Harness data to copy success of platform economies, Julia Unwin tells charities

The chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society was speaking at the think tank NPC's annual conference

Julia Unwin
Julia Unwin

Civil society should harness data to emulate the success of platform economies to help tackle the challenges facing post-pandemic society, delegates at the think tank NPC’s annual conference have heard. 

Julia Unwin, chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society, closed the last day of NPC’s online conference yesterday with a keynote presentation about the transformation the sector needed to undergo to achieve greater impact.

Unwin said the pandemic had exacerbated big divisions in age, within the population, on grounds of ethnicity, income and wealth, between towns and cities but also across civil society.

“I believe that civil society at its very best is absolutely essential to meeting any of those changes," she said. "But it is at its very best when we can use all the data that's at our disposal. 

“When we can emulate the ways in which platform economies have worked and have generated surplus and enable people to do things differently. 

“It's when we learn how to reframe and rethink long established concerns,” she said.

The platform economy is economic and social activity facilitated by platforms such as Amazon and Uber.

Unwin said the sector still needed to recognise some of the findings of her two-year inquiry that found charities needed to connect better with communities and should take a lead in addressing social divisions in the UK.

She said: “This very complex work which includes age-old institutions, brand new organisations, networks and movements, that are as different from each other as they are in the private and corporate sector, and organisations which come from very different places that have shared demands and shared approaches.”

Unwin acknowledged that the disruptors and challenges are frightening for the incumbents, but the incumbents could be stifling for the newcomers and emerging networks. "None of this is tidy or easy”, she said.

“But actually what people are asking for is a fundamental shift of power, and engagement with people in the places where they live, and where they experienced this appalling shock of the last 18 months as well as accountability.

“From funders, regulators and governments, but much more profoundly to give accountability back to the people we serve, and use that deep connection as one of our strongest assets,” she added.

Unwin called for civil society to have more confidence in its vulnerabilities and realise that if it changed its own behaviours, attitudes and practices, “we could move mountains”.

Delegates had heard the day before that the sector was missing the bigger picture and at risk of becoming an “internal service agency for the government”.

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