Camilla Burg is the communications and outreach director of Wiser.org, the Social Network for Sustainability (also known under the name WiserEarth). This project, which originated in 2005 in the United States, aims to connect people, organizations and groups who are working in the many fields of sustainable development. The network is about to turn 5 years old and over the past 2 years has been made available in French, Bahsa Indonesian, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish (and more languages are on their way). It now has 70 000 members – or « 70 000 community managers », as Camilla says. It thus seemed pertinent to have a discussion with her about how technology, applied to sustainability, is creating a new frame for environmental and social justice issues.
How did the Wiser.org project start ?
The environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken is the visionary behind the Wiser project. It all began thanks to book he was writing in 2005 : Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw it Coming. He was writing about the combined social justice and environemental movement, and as he did, he realized that no one knew just how large this movement was. So we started digging, and talking to as many people as we could. After many months of research by hundreds of volunteers around the world, we realized that this reseach might never be complete as the more we searched, the more organizations and groups we found. At that time, Hawken asserted that there might be more than 1 million organizations around the world addressing environmental restoration, indigenous rights and social justice issues. The publication of these organizations through the Wiser directory then followed in the footsteps of the Wikipedia project : we invited the global community to help us complete this research work.
Once the organizational directory became available, visitors to the site would say
I want to be part of this movement / I am part of this movement », so the social networking tools were added onto the platform. Adding the « social layer » to the site made sense as we also wanted to be able to reach to people who are often isolated in their work, yet who carry out many local initiatives but do not belong to bigger organizations.
The social network gives them the tools to grow their network and gain visibility and support for their work.
After five years of existence, what do you think technology mostly brings to social innovation?
The Internet gives us free and easy access to tools that help us pool our collective intelligence – for the first time, everyone can be a creator of content and groups. Even more importantly, we are able to share our ideas more easily as well as what works and what doesn’t.
When collective intelligence is put to work to co-create new solutions to complex problems, we know that we are making technology work for us.
Projects such as ClimateLab and Usahidi are helping us to share knowledge rapidly across the world in order to address global and local issues, ranging from the big thorny issues like climate change to ways to ensure voting is carried out democratically.
An NGO in the Brazilian favelas called Catalytic Communities is now able to share their solutions, through Wiser.org, benefitting not just their own local community, but everyone across the world who can share their best practices. In Senegal, an organization that supports the production of organic cotton and fair-trade goods has connected with an organization in France that is helping it to scale its operation, thanks to the network it created on Wiser.org. People need tools for connectivity and information to ensure that we don’t keep reinventing the wheel.
In addition, not all organizations can afford to have their own website. Wiser.org ensures greater visibility for their work, thanks to a high page rank on Google as well as millions of searches on and off the site. Communities in the South have very few occasions to be part of the conversation when it comes to sustainability, often waiting for solutions to be given to them. Yet, these countries need to co-create their own solutions themselves. They need to have access to the information in the same way as the global North. The world cannot repeat the mistakes of the developed countries, in terms of consuming and polluting. So communities in the South have to be invited to play an active role in the growing global sustainability movement.
Do you feel that there is a developing appetite for these themes in the society?
Many exciting initiatives are being created in France, such as Babyloan, LaRuche, Colibris and Transition Initiatives that are helping to grow collaboration around sustainability initiatives. Wiser.org has also helped put together WiserLocal gatherings, where changemakers can come together. On top of that, in 2010, we helped to host the very first Social Innovation Bar Camp in La Cantine in Paris.
On a larger scale, I feel that there is a real passion for change in France and in helping to create a more sustainable society, that the French philosopher Pierre Rabhi calls « la sobriété heureuse » (self-constraining happiness). For me, the good life often means a plate of good (non-GM) food, and a few friends to share it with ! Culturally, France has everything it needs to embrace a sustainable future. There is one constraint though : I think France needs stronger springboards to drive change. Technology can help, but France needs more business leaders (and investors) to take on a much greater role in driving the corporate sector to fully integrate sustainability and the triple bottom line into their businesses. If companies like Danone, which appear to becoming more aware of their impact and role in society, share their best practices on how to reduce the carbon footprint and explain how sustainability can become part of a business’s DNA, this can start to create some critical levers to reaching a global tipping point for change.
So you feel there is still a need for pedagogy and communication?
Yes, indeed. The Web 2.0 has opened up a completely new dimension for communication : the power has shifted from the companies to the consumers. Today, we can find out virtually everything we’d like to find out about what we buy and consume. Greenwashing is out. Transparency, trust and sharing are traits of the open source movement and are also the traits of the social web. Clay Shirky, writer of Here Comes Everybody, says that when we change our communication tools, we change society. For the first time we have the ability to communicate in the form of many to many without owning a TV station. We are also able to create as many groups as we want to create with no limitations. If movements can be created online to help us understand how we can live more sustainably and learn to look after other human beings, we can start to create shifts in society. However, we still need to frame the issues so that global concerns such as hunger, poverty and climate change resonate with people’s daily concerns.
How do you see the future?
We will keep translating our contents in new languages, thanks to our volunteers everywhere. We are also working on making the platform more easily available in more places around the globe, and also on mobile devices, which are more widely used in the global South, for instance. That is the big next step.
In conclusion, it might be fitting to finish on a quote from Wiser’s founder, Paul Hawken, who tells us that « we are moving from world created by privilege to world created by community ».
– a directory of over 114 000 organizations from 243 countries and independent territories
– 341 issue areas relating to sustainability, that constitute the backbone of Wiser
– 12 WiserLocal events in France each year
– 13 countries with WiserLocal events
– 5 employees
– 8 million pages listed on Google