Civic Tech in Southern Africa: Alternative Democracy and Governance Futures?

Civic tech is growing strongly, albeit unevenly, across the southern Africa region with a strong focus on democracy and governance.
Civic Tech in Southern Africa: Alternative Democracy and Governance Futures?

Abstract

This paper examines the emerging roles of civic technology (‘civic tech’) in the southern African democracy and governance landscape, including possible futures and policy implications in the run-up to 2030. The study employed a combination of qualitative futures methods, an analysis of the Civic Tech Innovation Network’s databases, and an extensive literature review. The futures methods comprised Futures Literacy Lab and Three-Horizons exercises and a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats analysis conducted with a participatory foresight focus group.

Among the key findings were that civic tech is growing strongly (albeit unevenly) across the southern African region, with a strong focus on democracy and governance – notably web-based applications. While the study revealed numerous visions, potentials, and examples of strong, civic tech-enabled futures that were increasingly ‘organic, shared and positive’, it also identified numerous disablers and challenges to the effective embedding of civic tech in the region. A lack of access, the (sometimes difficult) interface between politics and government, and inadequate funding are among the biggest obstacles. An emerging question is which of two pathways for civic tech will become dominant: civic tech as an extension of or accompaniment to the role of government, or civic tech as a more independent, community-driven, emancipatory development approach? The study leaves this question open but recommends two different approaches: an innovation-focused approach aimed at deepening democratic engagement and securing more sustainable funding models, and a government-focused approach aimed at better understanding and leveraging civic technologies, while also supporting healthy digital ecosystems in which civic tech can thrive and expand.

The findings from the study have implications for governments, which are broadly looking to deliver on promises of participatory democracy, and therefore need to remain abreast of emerging civic tech trends and opportunities. There are also practical implications for innovators who, through their engagements with the budding civic tech community, could use digital applications in various modes to support the public good. There is scope for further research to explore more deeply the roles of other, non-state actors in determining the prospects for civic tech and its new roles in democracy and governance.

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