Where we’re headed – proudly presenting The Engine Room’s new strategy!

Julia Keseru

This is the first in a series of posts exploring our mission, vision, principles and priorities for the coming years. To read about the ways we’re trying to get where we’re going–how we’re implementing our new strategy–take a look at this post from Zara, our Deputy Director.

A lot has happened since 2017, when we last updated our organisational strategy for the time period of 2017-2019–from obvious world-changing events like the Covid-19 pandemic, to political shifts, new world leaders and the (often negative) trickle down impacts on justice and human rights. 

It seemed high time, then, to refresh our strategy, so that we can better reflect this fast-changing environment and easily prioritize our work in the coming years. After six months of collaborative work across our team and board, I’m thrilled to present our new strategy, setting out what we do, how we do it and why, for the upcoming three years. 

This post is the first one in a series where we introduce our new strategy from different angles. Here, I’ll explain more about the process we used and key highlights from our strategy. 

The context

Since our last strategy, we’ve observed how civil society has capitalised upon the power of tech and data, sometimes even amid the most constrained of environments. It’s been incredibly energising to see how this has happened across the sector – from detecting patterns in rights abuses or injustices, to creating robust and secure infrastructures, to organizing across borders and communities, and more.

But there’s a flip-side: driven by economic and political motives, the development of new technologies has created new forms of knowledge asymmetries and unjust power accumulation. It’s clearer now than ever before that digital technologies are layered on top of existing unjust structures, exacerbating them in new and hard-to-see ways.

Because of these patterns, we need robust and resilient civic society activists more than ever before, and we need them to be able to use technology in strategic ways, while also actively mitigating the vulnerabilities created by digital systems. This is especially important if we want to meaningfully confront the power imbalances, injustices and rights abuses that have been made so clear by the Covid-19 pandemic – injustices that will only become more acute in the coming months and years. 

The process 

The outside world is not the only thing that has changed in the past few years–we have also experienced significant changes internally. 

In 2018 we went through a leadership transition between The Engine Room’s co-founder, Alix Dunn and our new leadership team. Since then we’ve grown and changed a lot as a team, and, because of this transformation, we decided to redesign our strategy through a collaborative process that reflects our internal evolution.

Initially, we imagined this process to be highly participatory–both internally and externally. We thought this would be an ideal opportunity to understand how our work fits within the movements and strategies of those who we admire and want to strengthen, acknowledging from the very beginning that reaching our goals means building on the work of others and collective effort. We worked closely with Chris Michael from Collaborations for Change to design a process that would have included both the team, as well as interviews with our key allies. At our (in person!) retreat in February 2020, we had the opportunity to kick this process off internally, and each team prepared presentations for the rest of the organisation about where they thought their strengths, areas for improvement and potential for growth lay.

But then Covid-19 happened, and we saw that most of our partners were buried deep in their own work, while also facing increasing pressure and reduced capacities. The same was true for most of our team, too. We realised that in order to live up to our own values we needed to do a quick rethink of our strategy development plan in response to these new realities. We pivoted away from our carefully designed process, and decided to skip the majority of external interviews as a way of reflecting this change in capacity.

Luckily though, at that point we had already received input from each of the teams about their priorities and goals, and what they wanted to see us do as an organisation. Beginning those conversations internally so early meant that team members were sharing more thoughts on what they liked about how other organisations worked, and provided us with a lot of useful material to work from.

From there, myself and Zara, our Deputy Director, took these notes and thoughts, and came up with a first draft of what is now our strategy. We solicited feedback from our board and from our team leads, incorporated it, got more feedback from the whole team and got careful edit from the wordsmiths on our team to help us be as explicit and concise as possible. We worked with designer Lorraine Chuen to turn it into a visually appealing document – which you can download here

Key highlights

First and foremost: our work is not changing fundamentally. Over the past decade we have built a strong foundation of and knowledge around delivering carefully designed research products, providing context-respecting support and engaging with communities in thoughtful and responsible ways. We believe in consistency, expertise and perseverance, and we believe that what we’ve done in the past has, fundamentally, worked.  

That said, the world today is very different to what it was before. We believe it’s crucial to be explicit about our politics, what we stand for, the work we do, and the work we don’t. As a result, there are areas where we have become more explicit about our choices and priorities. 

Our vision is for social justice movements to use technology and data in safe, responsible and strategic ways, while actively mitigating the vulnerabilities created by digital systems. This has a few important implications.

  1. Our work is now explicitly meant to support social justice causes–not just any type of social ‘change.’ As an organisation working to strengthen the work of others, the most impactful structural decisions we can make are who we support, how we prioritise our resources and whose mission we choose to amplify. Our criteria for which organisations we work with will always be deeply rooted in our values, politics and what we want to see in the world: equitable social structures and inclusive institutions that allow previously oppressed and excluded groups to thrive. To that end, we want to move away from a definition of social justice that only cares about the equal distribution of resources, and instead we want our focus to be on additional measures and actions that are needed to redistribute power in a fair way.
  1. Our work is meant to have an impact on entire movements, not just standalone actors. Our vision requires the impactful and collaborative work of intersecting social movements that are equipped with the resources and tools they need to achieve their missions, with technology and data playing a crucial role in such movement-building.
  1. We have been honing our approach to tech and data for many years now, and increasingly, we want to be explicit about the fact that working with technology means embracing the inherent complexities within it. In other words, we care about both the potential in technology, as well as the vulnerabilities it creates in equal measures, and we want to help social justice movements find the right balance between tech’s power and weaknesses as well. 

What do you think? 

If anything in our strategy makes you think of collaboration possibilities, consultancy work that we can help with, or just a conversation it would be good to have, please reach out to julia@theengineroom.org! We’d love to make sure that while we move into the implementation stage of this strategy we’re building upon and strengthening the important work of our allies. Our strategy was influenced (directly and indirectly) by too many people and organisations to name, but we’re especially grateful to our partners, our informal advisors and those whose work inspires us. We hope this strategy makes it easier for you to see how we can support you, too! 

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