Benjamin Snow, Co-founder of Civocracy.org, shared with us how the world of civic engagement is changing with technology
Interview (and visual) by Aleksandra Širec
Editing: Brock LeMieux
Who are you?
I am Benjamin Snow, one of the founders of Civocracy.org. It’s a social startup and platform for civic engagement where we facilitate better decision making and collaboration within communities.
What is your background? How did you get to what you are doing today?
I came to Berlin to do a master’s in public policy at Hertie School of Governance three years ago. Back then Civocracy was an idea that has gone through great transformation. I gained more knowledge and experience in political communication, deliberative democracy and civic tech. All these experiences enabled me to develop a tech company bridging the divide between citizens, non-profits, organizations and the government.
What are you working on right now? Why are you doing what you are doing?
We believe one of the biggest fundamental problems is not the problem itself but how we talk about it. How do we have better conversations? How do we create better decision making? How do we allow for better transparency? The way that communities currently come together to attempt to understand issues and make decisions affecting them can be inefficient. Take the local issue of Tempelhofer Feld as an example. (Editor’s note: Tempelhofer Feld, an old airport strip turned community garden and recreation space, was recently at risk of being privately sold for luxury housing.) So what do you do? If you don’t like what’s been decided, you create an opposition and march on the street. Most of the time, officials are trying to avoid people picketing on the street. Yet what they don’t do (before making a decision) is to reach out to the community.
The only people they ever hear from are the ones who are really upset. We think that the future of society isn’t just about hearing the loudest voices. Instead, it’s about creating real engagement with communities so many voices can be heard. We believe increased transparency, aided by technology, helps creates stronger civic engagement. Furthermore, it helps citizens make more informed decisions about whatever issue it is they care about. We are building a platform, a civic network, that helps people to do this much more easily. Much the same as one has a social network like LinkedIn for professional reasons, Civocracy is connecting around: What do I care about in my community? How do I get involved with it? Who else in my community is involved? How do I form and give my opinion about the issues my community faces? That’s what we’re building.
How do you create impact?
Our goal isn’t to decide who wins. I feel people often approach problems and solutions by clearly determining what the problem is and what the most suitable solution is. Thereby they try to define their impact. We don’t aim to solve a specific problem. Our goal is to change the way we solve problems, the way we think about problems, and the way we design solutions. We see ourselves as enabling others to create impact. We are facilitators of impact.
That’s why we want to create a tool that helps experts, communities and people to come together to make better decisions about what they care about. We don’t have to know the answers. We just have to make a tool where people come come up with better questions and conclusions. I really believe that impact is about enabling others to create impact for their community.
So it’s about transparency…
Transparency just reflects what is already happening. What we aim to do is more about empowerment. We believe it’s not about finding out what is best for a community, but to help them identify what works best for them. It’s facilitating this conversation that we believe really empowers communities.
Why did you join Impact Hub?
We took part in an accelerator program in Amsterdam where we received lots of mentorship which really made us move forward. Coming back to Berlin, we didn’t want to be isolated in an office space. That’s why we are here at Impact Hub Berlin. We believe in being part of a vibrant, diverse community with our shared values.
How do you think the Impact Hub community helps you develop your project and take it to the next level?
We want to be surrounded by other people working on interesting products and services. I believe an inspiring environment fosters great ideas and innovation. It’s also important for us to be connected to the right people. These include potential partners, employers, customers, users, and people to test our product and give us feedback. This is also valuable as we hire. We started with two people, now we are seven, and by the end of the year we will probably be more.
What’s on the horizon for you?
We are currently in our second round of fundraising and preparing everything for that right now. We also just hired two new developers. We are also having really good discussions right now with one really big client interested to use our platform across the continent. We’ve got a second version coming out in the upcoming weeks, we’ve brought on some new people to add to our technical side, and we’ve got three exciting new partnerships.
How do you get inspired? What inspires you to do this project?
I am really getting inspired when I see people who really shift the way the trajectory of how something goes. That could be a social movement, where some really radical thing can spontaneously happen. Spontaneous because people were passionate about something and got involved. The way we view solar energy is a good example. A few people thought that maybe they weren’t going to succeed alone, but passionately believed they could change the way people thought about it’s potential and the possibilities. That’s kind of what we want to do. We want to change the way what people think about civic tech, about how the internet can be used for civic engagement, government decision making and transparency.
But we also want to take that thinking and make a tool to help people create their own innovations. So they can say “this muddled conversation around how we care for the elderly has being going on for two years now.” We created a tool that helps them find each other, helps them research further, and say “let’s do something to change the way people approach this problem.” This could be a technological advancement (such as an app or online course educating more people about the issue) or perhaps a government petition or campaign. Seeing results like that, that’s what really gets us inspired!
Connect with Benjamin on LinkedIn