap between the input that the public wants to provide and the information that Members of Congress want and need to receive.
Too often, those of us doing civic entrepreneurship mistakenly think, “What would I want?” and then iterate on that basis. But in fact, most of us are trying to mobilize and motivate people very unlike us. The people we’re trying to motivate are not starting up civic ventures. They're not even that interested in what they likely see as a weak and uninspiring democratic landscape.
4. Data is where it's at.
Dr. Keya J. Dinnenbaum, founder and CEO of ElectNext, admitted to being a little bit obsessed with data. She wisely pointed out that the more data we have on what people believe, and how they vote and take action, the more we can customize our tools to really serve them in creating a better nation.
ElectNext takes the guesswork out of voting. The platform answers questions about the issues that matter most to you, then matches you with candidates that share your values. Forget whether you'd like to have a beer with the person, ElectNext argues, vote your real, true values.
The more that ElectNext knows about your values (i.e. data), the more it can customize your online experience to familiarize you with candidates and pending legislation, help you find like-minded neighbors and urban innovators who might want to collaborate with you on local projects, and more. Data mining gets a largely bad, conspiratorial rap in mainstream media narratives, but many of the same techniques are at the cutting edge of civic innovation.
5. Optimism is the technology we need most.
Forget the bells and whistles—a lot of these entrepreneurs voiced that the most difficult hurdle they face is getting people to believe in the political and democratic process again. All the websites and apps in the world can't substitute for the fundamental power of people believing that a) this nation is still “perfectible” and b) they are part of the solution.
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, gave us all a jolt of optimism when she attested that if you teach just one girl to code, she, on average, teaches four more. In fact, one girl who went through the Girls Who Code program ended up teaching her father, a part-time janitor, how to code and now he's employed as an engineer. Let's just call it the trickle up, down, and all around effect and get to it.