Q&A: Using digital technology to engage citizens in climate action

Article, 15 October 2020

Barry Smith reflects on the lessons from a recent 'digital dialogue' that put representatives from community organisations alongside tech developers and government officials for all to better understand how digital tools can respond to needs and priorities, the challenges involved, and the opportunities digital technology offers. 

Around 50 participants from the digital industry, government, community organisations, IIED and its partners joined a virtual dialogue recently to talk about how digital technology can be used to enhance the climate action led by social movements.

Here we talk to Barry Smith, a researcher in the climate change group in IIED, to find out more about the event.

Q: Can you give us a bit of background to the digital dialogue?

BS: The dialogue was part of a research project aiming to understand how communities are leading climate adaptation responses. As part of the project, we also wanted to know more about ways to engage citizens so that they can play a greater part in locally-led and socially-just climate action and inform climate policy decision making at national level. 

We’re keen to find out what drives people to get involved and take leadership but also, what stops them from doing this, even if in principle they want to. This dialogue was looking especially at the role digital technology can play in all that and what the barriers might be to technology achieving its full potential.

This dialogue – all done virtually of course – is just the start of a longer conversation. It was IIED in a classic convenor role, kicking off a process – it’s still very much early days for the work.

Q: Who took part in the dialogue?

BS: The event provided an opportunity to bring different groups of people into one place – people who wouldn’t normally be in the same meetings. We wanted them to have a candid exchange around their different needs and perspectives on the role of technology in enabling climate adaptation. 

We had tech developers from global companies and from tech hubs in Kenya; we had a speaker from the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), representing mobile phone networks around the world; we had a participant from Slum Dwellers International in Malawi, and others from Women’s Climate Centers International (WCCI),  the World Bank and from the Council of Governors in Kenya.

Q: What was the shape of the discussion?

BS: There were three presentations to open the dialogue. First from Dr Dominic Maringa, of the Pastoralist Alliance for Resilience and Adaptation in Northern Rangelands (Paran Alliance), and then Patrick Njoroge, of the Akiba Mashinani Trust, a member of Slum Dwellers International.

They presented on:

  • How they or their organisation uses or sometimes specifically chooses not to use digital tools when mobilising their communities to advocate and deliver climate change linked programmes. They shared the tools that they use to assess risks, collect, generate, analyse and communicate information as well as interact with government 
  • How digital technology could be better used to help the communities they work with, and
  • One key takeaway from the presentation for the technology developers in the room.

There was also a presentation from Matt Wilson from GSMA around the Digital Dividends report, summarising the range of technologies used by like-minded organisations elsewhere.

A woman farmer holds a phone to her ear in a green field.Nepalese farmer Sita Kumari uses mobile phone apps to enhance her yields and get access to markets and labour (Photo: C. De Bode/CGIAR, via FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Then the 50-or-so participants divided into groups and were tasked with defining what was needed and what the constraints were to technology uptake. We looked at what technology communities were using now and what would they like to use to help with building livelihoods; how digital tools could support climate action; how technology can help with engaging national and local government and non-state actors such as philanthropies.

In terms of constraints to uptake of technology, we saw that that in parts of some countries the private sector was too small to initiate and develop new technologies without external support and that mobile network penetration was minimal. In other places there were welcome enabling conditions such as economic incentives to set up new companies and plans for policy change.

Q: What did you particularly note from the conversation?

BS: There were some interesting issues that came out of the dialogue. Several people raised the issue of gendered access to climate information – there was a sense that women have less access to technology than men and we need to do something about it. We discussed literacy – not only reading and writing but also technological literacy – and how it might prevent uptake. And structurally it seemed there were very different levels of digitisation in different contexts.

I noted that how to reach young women and men was key: technology can be a route to engage young people in climate action but the messaging has to be appropriate to engage them. In fact, for all ages, everyone said that we must communicate simply and clearly if we wanted to motivate people to get involved.

Systemic issues came up a lot in the discussion, such as those around connectivity and issues around trust that drive technology uptake. It can be the case, for example, that communities do not fully trust technology or a weather forecast from an official source such as the Meteorological Office and are more likely to rely on locally-generated knowledge.  

The issue of trust also extends to privacy and accountability issues – the way we capture and use people’s data and preserve anonymity online.

And we should be careful not to conceptualise digital tech as homogenous: the type of technology and the actors who need to use it will vary depending on the particular challenge that needs to be addressed and the nuances of context. People’s needs will be different, their level of digital access and literacy will be different; where they live, their gender and whether they are able-bodied or disabled, will all be relevant to how they interact with technology. 

So engaging with local communities to find out what will work best, is essential.

Q: So what happens next?

BS: Regulation was a big topic that came up. We need to talk about it more and discuss who is holding the power around digital technology and making policies that affect large numbers of people. Even when network connectivity is available, internet access is often prohibitively expensive for most people, a problem linked to regulatory challenges and a lack of incentives to subsidise access for people living in rural areas. 

Then there’s the notion of digital advocacy. Digital tools can enable social movements to mobilise more effectively by creating faster lines of communication and information sharing on immediate climate risks, but also upcoming opportunities for policy engagement. Exploring how social movements might adopt these tools sustainably and in an inclusive way is a must for future work.  

I’m glad to say that there was a strong appetite to have another of these digital dialogues, so watch this space for when that might be.


This research is supported by the World Bank Group and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

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