Creating Technology for Social Change

Transforming Greenpeace to Win Big in the Post-Broadcast Era

(this post was written together with Denise Cheng)

How can global activist organisations spread creative, digital campaign approaches throughout their network?

Joining us for lunch today is Michael Silberman, the global director of the Greenpeace Digital Mobilisation Lab (@MobilisationLab). Michael was also co-founder of EchoDitto and national meetup director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Michael starts out by showing us a Greenpeace intro video. Greenpeace is a campaign organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour to conserve and protect the environment. They are spread across 40 countries and has been campaigning since 1971. That was forty years go, and the Mobilisation Lab has been charged with transforming Greenpeace to win big in the post-broadcast era.

Greenpeace, like many organisations, is facing a major shift. They used to be the only actors in a campaign, but in the post-broadcast era, they need to find new ways to involve people in campaigns and new ways to win. With this in mind, Mobilisation Lab sits within Greenpeace while also cooperating much more broadly to achieve change.

After the collapse of the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, the Greenpeace leadership asked themselves what it would take to win big. “Greenpeace has been winning battles for years, butdirect access we’re not winning on the scale we need to. Back in 1971, when the founders of Greenpeace took a boat to a nuclear testing site to raise publicity about nuclear testing, they were able to make a big splash because influence was brokered by a smaller circle of broadcasters with influence and access. Within the last five and ten years ago, changemaking has been radically transformed. The Internet and mobile phones are transforming fundraising, communication, and campaigns.

Michael thinks this fundamental shift is a social one: “We’re seeing a shift from organization-led campaign to more people led change, where the access to money and resources and some of the critical expertise are no longer held just by our professionalized NGOs or organizations like Greenpeace.” People take action on issues that matter to them, whether or not Greenpeace organises the perfect campaign.

Children in Maasai Mara Kenya call for 350
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Thousands of emerging ad hoc groups are taking action on issues that Greenpeace also works on. For example, Sum of Us has quickly gained three quarters of a million supporters, outstripping Greenpeace’s US national reach. That’s been a huge wakeup call. Online to offline mobilisations are also growing. Michael points us to’s International Day of Climate Action in Oct 2009, which spread across 5,000 events. CNN called it “the most widespread day of political action in our planet’s history.”

Technology is also transforming the work of Greenpeace. Online brands are increasingly vulnerable to pressure. For example, Greenpeace was able to pressure Nestle to stop using rainforest materials within weeks, a timescale that wouldn’t have been possible before.

The success of campaigns like this has led Greenpeace to develop the Mobilisation Lab, a center of excellence designed to rapidly upscale their capacity in digital innovation. It’s a group which is encouraged to experiment, intentionally fail and learn. The Mobilisation Lab is small, with three or four people, compared to the rest of Greenpeace’s 3,000 employees. But they have also been freed from the bureaucracy that most face within the organisation. Greenpeace has given the lab a three-year mission to put itself out of business and integrate what they learn into the organisation as a whole.

Michael shares the values that drive how innovation happens within the lab and Greenpeace as a whole.

  • They coach executive directors on how to reorganise to make innovation, communications, fundraising, and volunteering more connected and closer to the core of their group.
  • They have organized a skillshare around digital mobilization and citizen engagement
  • Together with New Organizing, they’re training local organisations to develop their organising and technology skills.
  • Although Greenpeace still seems like an energetic, edgy organisation, it’s a middle-aged organisation with a lot of bureaucracy. The Mobilisation Labs is participating in conversations on how Greenpeace can cut through bureaucracy to brainstorm online or respond more quickly to emerging news stories
  • The mobilisation lab is also trying to shift norms by participating in planning conversations early on, making sure that digital is baked into Greenpeace strategy.

Michael outlines factors that make the Mobilisation successful rather than marginal.

  • Funding.In the past, Greenpeace never consulted supporters before planning campaigns. The mobilisation lab has run a pilot to consult supporters on videos and other media before launching them. That wouldn’t have been possible without independent funding.
  • Authority. Innovation Labs are often marginal to their parent organisation. The Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab has strong positioning and champions within the organizations that Mobilisation Lab works with, especially among from executive directors and leaders
  • Supporting others in the organisation. They offer consulting and brainstorming with people throughout the organisation. This also helps the lab identify who’s doing good work, connect people, and give them a greater platform within the organisation.
  • Culture. Greenpeace as a culture cares about what it takes to win; people are willing to change old practices if they find a winning strategy
  • Leadership. Kumi Naidoo, who comes from a history of Apartheid activism, cares deeply about people power and committing to approaches that work.

Michael concludes by talking about that people power. He reckons that Greenpeace can reach up to 17 million people. They have a large, growing ecosystem click action (petitions, fundraising, online campaigns). At the same time, they have a smaller group of highly trained volunteers and activists who are willing to take high risks to create change. Michael thinks that new technologies can engage the huge number of people who could fit in-between clicktivism and the higher risk actions that Greenpeace takes.

Charlie De Tar asks about the New Organizing Institute curriculum and how Greenpeace tries to engage people in campaigns “in the real world.” Michael responds that they’re using the New Organizing curriculum to move the narrative from Greenpeace as the hero (in which others applaud and support) to a narrative where Greenpeace is the mentor, and people are the heroes in that story. The curriculum focuses on training Greenpeace staff in how to develop campaigns that center on people. The New Organizing curriculum moves away from a webinar format, offering an online platform which shares content with learners and also connects them with discussion groups in their region.

I asked Michael about the role of making in the Mobilisation lab. Innovation labs are typically design and innovation units. Michael’s talk has focused on organisational change. Does Mobilisation Lab create technology?

Michael said that they focus on people because “having a few smart people sitting anywhere doing stuff is great, but that has limits, and it dies when those people leave. Greenpeace can’t just have smart digital people;  their executive directors need to be able to ask critical questions about the level of participation and engagement, and to be able to push their digital staff.”

I followed up by asking if Michael sees any areas for future technology innovation. The first area is data. As campaigns collect more and more data, we need better ways to analyse and understand that data. Consider the case of someone who has unsubscribed from an email list but who still follows the organisation on Twitter. How can Greenpeace engage with that person. He also talks about A/B testing designs for increasing funding.

Sasha asks how the Mobilisation Lab is finding and highlighting innovations coming from Greenpeace affiliates. Michael responds that while Greenpeace wants to move away from being the hub for this information, the reality is that the Mobilisation Lab has more resources to find and share campaign ideas (example: Lebanese Citizen Science reporting).

An audience member asks if the greatest organising need is in technologies or organising techniques? Michael thinks that we need more creative imagination to use the tools that already exist.

Marco Bani asks how Greenpeace reaches out to governments. In the ecosystem of environmental change, other organisations are better at helping companies and government implement change. Greenpeace typically uses more confrontational and higher risk actions when situations with governments and companies go beyond conversation. Occasionally, they do put up billboards or Facebook ads to target employees of companies. An example would be the Arctic Ready campaign, where Greenpeace created a spoof site for people to remix fake Shell media.

Campaigns like Arctic Ready offer an example of why the Mobilisation Lab focuses on capacity building. Only some people within the organisation understand how that campaign worked. The Mobilisation Lab exists to help people throughout Greenpeace understand, imagine, and execute innovative campaigns.

Jeff Warren talks about participatory technology-based campaigns that go beyond symbolic online actions into mass direct action. For example, warns New Yorkers if flushing the toilet at that moment might lead to sewage overflow. Michael thinks that more people are more willing to take risk than ever before, from the Arab Spring, Occupy, or the upcoming Defend Our Coast action.

The difference between online sharing and strapping yourself to a railroad is huge and complex. High risk, vanguard direct action like that is a huge part of Greenpeace’s brand, but those actions require incredibly large amounts of legal and safety planning. Michael doesn’t think that any organisation could ask people to do that kind of thing. But maybe those high risk actions could inspire deeper, low-risk actions like the Lebanese citizen science reporting.

Sasha points out another model, encouraging people to take direct action by pointing people to organisations like the National Lawyer’s Guild who can support more ad hoc actions. Michael responds that this can be tricky, especially if some of those groups don’t share the same values of nonviolence that Greenpeace has. Fortunately, there is a much larger set of actions people can take beyond just demonstrating.