The scientific study of social movements was a central theme at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) at New York University this month.

The event brings together thought leaders in the field of civic tech, defined as: “Technology used to empower citizens or help make government more accessible, efficient and effective.”

The civic tech sector wants to better understand what drives powerful social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, so it can develop better strategies to improve audience acquisition and activation among its own constituents.

However, the study of social movements doesn’t apply just to political advocacy and activism. There’s growing interest in how civic tech can drive higher levels of engagement in the corporate, association, and non-profit arenas, both offline and online.

An example of that is the new CitizenLab civic engagement platform, recently profiled in the Skift story: The Rise of Civic Tech and Its Impact on Meetings and Conventions.

So, can meeting and convention planners position their events more like social movements to help build excitement and drive engagement around a common purpose? To answer that question, it helps to first examine the long-term evolution of movements.

The Making of a Movement

During the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011/2012, protesters occupied public spaces and buildings to highlight the inequality of wealth and power distribution between the nation’s richest 1% and everyone else. Today, many people feel that Occupy made a lot of noise and then fizzled into oblivion, and in the end, it didn’t really make an impact.

For them, Occupy was more of a moment than a movement.

At PDF however, the consensus was that Occupy directly inspired and informed the grassroots movement behind Bernie Sanders, because it identified and labeled the “We Are The 99%” theme that Sanders leveraged so successfully throughout his campaign.

No Occupy. No “Feel the Bern.”

Therefore, social and political movements are slippery things because they can go dark, change shape and reappear in different forms, and take a long time to gestate and mature.

“The 99% meme has had a huge impact on the political movement in general, and as was discussed here, a building block towards the Bernie movement,” Andrew Rasiej, founder of PDF, told Skift.

Rasiej was an advisor with Howard Dean’s 2004 political campaign, who helped bring digital communications and online data analysis to American politics.

“You can see that social movements don’t happen instantly, and when people dismiss them, it’s because they’re looking for instant proof,” he continued. “I don’t think they understand that this isn’t about turning the rudder of our entire democracy hard left or hard right. If we did that, and Obama said this, the ship would flip. The idea is whether or not you can move it a couple of degrees, so maybe over a period of 10 or 15 years you’re in an entirely different place on the planet.”

So, I asked Rasiej, how can advancements in civic tech and any emerging theory behind social movements be layered over other areas of community building, such as meetings and conventions?

“First, it’s not about the technology,” Rasiej answered. “It’s about human capital that now knows that technology has to be part of the equation. We’re very skeptical of people thinking that just because you have technology, it solves all these problems.”

Specifically though, what might be a particular civic tech platform that could help elevate meetings into movements?

“There’s a group called Loomio that we’ve had speak here before,” Rasiej said. “They’re based in New Zealand, and they have a platform that allows consensus-building around decision-making.”

Consensus Building Key to Movement Building

Loomio is a web-based platform where organizers can open a discussion thread focused on a specific challenge to be debated among a group. Think of it as an expanded version of Slack with polling functionality.

Here’s how it works: The description of the challenge appears on the upper left side of a split screen. On the right side there’s a proposal about how to address the challenge. Below that, there’s a pie chart showing the number of people who voted to agree or disagree on the proposal, or abstain from voting.

Back on the left side of the screen below the main topic, everyone can offer a short comment on why they voted the way they did, and/or how they would like to see the proposal tweaked. Once organizers feel they have collected enough votes and comments, they can rework the proposal and resubmit it again for subsequent voting after closing the previous proposal.

A sample of events using Loomio, with case studies, include the Equally Well Summit in New Zealand, and the COY11 Global Youth Coalition event and OuiShare Fest in Paris.

The unique value proposition around Loomio is based on building consensus, engaging community members via a simple user interface, and most importantly, coming up with an action plan developed through multiple iterations informed by the community.

Meaning, this isn’t an open chat room. This is solution building.

“I think real collaboration has to be action-oriented or it doesn’t continue to engage people after the live event is over,” Alanna Krause, founder of Loomio, told Skift. “I think there’s a place in this world for open-ended discussion and sharing links and ideas around a topic, but that’s not Loomio’s focus. Instead, we know that people are super focused when it’s about: ‘How can we actually do things together, take action, and make a real difference.'”

Krause thinks community building is actually pretty easy to accomplish today with so many web-based and social media tools, but too many event organizers believe that’s the end goal. Getting groups of people to actually act on something collectively is the hard part, so she says Loomio is really a bridge between getting people together and getting people to do something.

That bridge, she says, is the basic requirement that shifts community engagement towards what might be deemed a “movement.”

“A movement begins to take shape when people embrace different perspectives that they didn’t know or understand before from other people, and then when they synthesize that into a shared understanding so the group can take action together,” explained Krause.` “The connecting phase really pays off on Loomio, because when you’re ready to take action, you’re all on the same page and you can move together as a collaborative community in a coordinated way with everybody onboard.”

Helen Lockett, project leader of Equally Well, reiterated the same ideas about building a movement among her community in this Loomio case study:

“We see powerful potential in thinking beyond just hosting a conference, and toward sparking a movement and nurturing a community to support this urgent work. A Loomio group enabled the diverse stakeholders to come together before the Summit, progress their thinking and mutual understanding, discuss what the focus of sessions at the Summit should be, and create a foundation for a community that can continue after the Summit, supporting real ongoing collaboration and change.”

Engines Of Change & Movement Measurement

At the PDF conference, Stacy Donohue, investment partner at Omidyar Network, unveiled the report: Engines of Change: What Civic Tech Can Learn From Social Movements.

In the research, she listed six characteristics that define any movement, whether it’s social or political, or related to a corporation or association’s mission statement. They are: Scale and growth, grassroots activity, sustained engagement, shared vision, collective action, and shared identity.

For organizations seeking to morph their meetings into movements, the shared identity and shared vision criteria are especially important. Donohue wrote:

“There is ample evidence that a sense of shared movement or organizational identity can be incredibly powerful in getting grassroots participants engaged in collaborating and working toward a common goal over time. For example, the Tea Party movement has exercised power and influence in part because of the large and ideologically diverse group of individuals who have identified as ‘Tea Party Members’…. Shared identity is also key to attracting new and different types of capital — both nonprofit grant money and for-profit investment — better enabling investors to understand the collective impact the sector is seeking to deliver.”

In terms of shared vision, the Open Source // Open Society (OS//OS) conference in New Zealand uses Loomio to not only crowdsource ideas among it members, but to define the “why” of the event.

Every movement has to have a “why,” as should every meeting.

“Loomio is vital for the OS//OS team to engage our wider collaborators,” said Silvia Zuur, last year’s event director of OS//OS. “We use it to create a shared sense of purpose and align our work and promotional activity. In this way, OS//OS feels like a real community-driven, participatory event, because using Loomio allows us to live our values, support an open-source tool, and engage more people as meaningful collaborators.”

Supplying a lot of data and contextual insight for Donohue’s report, Purpose is a “public benefit corporation” that works with corporate brands on movement-building strategies. The company developed a Movement Measurement Tool based on the six above criteria to determine the success of existing brand campaigns, and help inform the launch of others.

“How do you actually measure what’s inside a movement, and what are the dynamics?” asked Jeremy Heimans, cofounder and CEO of Purpose, at PDF16. “Previously all we could measure was through social media, like, ‘Here’s what’s trending on Twitter.’ Well, whoop-de-do. Not only does that not tell you very much about impact, it doesn’t tell you very much about the many layers of people who are participating and taking action in the community.”

Heimans said that Purpose’s movement measurement tool benchmarks things like online action, offline action, funding and financial performance, membership and attendance, and partnerships and platforms to gauge the scope and effectiveness of any given movement.

“Then you get a much more interesting picture of the shape of a social movement, and all of the different clusters and communities,” he explained.

Now, Purpose uses the tool to build movements from the ground up for its own corporate and non-profit clients.

Companies like Loomio and Purpose, with their ability to build consensus, shared identity/vision, and collaborative action, show there’s a lot brewing in civic tech to help organizations position their meetings more like movements.

Or at least, event planners can move their programs more in that direction. Because as Rasiej discussed above, the goal is only to turn the ship a few degrees at the beginning.

Photo Credit: Anil Dash said tech companies often confuse good intentions with good actions during his talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2016. PDF