A year into our Climate programme, with two digital services targeted at local climate action under our belts, I’ve been taking the opportunity to reflect on the reasons we started the programme, and how it connects to our mission as an organisation. The Climate programme’s anniversary also coincides with the point at which I’m picking up the role of Chief Executive, with more responsibility to explore—with our team and trustees—where we can best contribute in future.
Is mySociety pivoting to climate now?
When we developed the programme, we had a lot of conversations about whether this represented a pivot for us as an organisation, away from our core practice areas of Democracy, Transparency and Community.
To me, the answer is clear. We aren’t pivoting towards climate change; we’re recognising that, in the words of Paddy Loughman, climate is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. And that includes the story of democracy which has at its heart the question “how can we live together?”.
The climate crisis puts into sharp focus all the questions we already face about how democracy can work at the scale, speed and complexity we need it to in the modern world. It is no coincidence that climate has been the topic that has brought democratic innovations like citizens assemblies and place-based commissions to the UK. With the wicked problem of a changing climate as the setting, all organisations should be considering what role they can play through their work.
In terms of our work, “no longer the story but the setting in which stories happen” is also a way of thinking of the transformative effect the internet has had on all our lives. We don’t talk so much about digital democracy as we did in the era when mySociety was founded, partly because the digital part now goes without saying for so many people.
mySociety began its life as an exploration of the ways in which digital technology could allow democratic participation to flourish. Our history has been one of experimentation, of using digital services to ask ‘what if?’ TheyWorkForYou is a response to the question ‘What if there were better ways for people to get information about the decisions that are being made on their behalf?’ WhatDoTheyKnow is a response to the question ‘What if asking questions of those in power were completely normalised?’ Millions of people’s lives are improved by these engines of democratic access each year.
As the climate crisis brings urgent new challenges for the ways we make decisions, we think our unique contribution to the response to that crisis is in exploring the beneficial role digital services can play at the intersection of climate and democracy. That is the heart of our climate programme.
So what are we doing?
There are many threads to pull on here, and we’ve started with local democratic response. Partly because a third of the UK’s emissions are under the influence of local government and the communities they serve, but also because literally starting where you are is a reasonable response both to the complexity of what we do about climate as individuals and how we might engage as citizens in a modern democracy. Climate action is a local problem – it’s just a local problem everywhere.
When individual change and systemic change need to feed upon each other, there are many needs that digital services can play a part in responding to, such as:
- better information about the scale of the problem and what government and institutions are and could be doing
- better information about local communities and the complexity and difference of modern lives as we make the huge transition ahead
- opportunities for people to come together to act and to make fair decisions for current and future generations
- faster feedback loops between these elements, so that many different organisations and individuals can coordinate
It’s especially exciting for me to be reflecting on these opportunities at a point where we’re starting a series of experiments we’re calling ‘prototyping weeks’, working in the open and with others, to continue to ask ‘what if?’ and see where digital services might help bridge the gaps. We’ll be talking more about this over the next few months, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us.
This blog post inspired in part by the essays in Addressing the Climate Crisis – Local action in theory and practice, edited by Candice Howarth, Matthew Lane and Amanda Slevin
Image: Sheffield at Sunset by Benjamin Elliot