A Digital Davos: The 2011 Social Good Summit
September 27, 2011
Web and Social Media Assistant, Global Health Policy Center
As world leaders gathered in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, another group of representatives assembled in New York at the second annual Social Good Summit to discuss the power of new media and technology in solving the world’s greatest challenges.
Hosted by Mashable and the UN Foundation, the Social Good Summit is a different kind of conference. The majority of attendees are in their twenties and thirties; the attire varies from business casual to jeans and a t-shirt; and of course; everyone has at least one mobile device.
However while the Social Good Summit caters to a new army of leaders – the blogger, the technologist, the activist – the mission of the conference is one that everyone should care about: how do we take new emerging technologies and harness them for social good? As Raj Shah, Administrator for USAID, said – governments cannot solve every problem alone. At a time when budgets are tight and debate abounds as to where precious resources should go, citizens need to think creatively, engage philanthropically, and actively participate to achieve broad gains in society.
Right now globally, there are over 100 million Twitter users, 5 billion mobile phone owners, and 800 million active Facebook accounts. Numbers like these cannot be ignored. The key themes I took from the Social Good Summit echo exactly this:
1.) New Media and Social Engagement are Important. Period.
The high level of leadership present at the conference was impressive. Guests ranged from U.S. government officials, academics, and advocacy leaders to celebrities, CEOs, and authors. The mere fact that such a diverse array of influential individuals contributed their voice to a conversation about new media speaks volumes.
One of the leading criticisms of platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter is that they exist as vehicles for noise and that they empower millions of people who don’t have the depth or maturity to meaningfully add to the conversation. While the internet certainly teems with trivial and under-researched information, the leaders who presented at the Social Good Summit realize that if governments, academic institutions, and advocacy groups take interest in these mediums early and effectively utilize them, they have the power to shape global conversations and influence a new generation of decision-makers. As Monique Coleman stated on the first day of the conference, “Young people are already on these platforms talking about Justin Bieber. Why don’t we also try to get them talking about Somalia? What is stopping us?”
I commend Mashable and the UN Foundation for bringing such an excellent representation of world leaders together. By looking at the agenda alone, anyone could see that this topic is important and will influence health, development, and policy for years to come.
2.) We Have to Use Technology to Think in New Ways
Yes we have to recalibrate ourselves to convey our thoughts in 140 characters or less, but the emergence of new technologies means so much more. I don’t think anyone expressed this sentiment as well as President and CEO of Ericsson, Hans Vestberg, when he said: development is not only about building roads; it’s about building broadband and connectivity. Both he and Jeff Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, explained why technology needs to be at the forefront when we attempt to advance humanitarian goals: it’s cheap; it provides instantaneous opportunity; it allows anyone to leapfrog into the digital age; and it can provide universal coverage – meaning anyone can access the internet regardless of country, race, or gender – something no other industry can boast.
As Vestberg concluded, we need to think about technology not only as a tool to solve problems but also as a means to prevent problems from happening in the first place.
3.) We Have to Responsibly Seize the Opportunity New Technologies Afford Us
A memorable moment in the conference for me was when Elie Wiesel turned to the crowd and said, “You all have the ability to reach an audience of millions. What are you going to do with that influence?” I think this question resonates because today, social media platforms empower the average citizen in a way he or she never was before. Whether you are the President of the United States or a student in Sri Lanka, you have the power to broadcast your ideas to millions of people around the world. What is our digital generation going to do with this responsibility? As I write, the top trends on Twitter range from Simon Cowell’s new reality television show to the Georgia execution of Troy Davis, a man who some advocates argue is innocent. While people criticize social media as a platform for noise, real conversations – like the one about Troy Davis – are taking place.
Ultimately I think it comes down to an observation Elie Wiesel made: while computers have the capacity to do so much, they can’t ask the important questions. It is up to us – this new army of digitally equipped citizens – to use technology platforms to do just this.
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