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Grassroots Movements in Social Impact Tech: Characteristics and Challenges

Updated: Aug 4, 2023


Introduction

A grassroots movement, in general, is a collective effort initiated by a group of individuals within a specific geographical area to bring about social change or influence an outcome, often in relation to a political or social issue. Such movements leverage the power of spontaneous support at the local level to drive policy changes on a broader scale, be it at regional, national, or even international levels. The bottom-up nature of grassroots movements sets them apart from top-down approaches, much like the growth of grass that starts at the roots and spreads outwards.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of grassroots movements in tech. These movements are characterized by a bottom-up approach to using technology to tackle social issues. Rather than relying on top-down solutions, grassroots movements aim to empower communities and individuals to create their own solutions.

In this essay, I will explore the key characteristics of grassroots movements in social impact tech, the benefits they bring, and some of the challenges they face. To give exposure that as many as existing grassroots movements as possible for the reader, throughout the article I’ll mention various examples from across the globe, including Canada.


Characteristics

Grassroots movements in the context of social impact tech have several characteristics.

Community Involvement

One of the key characteristics of grassroots movements in social impact technology is their focus on collaboration and community involvement. These movements aim to bring people together to identify and address social issues using technology. By involving the community in the process, these movements are better able to understand the needs and perspectives of those they aim to help. This leads to more effective and sustainable solutions.

For example, the Code for America Brigade (hereafter: Brigades) is a network of volunteer groups that work together to improve government services and build civic technology. Brigades is a national community of organizers, technologists, and community members in the United States. The organization's goal is to use technology to benefit local communities, improve transparency, and make cities more just and equitable places to live. According to their website, Brigades meet regularly to learn about and build tools that create and support the public good, with members including designers, academic researchers, data journalists, activists, policy wonks, web developers, and curious community members.

A more local example is The Centre for Social Impact Technology in Calgary, Alberta (hereafter: the Centre). The Centre serves as a knowledge hub within the city of Calgary, promoting discourse, education, and practical steps toward the intersection of social and digital technology innovation through community involvement. Its aim is to stimulate an innovation ecosystem in Calgary centered on technology that is not just socially advantageous, but also socially transformative, incorporating values such as responsibility, inclusivity, openness, shared ownership, and regenerative impact.

One of the key benefits of grassroots movements in the context of social impact tech is their ability to create solutions that are tailored to specific communities and contexts. Because these movements prioritize community involvement, they are able to identify the unique challenges faced by different communities and create solutions that are tailored to those challenges. This leads to more effective and sustainable solutions.

For example, Smart Chicago, provides a searchable database of social services in Chicago. Their focus is on developing products with straightforward features, such as Foodborne Chicago, which links individuals reporting food poisoning on Twitter with local health authorities. Additionally, they maintain websites such as Chicago Early Learningand Connect Chicago, which allow parents to browse available programs and public computer centers. Their Chicago Health Atlas provides citywide information on health trends and offers resources to improve personal health in your local area.

Additionally, grassroots movements are often able to create solutions that are more innovative than those created by traditional top-down approaches. By involving a wider range of people in the process, these movements can draw on a wider range of ideas and perspectives. This leads to more creative and innovative solutions. For example, Calgary Crime Stoppers is a community-driven system that enables citizens to anonymously report and track non-emergency issues in their neighborhoods, empowering them to take a more active role in shaping and safeguarding their communities.


Leveraging Accessible Technologies

Another characteristic of grassroots movements in social impact tech is their use of low-cost and accessible technologies. These movements usually prioritize solutions that are affordable and easy to use, ensuring that they are accessible to as many people as possible. This approach allows grassroots movements to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact.

An example of this is Solar Sister. This organization uses low-cost and accessible solar technology to provide clean energy solutions to people living in rural areas of Africa. Solar Sister trains and supports women entrepreneurs to sell affordable solar lights and phone chargers in their communities, providing access to clean energy to those who would otherwise rely on expensive and environmentally harmful sources of energy.

A Canadian example of a grassroots movement that utilizes low-cost and accessible technology is Food Not Bombs. This is a volunteer-led movement that aims to address food insecurity and promote community building through the sharing of free vegetarian and vegan meals. The movement uses social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to coordinate their activities and communicate with volunteers and participants. They also make use of low-cost technologies such as bicycles with trailers to transport food and cooking equipment to different locations. By using accessible and affordable technologies, Food Not Bombs is able to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact on their local community. (Check out Food Not Bombs’ page on their activities in Alberta, Canada, here.)

Grassroots movements also commonly prioritize open-source technology. By using open-source software, these movements can freely share their solutions and collaborate with others. This approach fosters innovation and allows for the development of more robust and effective solutions.

For example, the Open Food Network (OFN) is an open-source platform that enables local food producers to sell their products online, connecting them directly with consumers. Here’s a quote from their webpage: “Our open-source platform is more than just an affordable way to sell local products online. It’s a chance to be part of a better food and farming system. With options for farmers, producers, food hubs and farmers’ markets, the OFN platform makes it easy to create successful local food and farming marketplaces.” You can check out their software here.


Challenges

Grassroots movements in the context of tech and social impact also face significant challenges.

Funding is one of the biggest challenges faced by grassroots movements in social impact tech. Such movements often lack the resources needed to develop and implement their solutions at scale, which can limit their impact and make it difficult for them to achieve their goals.

Scalability is another challenge faced by grassroots movements in social impact tech. Limited resources and infrastructure can limit the ability of grassroots movements to scale their solutions to reach a larger audience. A lack of scalability can significantly limit the impact of these movements.

Digital divide is yet another challenge faced by grassroots movements in social impact tech. The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. This gap can prevent individuals and communities from participating fully in grassroots movements, limiting their ability to engage with others, organize events, or access critical information. Addressing the digital divide is essential for grassroots movements to ensure that everyone can participate fully in these movements.


Conclusion

Despite the challenges, which grassroots movements should be mindful of, and adopt measures to mitigate them while harnessing the power of technology, grassroots movements in the social impact technology have the potential to create significant impacts. By leveraging technology and community networks, these movements can amplify their voices and reach a broader audience. Furthermore, these movements catalyze innovation and inspire the development of new technologies that address social issues within communities.


Author:


Amir Kiani is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy and a data scientist in training. He holds a bachelor's degree in Mathematics and has recently launched his blog on math and data: mathanddata.com

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