Embracing complexity is a must, not a luxury

Julia Keseru

Since going through a significant leadership transition last year, we at The Engine Room have been reflecting on how our growth as a remote and international team has shaped us into who we are today.

The questions we’ve been asking ourselves have created rich and useful conversations: What are our core values as a team? How do we make sure that we hold ourselves accountable to those values? How do we keep having a positive influence on the sectors we work in? (You can look at our 2018 retrospective for stories that show how our answers to these questions informed our work.)

With staff based in 13 countries and speaking 18 unique languages, one could easily assume that diversity is a core values for us. And that is definitely true. Diversity is baked into our very existence – it’s how we do everything.

(A quick recap: We know that people with different professional backgrounds create better products than homogenous teams. In our work, we’ve seen that people with varying backgrounds and experiences bring nuance and valuable perspectives that help us question our assumptions and strengthen our support.)

In the intersection of technology and social change, however, diversity for us also means that we need to embrace the inherent complexity that comes from the often dissonant voices and conflicting needs of the sectors we work in, on a daily basis. These voices might seem mutually exclusive – sometimes downright contradictory – but they need to be heard and taken seriously.

Think about the fine line between values of openness and the need for respecting people’s privacy; or the inherent conflict between reactive and proactive approaches to transparency; or the notion that advocacy is either adversarial to or supportive of authorities. The list is long. We know that the human mind has a tendency to think in binary oppositions – as structuralist philosophy has shown us. Human narratives tend to be driven by a conflict between opposing and mutually exclusive forces: the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and the ‘either’ and ‘or’. At the same time, we know that there’s a fundamental problem with binary oppositions: they almost always lead to unhealthy polarisation.

In this context – in an era where polarisation poses a great challenge to social movements – embracing complexity, active listening and diverse thinking are musts for activists fighting systemic inequities. They’re not luxuries, because these actors:

  • Must tackle complex problems at an incredibly fast pace
  • Are likely short on funding, time and resources – all at the same time
  • Pursue not-for-profit missions in highly competitive and innovative environments
  • Are under attacks in their digital (and sometimes physical) spaces and need to think outside the box everyday to be able to defend their wellbeing and operations
  • Collect, digitise, organise, analyse and make sense of large amounts of information on a daily basis – across diverse contexts – and want to do so in a strategic, smart and ethical way

I increasingly see the core mission of The Engine Room as helping social justice activists unpack and embrace some of these complexities, and design sound strategies that make the most of divergent thinking. Some of the complexities that I think are particularly relevant include hype versus skepticism, openness versus privacy and change versus impact – some of which we’ve already been working on for years.

Hype versus skepticism

Emerging technologies in the social change sector are usually approached with either a great deal of hype or a huge amount of skepticism, with not much in between. I would love to see a culture of nuanced thinking around technology, and help social justice activists (and their funders) develop strategies that embrace technology as both an enabler of innovation and our greatest Achilles heel. At the Engine Room, this means that our primary aim of increasing our partners’ intuition around technology includes empowering them so that they can address the vulnerabilities unleashed by those very same technologies.

In the coming year, we will focus a significant portion of our work to help frontline activists better understand what threats they are facing, and how they can proactively defend their operations in increasingly hostile environments through our organisational security support.

We will also work to create a more nuanced understanding of what areas of daily operations for a non-profit can be strengthened with technology and what areas cannot. Our goal is to debunk some of the myths around technology equalling innovation, mostly because we know that much of the impact of tech is happening in less shiny areas, like infrastructure or automation.

Openness versus privacy = responsible data

Since we began working on responsible data, we’ve seen how openness and privacy are two sides of the same coin. In the five years since we and other partners launched the Responsible Data Forum, these conversations have become ever more relevant.

In an age full of data breaches, invasions of people’s privacy, and technology reshaping repression, the notion of default openness is approached with significant (and reasonable) caution. However, a nuanced debate around the risks of proactive data disclosure is still painfully missing. I would love to see our sectors develop a better understanding of how the value of openness can go hand-in-hand with a respect for privacy – rather than see them as mutually exclusive – in order to build responsible data practices.

To support that nuanced understanding, we at the Engine Room will focus much of our work in the coming years in developing more refined responsible data approaches that simultaneously value transparency, openness and privacy, particularly in certain areas such as contracting and beneficial ownership transparency.

We will also work hard to develop a better understanding of how responsible data policies work in practice, and how to turn policies into habits and behaviours, especially in resource- and time-constrained environments.

Change versus impact

We and others have said this before, but by now it’s clear that some of the technology- and data-enabled approaches that were designed to change the world for the better have proven harmful. Many have deepened existing inequities (for example by increasing access to services for the privileged), while others have “simply” not had an impact and have proven to be a waste of resources.

I believe that if our work doesn’t actually change the world for the better, we as civil society are part of the problem. We have a responsibility to make sure that if and when we gain resources,  we scrutinise ourselves as much as we scrutinise other sectors, and make sure that the money we use isn’t money wasted.

In the coming years, our team will work to better understand how emerging technologies can truly enhance accountability, oversight and anti-impunity in both transparency and human rights initiatives. We will take time to see what works and what doesn’t in uptake of effective technologies, and find places where replication could be useful. Finally, we plan to explore how different sectors facing similar challenges can learn from each other, while also being mindful of their differences.

Onwards!

Through all of this work, we hope to continue making space for diversity and complexity and live our values through the work we do and how we do it. If any of the approaches or points above spark your interest, reach out to us on hello[at]theengineroom.org. If you’re struggling with any of the areas we mentioned, schedule a support call with us – our digital door is always open.

And if you want to learn more about how we crafted our values, keep an eye on our blog in the coming weeks, or sign up to our newsletter for regular updates

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