Not Knowing…

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A reflection on my general state-of-being soon to be published in Steven D’Souza’s book: Not Knowing (http://amzn.to/17UZCu8).

“We’ve been working on this for 20 years and haven’t really come very far.  Maybe we haven’t been asking the right questions.” Surprised though I was to hear a State Department official offering a mea culpa to the relative lack of citizen engagement in Romanian anti-corruption initiatives, I couldn’t have agreed more.  And as we began to sketch out what we planned to do about it I could feel the crosshairs of some overzealous young politico drawing a bead on my organization and me.

I had been in Eastern Europe for six years at that point – – long enough to know that more than twenty years after the ‘fall of the wall’ democracy could sometimes be more nominal than real.  And that those in power didn’t appreciate constructive criticism from the masses.

We did know there was a strong undercurrent of discontent with the status quo that spanned generations and economic classes.  People were angry about the disempowering culture of normative corruption which debased any hopes of meritocracy.  On the other hand, we knew of the deep faith in the IT skills of Eastern Europe’s youth.  One strong negative motivator and one great hope.  Why not put the two things together?

We decided to launch a grand challenge – – a campaign to source and build mobile or web-based ideas for tools Romanians wished to build in an effort to increase online to offline participation in issues like rule-of-law, anti-corruption and more transparent democracy.

Over the coming months we reached more than 1 million people online and took in about 150 ideas.  We built 9 of which 7 are currently in use by the public – mobile phone apps for reporting solicitations for bribes, mapping of illegal deforestation, tracking of public spending etc… The process has been repeated 7 more times across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, reaching and engaging millions more in a dialog about what could be better.

Building and running this venture capital style process was nerve wracking.  No one had tried a completely open online grant-making process like this in Romania.  No one knew if Romanians would stand up and express very publicly, potentially putting themselves at some risk.  We didn’t know if the traditional civil society actors would respond well any more than the regular citizen.  And, as in venture capital we knew we were going to support a lot of ideas – most of which would fail.

We structured for our potential failure by making sure we did our very best at what we knew we could control – – the outreach and content campaigns.  Even if we failed to take in many ideas, we knew we could reach and engage the online public in a debate about what the issues at hand.

In the end, watching our small group of ‘ReStarters’ – young activists, more mature civil society leaders, journalists and one stay-at-home mom present their new tech tools for social engagement to a couple hundred corporate, diplomatic and civil society leaders was one of the high points of my life.

Overall, we feel this process has been a success.  Most of the winning ideas manage growing online communities.  They keep producing new products.  Yet a burning question persists about where the tipping point between online and offline social change sits.  Social media is communications and communications is not behavior change – it is just the beginning.  When does it become ‘real’?  We’re not sure yet but the process is certainly real enough.  And as the movement grows we are getting closer to knowing and relaxing into the process of learning.

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