My name is Derek Alton and I am a Canadian who just moved to London to be a research fellow at Newspeak House. I have been working at the intersection of tech, society and government with the Government of Canada for the last 4 years, and exploring systems change more broadly for the last 15 years. My core passion is bringing people together to figure out how we can build a society where everyone can thrive.
This blog is meant to serve as a brief introduction and more so an invitation, I have come to you to learn, grow, share and help do what I can to push for a better world. I am also happy to share many of the exciting things we have been trying in Canada and help make connections across the pond. If anyy of this interests you, please reach out and let’s do a virtual coffee @DerekAlton.
#democracy #opensource #digitalgovernment #socialmovements #digitalID #infrastructure #collectiveimpact #GaaP
How do we build a society where everyone can thrive?
How do we push past the inertia of the status quo towards the world we want?
In a world that seems increasingly fractured and divided, how do we come together?
What do we want our democracy, government, economy and society to look like in the digital age?
These are the questions I have been exploring for the last 15 years through school, work, play and in how I live my own life.
Like many of my generation (millennials), I started out in climate change activism at University. I got in with a group of passionate students and we started mobilizing, first on our campus and soon across the country, culminating in a national gathering on Parliament Hill. Even though we mobilized thousands of people across the country, we felt that our actions had not led to any substantive change.
Going back to the drawing board, we realized that our governments held the key. They represented the collective arm of society: where we pooled our resources to invest in projects for the whole community; where we set the laws that governed everyone and decided the values that shape how we structure our society. In Canada (like the UK) we had selected a democracy as the system by which we would govern, one that put power in the hands of the people for the people. But in reality we felt this was a failed promise. We did not feel powerful, in fact it seemed like no one we knew felt like they had much of any power. We therefore had to find a way to take back our government, to reclaim the promise of democracy. This wasn’t a party thing, all the parties were complicit. Rather, it was a problem with the system itself. But how does one change a system?
I shifted my studies in school to study power, leadership and social transformation. This culminated in a thesis that examined the relationship between Mandela, Gorbachev and the social transformations they oversaw. Though I learned a lot from my professors, I found my real classroom was beyond the walls of the institution. It was through diving into first university governance and then community organizing that I could engage directly in the concepts I was learning about in my courses.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
~ Margaret Mead
I left my undergrad fascinated by how groups of people could create change. Next I got to follow this curiosity through leading a two year study examining the state of deep community in Canada with the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. Tamarack, an organization focused on building community capacity for change, also introduced me to Collective Impact, a methodology that would continue to shape my thinking and action to this day. I also took a graduate diploma in social innovation: a specialty program designed to train the next generation of leaders in tools and methodologies for building the Canada of the future. Through this, I got steeped in what systems change looks like through many different fields, from ecology to economics to sociology to design. Each brought with it many more models and approaches that we got to play with through our own cases. The program culminated in a group project; our team examined the potential for social labs to help transform governments.
Outside of work and school, I continued my activism to push for a better democracy. I was amazed by the incredible amount of passionate and highly skilled people trying to fix our government but was equally confused how disconnected they all seemed from each other. I therefore started trying to find a way to help weave them together. My buddy Kevin Bowman and I started hosting an annual Cottage Shindig on Democracy. The idea was to put a diverse cross section of people trying to fix democracy into the casual setting of a cottage for a weekend. The goal was to help them connect, build relationships and dream together as a single movement. We have now been hosting this annual gathering for the last 8 years and have an incredible alumni network.
By this point I had been studying and working in systems change for over 7 years but felt like I had a big hole in my understanding. Everything I had done up to this point had been very marco focused but you can only understand forests so far before you need to study the individual trees. I therefore did a Masters in Community Psychology exploring the intersection of behavioural economics and individuals sense of community. Specifically I looked at what are the habits that help individual people build and deepen their relationships. The idea being that people don’t engage with movements as individuals but with their friends. The stronger these individual relationships become, the stronger the movement as a whole. During this time I worked with my dad to integrate many of the different theories I was learning to build a grand unified theory of change. In many ways I am more proud of this document than I am of my thesis (though I should really integrate the two at some point).
While, in the final stages of my thesis, I was given the call. After years of studying and trying to change government from the outside, I was given the opportunity to help create change on the inside as a public servant. My first job was to help develop and implement a national engagement and consultation strategy on electoral reform. I quickly learned that my hard won box of tools and approaches developed outside of government was pretty useless on the inside. I needed to develop a new set of tools for a new context and set of change levers. I also discovered a whole community of public servants passionate about trying to make government work better. Through engaging with this movement, I discovered that the area of government which seemed most ready to move was the intersection of government and technology.
Therefore, after working on the electoral reform campaign I moved over to a new team and a new project. Called GCcollab, it was a newly created social networking and collaboration platform for government employees in Canada to more effectively connect, share and collaborate or as I liked to see it: we were building the infrastructure for a more participatory way of doing government. Through working with the GCcollab team, I learned a lot about how change does and does not happen in government and the potential and limits of a highly passionate team of people trying to make this change happen. Our team sat in the middle of the Office of the Chief Information Officer for the Government of Canada. Through this, I got an inside look at how the Government of Canada was trying to modernize for the digital age and even help shape some of these approaches. I also got plugged into the work the Government of Canada was doing with other governments (in and outside of Canada). I worked with fellow “civic punks” inside governments in Canada to spin up a series of pilot projects designed to help push forward open source solutions and stop us re-inventing or buying the wheel all the time, while also testing different approaches to changing government.
Outside of government, I continued to serve as a network weaver, trying to connect passionate activists for open government outside of government with those on the inside. Through this we developed the Canadian Open Data Society dedicated to growing the open data movement in Canada.
Inspired by the work of Richard Pope and Pia Andrews on Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP), this year, working with some friends, I tried to create a research and storytelling initiative designed to find the signal in the noise about where governments are heading in a digital age and what it all means for people. Ultimately, COVID-19 and my own limitations forced us to put this project on pause but I learned a lot through the process and got to connect with some amazing people. Ultimately, I ended up in a new project in the Government of Canada. We are exploring what it could look like to build digital infrastructure for a digital economy and digital society in a post COVID world. This involves examining technology like digital ID, credentials, wallets, currency and distributed ledger technologies (like blockchain). It also involves meaty questions around public/private ownership, governance and operations as well as debates around security, interoperability, international cooperation, privacy and security. At the heart of it though is the question about what we want our digital society to look like?
In the midst of all of this, I have moved to the UK. I moved here, partly because my partner is from the UK and is going to school here but also because I find the UK incredibly interesting. I have visited a couple times and glimpses of the amazing work being doing here around all the topics I am passionate about. Also, I think it is healthy to get out of my own country for a bit and see the bigger world, to listen and learn. That is why I came to Newspeak House. It is a hub for all the things digital society and social change. The fellowship also provides an opportunity to explore big questions with people. To listen to the system and the people working to create change within it, and look for patterns.
I know we live in weird times now, but this is also the time when things shift. I want to understand the shifts that are happening.
I would love to listen and learn from you and am happy to share the bits and pieces I have learned so far. If you would like to connect, reach out to me on twitter @derekalton. I am happy to connect for a virtual coffee or for those who are comfortable with it, a social distance hangout on the back terrace at Newspeak House.