Innovating Collective Action - Identifying Strategies to Fight and Win!
Recently, Tectonica led an engaging session at the Center for Digital Strategy's Digital Organizing and Engagement Summit, focusing on innovating collective action practices for today's challenges. This article explores the key insights from this discussion, highlighting the necessity of innovation in collective action and exploring potential avenues for impactful change in the future.
Understanding the Need for Innovation in Collective Action
As progressives we constantly find ourselves in asymmetric power struggles - taking on Goliaths in our fights for social, environmental, and economic justice. Historically, one of the key methods to win in these contexts has been our ability to exert power exponentially to the sum of its parts by standing together in coordinated action - a key value of real organising. While our digital and social (and now AI) ages have offered great innovations in the areas of engagement and mobilisation, collective action still widely draws on tactics developed a century ago. While better recruitment methods, online campaigns, and modern membership tactics are valuable to constituent organisations, one has to wonder how far such innovations can go so long as we fail to innovate the core of how we build power together: collective action.
Such historical examples of coordinated action are strikes, rent strikes and consumer boycotts. But with the current unjust state of the world, one has to ask, do we need to rethink and innovate our conception of collective action? Are the old approaches still as powerful today? Are the classic collective actions having as much impact as they did decades ago? How can we stand together in ways that are modern, relevant and effective to take on today’s giants? What could collective action look like in the future that would help us continue and increase our ability to fight differential power injustices?
Last month, we took these questions to the Center for Digital Strategy’s Digital Organizing and Engagement Summit, where our CEO Ned Howey led a facilitated discussion titled “Innovating Collective Action - Identifying Strategies to Fight and Win!” The purpose of the discussion was to have an interactive exchange of ideas on how today’s organisations are innovating collective action, and what unexplored possibilities we might consider developing to help win these fights. The discussion that resulted was an attempt to rethink and reshape our approaches to collective action in a world that’s rapidly evolving both technologically and socially. The idea was to present these big questions and ignite insights from the group wisdom.
Here we are sharing some of the key insights that were brought to light in this discussion, starting with challenging current assumptions about the correlation, and the value of, resources, scale, and visibility to instigate real change. While the conversation did not provide all the answers, it was an exciting entryway to new possibilities and some areas of thinking that we as progressives could explore further in our ability to challenge the status quo and to craft more effective strategies for action.
Organising for Collective Power
The discussion began with an introduction to collective action and the key role that organising plays in enabling it, as well as some of the essential elements of organising. Participants were introduced to Tectonica’s Organising Equation, which introduces a metaphorical equation (symbolic rather than mathematically rigorous) to better understand organising and the elements that comprise it. We reviewed the difference between organising and mobilising and discussed why both are important in the work of movement building.
Tectonica’s Organising Equation
Tectonica’s Mobilising Equation
The group then moved on to discussing classic forms of collective action, first identifying the tried and true methods we typically think of when imagining it: tactics such as strikes, boycotts, blocades, sit-ins, collective bargaining, and coordinated non-compliance. These are the same tactics that are widely used today in our struggles to create impact and affect real change.
With this baseline established, we then discussed some of the considerations specific to why collective action is needed and holds potential in the current age. Drawing on recent shifts in society, we touched on these key considerations specific to our times:
- Digital Transformation: The rise of social media and digital technologies brings great potential due to their widespread reach but also threatens movements due to their role in disseminating misinformation.
- Globalisation: As the world becomes more interconnected, issues often transcend national borders. Collective action must therefore adapt to a global context, addressing cross-border concerns and leveraging international networks.
- Information Overload and Attention Competition: In an era of information overload, it's challenging to capture and retain public attention. Innovative tactics are needed to stand out and engage people amidst a constant stream of content and competing messages.
- Evolution of Government and Corporate Power: As the nature of governmental and corporate power changes, including increased surveillance capabilities and the influence of large tech companies, activists need innovative tactics to effectively challenge and engage with these powers.
- Sustainability of Movements: Ensuring the sustainability of movements in the long term requires innovation in maintaining momentum, resources, and participant engagement.
Engaging in Collective Wisdom: Participant Insights
With the groundwork established on why innovations in collection action are needed, we began the discussion portion of the session. The discussion was structured to draw insights and ideas directly from the participants through a series of thoughtfully developed questions to encourage brainstorming and sharing of insights. Each segment of the conversation was tailored to explore different facets of collective action in our modern context.
The first segment focused on identifying the specific challenges of our time, and we asked participants to name the elements of today’s world that collective action should be fighting against. Participants spoke about issues like the ease with which companies bypass regulations due to increased mobility, misleading environmental promises from companies and new technologies, and the alarming spread of disinformation. Concerns over data privacy, the unethical use of AI, and the disproportionate influence of the ultra-wealthy and corporations were also central to the discussion. This part of the session painted a vivid picture of the multifaceted battles we face today.
Next we asked participants: What new forms of reliance on our consent exist that can be broken and withheld to exert power? (For example, a strike is withdrawing our consent to produce labour). In this segment, ideas included the strategic withholding of personal data, a resource now more valuable than ever in the information age. Participants also discussed reducing our reliance on (and strategically withdrawing from) major social media platforms and rethinking our financial interactions, suggesting a move towards more ethical banking alternatives like credit unions. Finally, the group identified shareholder activism as a means of pushing for increased corporate responsibility.
The group then explored how today's tools and social phenomena could be utilised for collective action. There was enthusiasm about redirecting our economic support to challenge large corporations and the potential of withdrawing or denying consent for meta-information storage. In terms of leveraging today’s tools, the group noted the vast reach of social media and digital news outlets. This discussion highlighted the untapped potential of these modern tools in orchestrating effective collective movements and bringing people together to affect the power imbalances perpetuated by large corporations.
In our discussion, the group identified a unique example of a new form of collective action that emerged on TikTok in June of 2020 when users on the platform collaboratively orchestrated the purchase of tickets to a Trump rally with the intention of not attending. This strategy resulted in a significantly emptier audience than expected at the event, showcasing a unique and impactful use of digital platforms for coordinated social activism.
Looking ahead, the workshop explored the potential impacts and new directions of collective action. This brainstorming session produced a range of ideas, from transforming financial systems to building more cohesive global networks of solidarity. The need for adaptable, resonant strategies in different social and political contexts was a recurring theme, reflecting the diverse experiences of the participants.
Reflecting on the Journey and the Road Ahead
As the discussion concluded, it became increasingly clear that innovating collective action in today's world is a formidable yet essential task. The session closed with a shared sense of appreciation for the complexity of the issues at hand and an acknowledgment of the need for continued dialogue and exploration. A participant from an organisation supporting union innovation noted the session's usefulness and expressed surprise at how seldom this topic is considered in comparison to the pursuit of new mobilising tactics.
While we started to identify key factors and potential new strategies, there's a collective understanding that we are just scratching the surface. More conversations and deep dives are necessary to fully grasp how we can make collective action more effective and suitable for our current and future needs. As noted by Ned when reflecting on this session, “I feel like we are so deeply focussed on the catch up game in innovating mobilising tactics that collective action has almost been forgotten. It’s likely there is huge unexplored potential there for moving beyond post-it notes on walls and scaling our collective power to contend with today’s giants rather than just hoping to mitigate the resulting injustices. Mobilising tactics are limited by how convincing a case we can make behind the existence of our true power. This session was deeply enlightening but also just a start to exploring the topic, one which I hope to see more development around in the future.”
This feels like just the beginning of an essential topic that warrants further exploration, and we aim to further build upon this topic in the future, either through more dedicated events or through our publications in TON.
Tectonica's session at the summit served as a reminder of the urgent need to rethink and innovate in our approach to collective action, and we are incredibly grateful to the Center for Digital Strategy, and specifically to Brad Caldana, for the opportunity to present on this topic. The insights gained were an invaluable starting point, laying the groundwork for a continued journey of adaptation and evolution. As we face an array of new challenges, our commitment to evolve, engage, and unite in our collective endeavours remains more important than ever. At Tectonica we aim to continue to explore and think through new avenues of collective action in these changing times and look forward to sharing more on this in the future.
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