Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

How Not to Waste the Crisis

On April 8th, Panthea Lee will join lead thinkers on social innovation and citizen engagement to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our social contract. The second in the “How Not to Waste a Crisis” series from States of Change, this live discussion will explore the role of institutions and communities as they grapple to respond to the global pandemic, and will offer practical advice on how we can work together to mobilize for greater impact. Sign up today to join the conversation!

Co-Design, Online: Tips for Adapting to Our New, Virtual Reality

As offices shift to remote work, organizations around the world are getting a crash course in virtual collaboration. This adaptation hasn’t been seamless, but it has happened quickly and out of necessity. And as these habits become refined, there is another process that will be critical to take online: co-design. Creating policies, programs, and services directly with those who will deliver or use them is as important now as ever—and in many ways, doing it online can make it better. So, beyond ensuring strong internet connection and keeping your video turned on, here are a few important (but far less discussed) co-design principles to make the most of the medium.

1. Plan Beyond a Single Touchpoint

Co-design is commonly attempted over a single, multi-day workshop. But this is not a great way to design together: networking can overshadow the main objectives; time pressures push participants to think quickly rather than deeply; and the emphasis on in-person ideation leaves the less-glamorous work of testing and refining solutions underfunded. Lucky for us, a three-day-long Zoom workshop is out of the question, and there is no choice but to plan beyond a single convening. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:

Spread the process out over time.

Divide your co-design process into a dozen one- or two-hour meetings, and spread those out over time. Decide on pacing at the beginning, and don’t default to a weekly format. There are advantages to meeting more frequently (which maintains the momentum and enthusiasm of building something together) and meeting less frequently (which gives facilitators more room to synthesize in between sessions and attendees time to manage their competing responsibilities), so the pace should change over the course of a project. Meeting every day or two at the start helps participants quickly align on challenges and opportunities to define initial solutions together. Once everyone is on the same page, organize less frequent gatherings with more time in the interim for independent homework.

Use the time in between.

This new rhythm requires more attention—albeit at a slower pace—from the facilitator, who must synthesize emerging ideas and assign participants follow-up tasks every meeting to make the most of the next touchpoint. Convening virtually means that attendees will have more opportunities to test ideas or assumptions with colleagues in the natural flow of their work days. Getting participants to do a bit of research against the Open Questions Wall Doc saves time in-session for them to share back the progress they’ve made. Keep this concise by giving participants a formula they can fill in ahead of meetings.

Embrace an ambiguous end-point.

Distributed in this way, the “end” of co-design becomes as much about momentum as milestones. Let ideation conversations grow into planning for prototyping or implementation. This bridge is one of the most difficult to make at in-person convenings, but one of the most important for maintaining the intention of co-design.

2. Lean into the Medium

Digital and in-person gatherings have different limits, possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages. If you try to follow the same rulebook online as you would for in-person co-design, you’re risking a loss of connection with your collaborators and missing an opportunity to do what isn’t possible in person. For example, half-hour presentations may work well in a room together, where there are fewer things competing for attention, but online, non-interactive presentations can lose people quickly. People are less prepared to actively participate, and with online distractions a click away there is ample opportunity to zone out. Instead of simply converting your agenda to its virtual version, change it up and lean into the strengths of the medium.

Pick a platform—or platforms—that let you do more than talk.

One way to hold engaging sessions is to look for tools to make discussions more interactive. This might mean training up on how to host Zoom breakout groups, or investing in a more dynamic video hosting platform like Maestro or QiQo. Still, the video interface is only half the cocktail: be intentional about how participants can share their opinions asynchronously and nonverbally. Use an online program that lets people upvote, propose ideas, or organize data together. We repurpose Google Sheets and Docs all the time—for everything from ice-breakers to collaborative implementation planning. Simple tools like Tricider are not expensive and easy to use; complex software like Mural lets you do more but takes time to set-up. There are many great options out there, and more every day (for a detailed list of engagement tech ideas, check out this compilation from Civic Hall). Prioritize something that matches your technical comfort and is easy for attendees to use.

Allow for offline work, but ask participants to share updates digitally.

Making the most of the digital format means getting explicitly clear about what should happen offline, before and after a meeting. Give participants homework, and let them know it’s coming ahead of time. Provide a template for participants to succinctly capture new ideas or questions they might have in between sessions into a format that is easy for others to review. This could be as simple as asking participants to write three sentences of reflection in a shared document; or it could be more dynamic—asking people to film a walking tour or record an audio segment, for example. If you can, make room to do some of this work entirely offline, and give people a little time to recover from inevitable screentime fatigue.

3. Participant Experience Matters (Even More than Usual)

Despite the power of technology to bring together voices from around the world, our lives are not in lock-step: participants are dialing in from different time-zones, from different moments in their days, different hours since their last meal. This misalignment can seem peripheral, but being attuned to participant experience can make or break a successful collaboration.

Use your own experience as a starting point.

We all know the experience of interacting with others through a screen is dramatically different than the experience in-person, in ways both obvious and subtle. Be attuned to these realities and design for them. Use your own experience as a starting point: what is the longest you can stay engaged and productive in a virtual meeting? How many participants yield the greatest level of participation? How do you share agendas? Notes? Action items? What sorts of recurring technical issues will you need to troubleshoot?

Incorporate participant experience into logistical decisions.

One of the best ways to improve participant experience is—I’ll say it again!—planning for shorter, more frequent sessions. Getting creative with full plenary sessions, small group breakouts, and partner conversations is even more important over digital platforms. Consider how to divide teams by topic, but also by logistics: Who is in the same time-zone? Which participants are more tech-savvy? Who seems more comfortable speaking on-camera and who needs more space to formulate their thoughts? Planning for interpersonal realities like these is a basic rule of good facilitation, whether in-person or online.

Set expectations from the beginning.

Facilitators are constantly reacting to emerging group dynamics, shifting agendas and encouraging participation in different ways. Online, they lack the same ability to read the room. Set ground rules as a group upfront to enable good facilitation—agreeing to keep cameras on and mute microphones unless speaking is a good start—and set expectations about participation and prep-time to help attendees plan their work and come prepared. Acknowledge the new dynamics a virtual platform introduces, be clear about how you want people to engage in-session, and ask for feedback so you can adapt.

In these times of uncertainty, people are doing the hard work that needs to get done, remaining inventive in the face of uncommon constraints. This is an opportunity for organizations to invest in deeper, more thoughtful co-design processes, not to defer them until the world recovers. In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Co-Design, Online: How Quarantine Can Lead Us to a Better Collaborative Process

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, we are in a period where virtual convenings are necessary. In the past week, we’ve been collecting guides for taking all kinds of important social labor totally online: from working better with a distributed team, to doing social research, to making use of the right digital engagement tools. Co-design—the process of creating policies, programs, and services directly with those that will deliver or use them—must also make that transition. And while we aren’t excited about this (done well, there is no substitute for people coming together!), there is a silver lining: virtual co-design can actually lead to better solutions.

There is a frequent misperception about co-design that can crush its potential: that smart, sustainable ideas can emerge and mature during a single, in-person workshop. But that frequently doesn’t work. At in-person workshops, the networking “hallway track” often overshadows the main objectives; the time pressures don’t give people enough room to do their best work; and waiting to ideate in-person becomes an excuse to not do the prior work to ensure that time is well-used. And there’s often too-little invested in driving forward the solutions generated—partly because ideation crowds out concrete workplanning, and partly because conveners aren’t sure what they can commit to, with ideas coming and going so rapidly.

We’ve seen these dynamics play out in our ten years of facilitating collaborations around messy social problems. We’ve led many large-scale, intensive co-design gatherings—like, 200+ people exercises— to develop bold new solutions. We know what it takes to push a group to connect deeply, to dream big, and to organize for change—and the amazing things we can accomplish when that happens. We’ve done this for highly distributed movements and organizations, from open knowledge enthusiasts (hey, Wikimedia!) to human rights defenders around the world. And our work has been most successful when organizers invest in the longer, less flashy steps following a gathering.

A big part of pulling off a successful virtual gathering is acknowledging the things the format does well, and what is more difficult. For example, we know building community virtually will be tough, especially without the happy hours or opportunities to break bread together. It’s not impossible, but it takes more time and inventiveness (more small group FaceTime? Digital Potlucks? Virtual Dance Parties?). Running lots of breakouts to share information on different topics will also be harder to do, as will giving people organic opportunities to share about their work. Yet, designing together—the underlying purpose of many of our gatherings—may actually be more successful for four reasons:

  1. You aren’t pressured to do everything in a single, compressed meeting.
  1. Participants can take time to process and reflect over multiple days, compare notes with colleagues, and answer open questions with more space in-between meetings.
  1. Ideation can transition into concrete action.
  1. You can reinvest budget for travel and logistics into testing or piloting some of the resulting, co-designed proposals.

As a small, highly-distributed team, much of our work has always been collaborative and remote. We organize daily across our two hubs in Brooklyn and Abuja—but with our many remote staff, consultants, and clients and our frequent team travel, we’ve become experts in remote collaboration. And not just in the daily tasks: we recently completed a three-month process to co-design our new organizational strategy, honing new virtual techniques that have worked remarkably well for us.

In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Rebuilding a Compassionate Social Contract in the Face of COVID-19

Last night, I spent 2 hours on a call with over 160 activists, organizers, and concerned citizens from across the US coordinating responses around COVID-19. I signed off filled with both hope and anger.

Hope because the discussions reaffirmed that in times of crisis, people will come together to help each other. Anger because in such a wealthy nation, the questions being asked—all some version of: how do we protect the most vulnerable among us?—shouldn’t be worries for ordinary people.

Some folks had just lost their jobs and were still on a 9pm call finding ways to help those even worse off. They wanted to ensure justice for immigrants, support the mentally ill, and protect trans rights. Others wanted to organize their neighbors, farmers, or spiritual leaders.

I was there to coordinate mutual aid in Brooklyn, where I live, and to connect with fellow organizers around larger policy demands. But given the nature of my day job (which of late includes talks with major institutions on how to support response efforts), I suggested we find ways to get our concerns to public and global agencies to inform their work. This was met with hesitation.

Because people know that their governments are broken—and this past week watching the US federal response certainly drove this point home. We don’t trust our institutions to do the right thing. We don’t believe they will ensure protections for the most vulnerable. And so outside of the things we can’t control, such as the strength of our healthcare systems and the stability of our economies, many of us have no choice but to organize the responses we feel are necessary and just, instead of waiting for the government to deliver too little and far too late.

This logic, which drives so many people to act, is both understandable and unacceptable.

A broken social contract

Over the last two weeks, my partner has put up with a lot of my late nights working—and my ranting over 11pm dinners after. We’ve been comparing our experience here in the US with that of Denmark, where he’s from. Danes are acting similarly to New Yorkers right now: lots of anxiety about the future of the world, lots of extreme social distancing. Yet the mood there is very different: there is simply not the same level of stress over everyone’s individual well-being.

There are many reasons for this. But key is that conceptions of the social contract between citizen and state are drastically different between the two countries. There are very different understandings of the contributions that all Danes (whether as private citizens, employees, or business owners) make to the state, and of the assurances that the government then provides in return.

Denmark is consistently ranked among the top 3 happiest countries in the world. The average person pays 45% in taxes—and 9 out of 10 people do so happily. Why? They don’t see it just as paying taxes, but as investing in their collective well-being. They see it as buying individual quality of life. Or as my partner pointed out, they see it as paying for their government to hold their worry for them. So even in times of crisis, no one is worried that they can’t go to the doctor, can’t put food on the table, or won’t be able to keep a roof over their heads.

The fact that in America, we have to fight for these basic human rights is hard for him to grasp. It is hard for him to understand that in times like these, random citizens are connecting with each other over long conference calls to try and find ways to meet their basic survival needs.

It is hard for me to grasp, too. And I’m speaking as someone who works with and in the spaces between communities, activists, governments, and global public institutions.

The infrastructure of government is so broken that concerned citizens are cobbling together plans for our immediate security and future well-being via a collection of Google spreadsheets, Zoom videocalls, and Twitter hashtags. Of course it’s difficult to grasp. Because it is absolutely bonkers.

Hope in the time of crisis

People are losing their jobs and worrying about how they’ll pay rent. Isolated elderly people are suffering from debilitating anxiety and loneliness. Populations that were already vulnerable—those who are  homeless, undocumented, uninsured, working class, in abusive relations, with pre-existing conditions—are rightly terrified about their survival. Families in Italy are attending the funerals of their loved ones by livestream. And none of us have a true sense of how long this will last. So we brace ourselves, exhausted, trying to gather strength and fight.

At the same time, we’re seeing an incredible outpouring of creativity and generosity. There’s been a mushrooming of mutual aid groups, emergency food donations, financial support for wage workers, and solidarity for frontline workers. Our organizing is rapidly translating into life-saving policies and life-affirming actions. We’ve banned evictions, guaranteed access to basic utilities, and opened access to nourishing art. All seemingly overnight. What we were told were intractable problems were not so impossible to solve after all. Many of the reforms were forced by public health necessity. We need to ensure that when and as things “normalize”, our local and global leaders sustain the political courage to institutionalize them.

But first, we’re in the here and now. There’s a lot happening. People are looking for answers, as are our governing bodies. In the conversations I’ve been a part of, it seems like everyone is expecting the answer to come from someone else. But there is no answer yet. This is an unprecedented moment that will require entirely new ways of problem-solving both conceptually and literally (time to buy Zoom stocks!).

A call for radical collaboration

We have the opportunity to imagine, propose, and realize new paradigms for how society functions. We will figure it out together. As we do, here are some things we’re keeping in mind (and reminding others)—we’d love to hear yours, too:

  • We urgently need transformative collaborations.The answers for how we get through this will not come from any one place. We need radical collaboration that transcend traditional models of partnership.
    We need to work with community groups to develop new ways of understanding people’s needs—both the obvious (economic stability) and the less obvious (social isolation). We need to listen to activists to make sure the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors aren’t overlooked. We need radical partnership across government, companies, and researchers to triage and prioritize urgent needs—and to allocate resources to respond. We need to collaborate with distributed mutual aid groups, both as a sensing mechanism and a stopgap when institutional capabilities fall short. We need international agencies to monitor trends, learn rapidly from what’s working and what’s not, and ensure regions that are hit later are as prepared as they can be—particularly in regions where health systems and digital infrastructure are weak.
  • We must center response efforts in equity and justice. COVID-19 will impact different people differently. Already vulnerable populations are at much higher risk. There are huge differences in the expectations, infrastructure, and programs in place to support different populations. We need to rapidly (and creatively) build the capacity to take care of all who need help, not just the healthiest or easiest to serve.
    We need emergency shelters, food security for all, bans on price gouging, protections and hazard pay for frontline workers, accessible and affordable healthcare (even for the uninsured and undocumented), emergency unemployment benefits, emergency assistance for small businesses, moratoriums on evictions / foreclosures / utility shutoffs, safety in prisons, a stop to ICE enforcement, protections against domestic abuse, and far more. To ensure these happen, we need to build broad public momentum around these proposals—and work rapidly with responsible institutions and new allies to make them happen.
  • We should be both obnoxiously demanding and unreasonably kind to each other, across divides of “citizen”, “activist”, and “government”.People are asking hard questions of our institutions—and rightly. Much of the federal government response has been slow, incompetent, or downright dangerous. And so we take to the phones, to petitions, to social media.But many working within institutions are also anxious—and they lack the tools to manage this unprecedented situation. These public servants need our help to figure out what to do. So let’s be demanding, but let’s also be kind and helpful. For civil society groups, this means rolling up our sleeves to dig into the minutiae of policies, resources, and programmatic mechanisms to help them figure out operational roadmaps—and fast.
    We must organize against incompetence to tell our institutions what we won’t settle for. But we also must help them organize for effective response to urgently realize the solutions we need.

These are tense times. It feels like the whole world is holding its collective breath as we see how this pandemic will unfold. How it plays out—and more importantly, how we collectively respond—will define our moment in history, and set the path for how we build a more compassionate, more resilient future.

I don’t know what this looks like, but I do know we can get there together. I’m coordinating with Reboot’s friends and partners both in the US around the world—activists, designers, civil servants, technologists, community groups, academics, movement leaders, policymakers, funders, development agencies—to build a network for radical collaboration around response efforts. We’re looking for new allies and ideas, so please drop me a line if you’d like to join us: urgentnow@reboot.org.

Now let’s get to work.

corey chao buzzwords fuzzwords co-creation co-design

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords Video Series: Co-Creation, Beyond the Workshop

From USAID to The LEGO Group, city governments to private car manufacturers, “co-creation” as an approach to building initiatives and products alongside their eventual users and implementers is generating a lot of buzz.

But at a time when people are using co-creation to mean—well, anything really—how do we make sure we’re not using the term in a way that causes confusion or encourages trendy-but-impractical solutions?

At Reboot we’ve led dozens of co-creation journeys for a wide range of people, including journalists, policymakers, technologists, researchers, and local communities. And so we’ve had ample opportunity to consider, amidst the infinite possible objectives and trajectories, what makes a co-creation journey have integrity? What makes it deliver on the promise that including stakeholders in the design of an initiative will make it better—more effective and more sustainable?

In this episode of our “Buzzwords and Fuzzwords” series, Strategic Designer Corey Chao talks about the “guiding lights” that he uses to design a co-creation process. First, he says, consider who should be in the room, and why. Second, prepare for existing power dynamics. Third, think beyond a single “touchpoint” to the grander arc of the whole co-design process.

Go ahead, give him a listen.

From Fists in the Air to Seats at the Table

Author’s note: This essay has benefited from many conversations with my colleague Chelsey Lepage, who has done extensive thinking on the role of activists during and after political transitions, based on her experiences working directly with human rights activists during a political crackdown in the horn of Africa. 

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011, died earlier this week. His passing sparked memories of the Arab Spring in Cairo, when we believed that our protests would lead to a more just social order.

I moved to Cairo from Germany in 2011 to witness the birth of a new Egypt. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades, I wanted to play a small part in making my home country more open, inclusive, and accepting of difference. I wanted to see my fellow Egyptians challenge cronyism and corruption. And I wanted to see our government take care of the people who needed it the most.

Unfortunately, this dream of a new Egypt didn’t last long. We soon found ourselves in the streets again, only weeks after the military took control of the country, to protest for “bread, freedom, social justice,” and a new constitution for all Egyptians. 

I remember distinctly the moment when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that we had been heard, and that there would be a drafting process for a new constitution. We, the protesters, were invited into the room to be a part of the negotiation. And that was where we encountered a huge challenge: we knew how to form alliances and organize protests against injustice, but we were brand new to building consensus at the tables of the powerful. We did not know how to rally around something we would do with—rather than against—those in power. 

Social Movements Form In Opposition

This challenge was not unique to Egypt, nor was the way our movement had formed. From the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia to the Taksim protests in Turkey and the Maidan protests in Ukraine, social upheavals can gain strength suddenly, often around a single violent event, and then go on to challenge deeply entrenched power structures. Precisely what made these movements so powerful was the activists’ willingness to risk life and liberty in their urgent desire to work against—an oppressive regime, discriminatory legislation, a systemic lack of justice—in these early chaotic moments of change.

But in Egypt, as in these other contexts, what came after the big disruption was much less clearly defined than the need for change in the moment. 

What Comes After the Big Disruption

What we hoped for, once activists succeeded in disrupting the status quo, was a non-violent transition to a more just political order. But in many countries, ruling governments have stayed in power by eliminating opposition and harassing leaders of social movements. In practice, this means that the community organizers and political professionals who might run such an orderly transition have been driven underground, or simply don’t exist at all.

In fact in recent years, over one hundred governments—in both democratic and non-democratic states—have introduced legislation restricting the activities of civil society organizations. Regimes deploy formal and informal tactics to disadvantage CSOs, and the number of human rights defenders killed by governments is at a record high across the world.

Political Transitions Amidst Shrinking Civic Space

In an era of shrinking civic space, instead of the orderly political transition we hope for, one or more of the following scenarios usually occur:

  1. Successful leaders of grassroots protest movements blend into the background and political movements take too long to form. Meanwhile, new (often illegitimate and predatory) actors seize power amidst the leadership vacuum. In Egypt, there were a number of such actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood and, importantly, the Egyptian Armed Forces. 
  2. Formerly united protest movements realize that beyond a shared agenda against, there is limited alignment of ideology and objectives. They disintegrate into infighting, with parallel factions vying for leadership positions. There were many nascent, small political parties in Egypt which were unable to collaborate and align, resulting in cannibalization, and leaving  plenty of space for more mature players to take control—like Mubarak’s old cronies, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. 
  3. Having worked against the system for long periods of time, activists lack the tools and skills to contribute to political development, that is, to work for and with. That was a challenge we encountered often; in part because of our inexperience in driving consensus, in part because of the persistent, predatory power structures. 

All three of these scenarios occurred in Egypt—and we see them happen all over the world. While transitions offer real opportunities for movement leaders and activists to protect and entrench precious gains, the path to more inclusive political processes is unclear. 

We found that the skills and tactics that enabled us to challenge an oppressive system were ill-matched to the long-term and incremental work of political reform. This led to yet a new challenge: millions of Egyptians were disappointed in movement leaders because the change they hoped for did not materialize. 

Co-Design for Activist Support

These challenges call for urgent and new thinking. How can movement leaders take forward the momentum that they created to build sustainable political change? How can they build the bridge from political disruption to political reform?

Through our work at Reboot, we seek to help answer these questions—to get a deep understanding of where political transitions work well and to develop guidance for success, jointly with those who will use it. Our research, in collaboration with activists, centers on: How can we shift mindsets and tactics from opposition to collaboration, when the time is right? How can activists play a role in aligning the objectives, resources, and capabilities of all the different actors involved in the transition? What key ingredients create the coalitions needed to sustain political reform?

From my perspective, I know that back in 2011 this kind of guidance could have made a real difference in how we managed the transition from working against, to working with. Today, I work so that other movements may have a better shot at taking their seats at the table, and making them count. 

Driving Design for Open Data

On March 3rd, Reboot will participate in NYC Open Data Week, using the power of collaborative design to help solve the city’s open data challenges. Panthea Lee will join a hybrid panel discussion and design session on the importance of participatory and question-driven problem-solving; Kisha Bwenge and Alyssa Kropp will lead the Open Data Co-Design Clinic, an interactive workshop for practitioners to learn how to collaborate with clarity and purpose.

How to Shift Power Through Co-Design

How can a collaborative design approach shift power and put feedback first? Rebooters Corey Chao and Kisha Bwenge explore this question at Feedback+ San Juan Summit, from February 26-28, 2020. In our breakout session, No Silver Bullets, we’ll guide participants to transform barriers into opportunities for authentic collaboration.

People-Powered Innovation in Action

On February 27, 2020, Mohammed Maikudi and Yop Rwang Pam will lead an interactive session at Social Media Week Lagos, the largest innovation conference on the African continent. Reboot’s Humanize IT panel brings together experts in global development, technology, and human-centered design to discuss how we can go from “design thinking” to “design doing.”

Welcome Seyi ‘Goke!

Reboot is thrilled to welcome our Communications Designer, Seyi ‘Goke, to the Abuja office. Seyi brings a near decade of experience in graphic design, illustration, and marketing from across the public and private sectors; even sharing expertise through his own course, The Art of Good Design. He looks forward to working closely with our Africa team to establish new design standards and create user-friendly visual products, supporting our portfolio on the continent and beyond.

“Walking the Talk” for Global Development Impact

On December 11, 2019, Panthea Lee will moderate a panel at the Thinking & Working Politically (TWP) Summit in Washington, DC. Panelists from the World Bank, USAID, and Chemonics will interrogate the progress and pitfalls of the TWP approach, and help bridge the gap between policy proposals and program implementation.

Welcome New Rebooters!

Over the last two months, we’ve welcomed three new team members to support programmatic work across our portfolio. Mohammed Maikudi and Abayomi Akinbo are our civic technology experts based in the West Africa office, leveraging years of experience building connections across government, civil society, and private sector actors in Nigeria and beyond. Alyssa Kropp works out of Reboot HQ, using her skills in design, research and project management to uncover creative and practical ideas for our programs.

Make Your Voice Heard for the Future of Open Data!

New Yorkers put open data to work everyday, whether its helping agencies run more effectively or using public City information to improve their communities and businesses. Reboot is currently working with the NYC Open Data Program to develop the City’s first-ever strategic plan for open data, and we’ve developed a brief survey to get YOUR input. If you have 10 minutes, you have the chance to make your voice heard in the process. Survey closes August 6, 2019—submit yours today!

Telling the Story of Open Government

From May 29th to 31st, Panthea Lee, Yop Rwang Pam, Corey Chao, and Ugochi Ekwueme will lead and join sessions at the 6th Open Government Partnership Summit in Ottawa, Canada. Our Thursday session, “The Story of Open: New Tools for Impactful Open Government Journalism,” introduces approaches to support journalists developing accessible narratives around #OpenGov. Our Friday panel, “Culture Hacking for Open Gov: How to Use Art, Film, and Pop Culture to Up Our Impact,” features culture-shapers using different mediums to engage wider audiences in movements for the public good. Follow along at #OGPCanada!

Four Stories of Turning Failure into Feasibility

One of my favorite stories of governance “lessons learned” comes from my friend and colleague Oluseun (Seun) Onigbinde, who runs the organization BudgIT.

A few years ago, BudgIT created a mobile app to help citizens in rural Nigeria find information about public projects-in-progress, so they can hold elected officials accountable. There were only two problems, as Seun says, “Number one: People don’t go looking for information about public projects. Number two: People don’t use apps.”

I’m thinking about Seun’s reflections as we at Reboot get ready for the OGP Global Summit in Ottawa at the end of this month. The Summit is always an opportunity to share exciting successes and big ideas in the open government space; but in thinking about what I hope to share with (and learn from) my peers, I’m trying to keep in mind that we can sometimes gain the greatest insights from discussing our failures.

That’s why Reboot hosted a “Fail Fair” at last year’s summit. We brought together three colleagues who have achieved impressive successes, and asked them to talk about their failures instead—with a focus on technology, a common area of expectations-falling-short-of-results. Seun’s story is just one of these “failures” (although “failure” might be overstating it, as BudgIT ended up designing a low-tech, grassroots alternative, with far better results; Seun tells the whole story in his own words below).

In celebrating failure, what we’re really doing is reminding ourselves that doing good development work requires trial and error. The more we can be open about the errors, the more likely we are to try new ideas, to stay open to risk, and to iterate and adapt our way to real solutions.

So as we get ready to head to Ottawa, I reached out to last year’s panelists and asked them to recap their stories from our discussion.

Story #1: BudgIT finds an old-fashioned grassroots solution is better than any tech.

Oluseun Onigbinde is the Lead Partner and co-founder of BudgIT, a civic organization that works to make public finance data more accessible, transparent, and understandable to citizens.

The idea behind Tracka was to create a simple, easy-to-use website for people in rural areas in Nigeria to find information about local public projects and keep tabs on their progress. The site encourages visitors to, “Don’t just complain about it, act now!”

Based on the site’s success, we started working on an app version of Tracka. As Zack wrote in the introduction, people generally don’t go looking for information on public projects, so our app was designed to make it easier. But then we ran into the problem that people don’t use apps.

We had conceived of the app as a strategy to grow Tracka; ultimately, we had to scale that back. We saw it as a project design failure. To avoid this kind of thing in the future, I believe people should always put themselves “in the shoes of the user.” You have to always ask the question: Is the thing I’m working on contextually right for society? In a lot of cases, we find that an advanced technological solution isn’t.

More often, the mantra is: Use low tech. Abandon apps.

To that end, we shifted our focus for Tracka to another mode of adoption. We had previously found success in partnering with Enough is Enough Nigeria to expand our radio programs to distribute governance information—creating a network of community champions in local communities, and using social media to amplify their work.

We used a similar solution for Tracka. Instead of an app, we started hosting town meetings about public projects. We were immediately surprised by the number of people who attended. This grassroots solution ended up being a better way to communicate and engage with people. Technology had a role, in that we used social media to invite people to the meetings and then to amplify the conversations that were happening at the meetings. But technology was just a way to augment the real solution. For example, we created an SMS program, enabling citizens to send text messages from their communities, which integrates into our webpage and which we can use in real-time to drive action.

One of the big challenges with this kind of pivot, naturally, is managing donor relationships; someone in the audience at the OGP Summit asked about this last year. When you realize something isn’t working, and you need to pivot, how do you bring donors along? This is a real challenge for a lot of groups, and one of the ways we try to manage it is by communicating with donors about the importance of additional funding for expanding in-person programs to more states (rather than continuously investing in more apps). We were very fortunate to have a donor, Luminate (formerly Omidyar Network, Government & Citizen Engagement Unit), that fully trusted our judgment and provided a core grant for developing Tracka, which was flexible enough to allow us to scale to 22 states and rethink our approach.

Abandon the obsession with apps. Use low-tech solutions that are close to home.

Story #2: The World Wide Web Foundation focuses on people and process—not product.

Michael (Miko) Cañares is Senior Research Manager for Digital Citizenship at the World Wide Web Foundation, an organization dedicated to the improvement and availability of the World Wide Web.

Our story comes from a time when we were looking to build use cases for open contracting data. That is: How can we demonstrate different ways that communities can use open data? To that end, we partnered with a local organization that wanted to create a portal analyzing data on public contracts. Unfortunately, that portal died a natural death, for lack of use. You can read more about that project in this blog post.

That project (among others) is the inspiration for four lessons we constantly remind ourselves with. It’s our way of holding ourselves accountable and not repeating the same mistakes. These are key, cardinal principles we always remember in our work:

  • Lesson 1: It’s not about the data, it’s about the problem you want to solve. We often see people starting with an interest in the power of data; but really, the first question always has to be, “What is the problem?”
  • Lesson 2: It’s not about the tech, it’s about the civic. Our work should create a healthy atmosphere of interrogation. Ultimately, our solutions should be leading to action and discussion among people.
  • Lesson 3: It’s not about the portal, it’s about the people. This principle keeps us focused on those who we hope will use our tools; nothing really works if it doesn’t work for users. Our mantra is: We seek first to understand before we intervene.
  • Lesson 4: It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. Finally, we have to remember that the work we do is itself part of our mission of openness and transparency. Inviting people into that process along the way is the root of real change.

We are still internalizing these lessons; just knowing them doesn’t mean you start doing them! Because we know we need constant reminders, we have someone on our team for every project who functions as an arbiter, ensuring these lessons are baked in.

We seek first to understand before we intervene.

Story #3: The MacArthur Foundation engages cohorts to spark networks of impact.

Oladayo Olaide is Deputy Director, MacArthur Foundation Nigeria Office, where the Foundation is focused on reducing retail corruption and strengthening Nigerian-led anti-corruption efforts.  

The MacArthur Foundation takes the strategy of making “big bets.” In Nigeria, the Foundation is focusing on the major issue of corruption, and is taking a cohort approach to grantmaking.

We started by investing in journalists to produce investigative reports, but while these reports were successfully uncovering corruption, they weren’t generating any response. There was a gap between report and action. We faced the question: How can we drive social action and pressure the government?

Within this question, we also faced specific challenges. For example, some grantees were not reaching specific segments of the population, because of language barriers or because they weren’t reached by certain media channels. We also saw that grantees faced stiff competition from national issues in trying to get their corruption reports to “break through” the noise.

To move forward, we saw a need for greater collaboration. One thing we’re working on now, for example, is to support civil society and journalists to work together. We are supporting civil society organizations to provide the “last mile” necessary for investigative reports to cause action. We also engaged another cohort who are focusing on interpreting investigative reports and ensuring they reach people in local languages.

We make “big bets,” but that’s not just a one-time investment. It’s about iterating and learning and adjusting over time.

To move forward, we need greater collaboration.

Story #4: Reboot uses design to facilitate critical conversations

Panthea Lee is our Principal and co-founder here at Reboot.

In 2011, Reboot was asked to work with the new Libyan government and the UN to help support a peaceful democratic transition. In a country still marked by violence and separated by vast physical distances, we were asked to develop a voter registration tool and implement a national program that would allow all citizens to participate in the new democratic process.

One thing we learned was that: The process was more important than the tool we were actually developing.

Gaddafi’s regime had been purged; the people who were setting up the government had never done this before. We found that when presenting different design solutions, the ones we thought were best—and that performed highly based on “objective” tests—weren’t the ones our Libyan counterparts chose. We used “could reach as many people as possible” as our core metric of success, but for our counterparts, there were many other complicating factors as well, from cultural norms around the display of women’s names on the voter roll to putting their best foot forward for the international community.

We had to check our ego and know our limitations. Democracy is about people driving for themselves. As designers and technologists, it’s easy to think we know the “right” technical solutions, but to truly support democracy in Libya, we had to be there for the solution that the emerging democratic government wanted. We had our project timelines, and desperately wanted to see as much positive change as we could while we were there. Our challenge was to set aside those outcomes (which really just satisfied our own egos and our desire to “drive positive change”). We had to constantly remind ourselves that we were supporting a larger change process. When we were able to do that, we saw that what was more important than our design solution itself was the conversations that our design process was supporting.

More important than our design solution itself were the conversations that our design process supported.

Join us in Ottawa!

I’m excited to hear more stories of “failing forward” in Ottawa at the end of May. I hope you’ll join us for a couple of sessions hosted by Rebooters:

Both of these are areas that defy traditional metrics and target-setting approaches, and that require a lot of trial-and-error. I’m looking forward to hearing ideas—and examples of lessons learned!—from the inspired and inspiring community at OGP.

Apply Now to Lead Newest Global PB Initiative

Building on the momentum of our Participatory Budgeting Exchange in November 2018, the Hewlett Foundation has dedicated seed funding to support the launch of a new global PB hub. Applications are open until May 31, 2019 for leading organizations to coordinate knowledge and peer exchange across participatory budgeting initiatives worldwide. Apply today!

ford tech fellows

Lessons from the Ford Tech Fellows program: Three Principles for Translating Tech into Public Good

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Ford Foundation’s Equals Change Blog.


While technology has become integral to almost every aspect of social justice, the field of people working at the intersection of these two areas is relatively small. That’s why we at Reboot were excited to support the inaugural cohorts of the Ford Foundation’s technology fellows program.

Now, as the foundation prepares to welcome its third cohort of tech fellows, we are pleased to share a set of principles—best practices we have developed in collaboration with the initial cohort, the program teams that have supported them and benefited from their insights, and Ford’s Office of Strategy and Learning—for bringing public interest technologists into an organization. We believe these principles demonstrate the value of embedding new kind of expertise in philanthropy, and will be valuable to funders and nonprofits interested in leveraging technological expertise to accelerate emerging programs, support strategic shifts, and advance the public interest.

Each year, the tech fellows program recruits three fellows with experience in both tech and social justice to join Ford’s program teams for two years. The fellows introduce new behaviors, tools, and mindsets to their teams, and make connections between their existing networks and their new colleagues.

Because the program is so new in both its goals and its approach, the foundation recognized the importance of having an independent expert collaboratively track progress and offer feedback in real-time. And that’s exactly what Reboot did: We worked closely with Ford staff and the fellows to identify, analyze, and act on challenges and opportunities as they arose, drawing on our experience designing innovation and tech initiatives around the world. Through this process, the tech fellows program became both an opportunity to institutionalize public tech expertise, and a test case for how adaptive management can strengthen new programs and help teams integrate new kinds of knowledge in their work.

In a relatively short amount of time, the program changed how staff across the foundation talked about and understood technology’s role in their work, and strengthened connections between people with different kinds of expertise. As the first tech fellows move on to new challenges beyond Ford, we look forward to seeing how they benefit from the knowledge and connections they gained at the foundation.

Three principles for translating tech into public good

The story of this program is about how everyone working for social justice can use technology to push back against inequality, and the biased systems that technologies can mirror and perpetuate—and how they can build and expand the reach and impact of public interest investments. That transformation will take a growing field of experts who are well-versed and well-connected in both technology and social impact. As more organizations take part in building that field, the Ford Foundation’s tech fellows program offers useful lessons.

Principle 1: Value and build external and internal networks of support.

From the beginning, Ford’s tech fellows program sought to develop the community of practice working at the intersection of technology and social justice. Program teams found particular value in the fellows’ wide existing networks in fields like smart cities and criminal justice. These networks enabled fellows not only to represent the foundation at external forums, but to facilitate new connections. One fellow, for example, was instrumental in organizing and curating a summit on emerging media that forged new opportunities between practicing artists and funders.

In addition to these external connections, internal networks are also important—and that starts with the bonds among the fellows themselves. Bringing multiple fellows into an organization at once, and supporting them as a cohesive, tight-knit cohort, can enable peer support and shared learning. At Ford, designing the program to support internal networking meant offering frequent opportunities for fellows to meet and share what they were learning.

Principle 2: Start with structure, then drive towards autonomous creativity.

Titles like “public interest technologist” or “tech fellow” can be ambiguous at best. So the early stages of any fellowship program benefit immensely from thoughtful structure. Creating clear, specific job descriptions can help knit incoming fellows into an existing team. Ford, for example, asked directors and program officers to help develop fellow selection criteria, giving them a chance to ask for the expertise they most needed, and then more easily integrate the fellows into their work.

As time goes on, it’s valuable to gradually increase the autonomy of the fellows, allowing greater independence to manage their own time and relationships, and to propose new ideas. At Ford, once fellows were embedded in their teams and had built strong working relationships with their directors, they were able to drive independent ideas that helped create connections across the institution. For example, one fellow worked with program officers from across the foundation to support a comprehensive approach to digital security. This fellow-driven initiative introduced a new kind of role for a tech fellow, as well as a potential organizational structure—and it would not have been possible without a level of earned autonomy for the fellow.

Principle 3: Provide ample space for reflection, and help guide it into action.

Fellows come to the foundation with a body of experience and expertise that is further deepened through the fellowship and has proven invaluable for Ford’s teams. But how to ensure that all this knowledge is communicated to colleagues and retained by the institution, once the fellows have moved on? Making space for self-reflection and discussion—such as through a facilitated full-day learning retreat, similar to one we organized for the fellows—and developing clear avenues for exchanging information, can help address this challenge.

At the same time, to avoid the dreaded graveyard of unread reports, it’s important to channel fellows’ reflections to the right audiences. The right audience for a memo on common cybersecurity challenges faced by grantees, for example, might be program officers responsible for grants related to digital security, algorithmic bias, or other security issues. On the other hand, incoming fellows might be the key audience for guidance about how to navigate (and learn from) Ford’s institutional dynamics in a non-grantmaking role. Regular discussions and meetings focused on interactive reflection also help enable action-oriented learning.

The importance of learning by doing

It’s been inspiring to watch fellows and staff navigate Ford’s program in such an open, adaptive way. This came through in how the fellows and staff discussed, debated, and listened to each other about the challenges of defining “technologist” within the foundation’s work. It was also clear in how fellows and staff redefined the objectives of the program to clarify the roles fellows can play in the foundation. And it was apparent in the way staff and fellows integrated those new roles and an accompanying theory of change into the job description for the 2019 incoming fellows.

Thanks to an organization-wide commitment to embracing mistakes and learning by doing, the tech fellows program has become stronger and clearer. More than any one practical or strategic consideration of program design, this commitment to learning and iteration may be the most important lesson from this program. Indeed, “learn by doing” may be the most important principle of all.

Intentional Design for Civic Technologies

On March 20th, Panthea Lee will present on Reboot’s “participatory budgeting” (PB) research, evaluating PB’s potential to deliver on the ambitious objectives that have garnered its global reputation, and offering a deep dive into whether, and how, technologies can enhance this potential. Rebooters Zack Brisson and Amira El Sayed will also be in attendance at TICTeC 2019 and the OECD Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum in Paris, France.

‘Tech Fellows’ Piece Recently Published in Ford Foundation Blog

The Ford Foundation’s Equals Change Blog recently published “Lessons from the foundation’s tech fellows program” by Research Manager Marielle Velander. Based on our work with the inaugural Ford Tech Fellows cohort, where we supported adaptive management at the intersection of technology and social justice, Marielle shares three principles for translating tech into public good.

From Data Row to Reality with NYC Open Data

In New York City, “Open Data for All” is more than a government mandate. It is a call to action, an invitation, and a vision for the city and its 8 million residents.

Since the Open Data Law was signed in 2012, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) has worked to increase the impact of New York City’s public data beyond the thousands of datasets published in the Open Data Portal. By enrolling government agencies, empowering communities, and educating the public, MODA works to turn rows of figures into a case for the significance of this data—and more importantly, its potential to help us problem-solve.

We’ve worked with MODA and other NYC government agencies towards this mission, developing engaging reports to tell the story of open data, as well as conducting research and creating visuals to help data advocates better understand who uses the city’s public data (and how).

The Public Data at Work video, created in collaboration with MODA and NYC Media to accompany the 2018 Open Data Progress Report, invites all New Yorkers to make the most of their city through public data.