Information Trends Nonprofts Cannot Ignore
In 2017 I worked on an interesting assignment with a group of consulting colleagues—to research and identify 15-year trends that will influence the future of the Wikimedia Foundation and its family of wikis, most notably Wikipedia. Wikipedia is among the world’s most-visited websites. Those involved, primarily volunteers, believe in the vision of the movement “to imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”
Our summary report is available online: Strategy 2030, Wikimedia’s role in shaping the future of the information commons (bit.ly/2EehRjl). Longer research briefs are posted on Wikimedia’s open-to-all strategy page in a series of six entries and related comments and discussion from readers.
Completing this project was a learning experience on a number of levels. First was learning the citation protocol and mindset of Wikipedia contributors and editors, and understanding Wikipedia’s context and process for declaring anything to be a fact. Wikipedia editors will sniff out any instances in which something is stated as true and look for the relevant citation(s) that back up any and all assertions. “Citation needed” is an exacting discipline; writers have to provide their sources as they submit wiki entries. And, for Wikipedia editors, all citations are not created equal. Editors are looking for high-quality citations, ones that are themselves verifiable.
Within the research itself, specific findings are broadly applicable to the nonprofit sector. We focused on five research topics and added a sixth as a reflection on what we’d learned. We looked at trends in demographics, technology, information, access and literacy. Here are six takeaways likely to resonate:
- In the next 15 years, the world’s population is expected to increase most rapidly in Africa, while Europe’s population is predicted to decline. Globally, low-income populations will grow much faster than middle- and high-income segments, and urban growth will outpace rural. Global nonprofits will need to find effective ways to help address and bridge gaps in economic opportunity. While this trend has obvious ramifications for a global platform like Wikipedia, it also resonates within the U.S., where education and opportunity gaps have widened, and access to information and education are seen as keys to economic mobility.
- Personal connectivity and information consumption are moving rapidly to mobile platforms like cell phones and other devices. Nonprofits will need to ensure that pathways for information, contributions and programming are optimized for mobile access. Already widely evident, this trend will accelerate in the next 15 years, with some researchers predicting a seven-fold increase in global mobile traffic in the next five years alone.
- Misinformation, censorship and the emergence of nefarious cyber-campaigns will be an ever-growing concern. Researchers expect increasing sophistication in cyber-warfare, coupled with efforts by some governments to limit access to information on global platforms. These battles will intensify in the U.S. and around the world. Nonprofits need to protect themselves and their participants from these assaults and provide havens for trustworthy, secure connections and information.
- Even while some governments limit access to global platforms and information sources, there is a strong trend toward free and open access to knowledge. Organizations like libraries, museums and archives are increasingly making their materials and collections available for free and working to make them searchable and easy to learn from and use. Nonprofits whose collections and programs are cumbersome to access, or available only behind paywalls, will encounter the ethos of the open knowledge movement and be forced to consider ways to participate. For people with internet access, this trend will result in many more ways to engage with information, objects and ideas online.
- Media and digital literacy will become critical to citizenship, and efforts will increase to teach these skills beginning in early childhood. Not only will the public need to know the three Rs, but also how to navigate the devices, platforms and processes that deliver educational content.
Our team’s final essay explores the difficulties—if not the futility—in predicting the future by examining trends. No amount of trend-spotting and analysis can secure organizations against the rising tide of unexpected events. Instead, we can look to artists to help us imagine new possibilities, consider new realities and learn to expect the unexpected. Organizations with nimble structures, and ones that listen, learn and evolve constantly, will be best able to adapt and thrive, whatever the future holds. Speculative fiction and scenario planning offer alternatives to traditional trend research and may be best able to help us imagine a better future. tcbmag
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.