Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight doubles down on tech’s potential to connect communities for action

Feb. 25, 2013, 9:57 a.m., Posted by Damian Thorman, J.D.

Photo credit: Code for America on Flickr

For several years, an important slice of Knight Foundation’s grantmaking has been devoted to finding ways communities can use technology to connect for action. Nothing will ever replace face-to-face contact, but the newfound ability of huge portions of the earth’s population to connect to one another instantly is clearly transformative.

Our goal is to help those transformative benefits flow to places they won’t automatically go on their own, starting with physical communities. We’d like see technology enable broad-based engagement, amplify what it means to be a citizen and ultimately revitalize democracy.

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Two years ago we labeled this field Tech for Engagement, and we’ve seen its potential confirmed by some early successes. New tools are getting people more deeply engaged in community life, whether that means building playgroundsconducting community planning or finding ways to make government more transparent.

Many of these innovations however are limited in scope and scalability. The potential of Tech for Engagement will only be realized when connected citizens not only report potholes, but use technology to address society’s big problems and opportunities. We believe technology can help people create solutions together in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

That is unlikely to happen on its own, so we are building an infrastructure to make it possible. Market forces aren’t – yet - propelling droves of people into civic tech careers. To push the field, funders need to step in to help build a corps of civic-minded technologists who are passionate about using their skills for the greater good.

So today, we’re excited to announce $9 million in funding to Code for America, New York University and TED to help develop the people, ideas and infrastructure  to realize the potential of Tech for Engagement.

We’re starting this week at TED, whose robust community of designers and problem solvers routinely produce breakthrough “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Knight is partnering with TED to amplify and measure the impact of those ideas as they ripple through society, producing tools and solutions. (Update:  read more about the new engagement platform here.) Over the weekend, Knight ran a series of workshops at TED annual conference where executives from Google, Zappos, IBM, and the political sector lent their online engagement expertise to challenges in the civic sector.  In the future, two TED Fellows will be working on projects that use tech to engage communities. It’s the beginning of what we hope will mean more good tech-driven and people-centered ideas scaled to cities around the country. 

In addition, we’re working with the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University to create a learning network of technologists and social entrepreneurs at leading universities around the country. The network will not only provide training but also help about 100 communities across the country identify challenges, and then use technology to solve them. One of the things we love about this project is the way it will put people front and center in helping to design their own solutions.

As these projects unfold, the MacArthur Foundation will help measure their impact and disseminate the findings to develop the field. Beth Noveck, former deputy White House CTO, is leading this along with other leaders including Clay Shirky, Susan Crawford, Archon Fung and others.

Finally, we’ll also help Code for America reach 13 communities. Knight was the first foundation to invest in Code for America, and we’ve been proud to watch it grow to become a network of more than 500 civic tech leaders in more than 40 cities.  Day to day it shows cities what’s possible with today’s technology – by embedding fellows in city governments to find local solutions and recruiting volunteers to help make their communities more open and participatory. One woman in New Orleans was so moved by an app that shows all blighted properties in the city that she went up to the fellow after the meeting and gave him a hug, presumably relieved to have visibility into what the government was doing in her own neighborhood.

Knight Foundation believes that no one is better qualified to govern an informed and engaged community than its own citizens. With Tech for Engagement, we hope to help them do just that.

By Damian Thorman, national program director at Knight Foundation