Method of The Activist Lab

Human-Centered Design

The Activist Lab is a workshop of four days, based on the methodology of Human-Centered Design. Human-Centered Design is “a methodology that starts with building a deep empathy with people you are designing for” and uses ideation, a lot of creative methods, co-creation, and prototyping to make sure the end products indeed serve the needs of the people you are designing it for.

Local issues

This means that the Activist Lab focuses on a very specific and, most of the time, a very local issue of concern: a bridge in Mitrovica, Kosovo that divides instead of connects two parts of town; a public part in Beirut, Lebanon that is closed for the public; or Syrian refugees who have no voice in the political debate on refugees in The Netherlands.


The maximum amount of participants of an Activist Lab is 25 persons; small enough to work creatively together on a common cause and big enough to have the knowledge, skills and energy to develop something new and relevant.

Most of the time the participants will work in groups of 4 to 5 persons. Ideally, each group includes a mix of participants from different backgrounds, with different skills: activists, artists, designers, coders and journalists. This diversity is necessary to discover new possibilities and to co-create something completely new and energetic.

A process of three stages

The methodology follows three stages: Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. It puts – more than many other methodologies – great emphasis on the end-user of the ‘product’ you are developing.


It starts with an in-depth exploration of the people you are developing for. Who are they? Where do they live? How do they live? What are their interests, hobbies, worries, needs? How can you reach them? How can you involve them in your plans? [picture of create a persona]


During the second phase, the results of the research are being used to generate tons of ideas. At this stage, quantity is more important than quality – this helps you to open up your mind, to think the unthinkable, to feel unconstrained by financial or other possible troubles. A next step in the process is to check which ideas may actually work, and to test these with the people you are developing for.

The final step in this phase is to build prototypes. Building prototypes is an efficient way of exposing  your ideas to the outside world, without spending loads of time and money on a final product yet. After collecting feedback and improving your plan. you are ready for the next step, implementation. [picture of prototypes]


Implementation of your ideas first of all means you need a good action plan. Who is doing what and when? What resources are needed? Who else need to get on board? And: you need to check on a regular basis whether the people you had been developing for still think it is a good idea and see the benefits in the implantation!

Want to know more about Human-Centered Design?

Want to know more or to see other concrete examples of how Human-Centered Design works in practice? Check the websites of the following two organisations: and

Activist Lab @Global Youth Rising Summer camp

An amazing gathering in Transylvania, Romania, for young people working to make the world a better place, taking place from 10 – 20 July.

Global Youth Rising 2016  is a gathering in the beautiful Romanian countryside where dedicated, passionate, motivated youth activists and peacebuilders from across the globe come together to learn, share, build and exchange their experiences from their movements and organizations. This exciting summer camp will include a variety of workshops and training 524973_10151192057316693_1334190545_nsessions on key topics in the field, as well as seminars, film showings, discussions, exchanges etc.

The Activist Hive will be sending several trainers and partners to Global Youth Rising. During the Activist Lab you can work with Guido and Pim on a number of exciting topics, such as Activist TV (where you can analyse inspiring videos and see how we can use video for our own work as activists), countering violent extremism, and working together to create a global peace movement.

More info and application here!


How Organizations Can Create Activists

Article originally found on


File: Gay rights demonstrators in Arizona. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan)

Hahrie Han is a political scientist at Wellesley College and the author of the new book “How Organizations Develop Activists.” She answered some questions from me via email. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Q: Let’s start with the title. How can organizations develop activists?

From political campaigns to the People’s Climate March, from the mass protests in Hong Kong to Ferguson October, from the Tea Party to Move On, there are thousands of organizations around the world seeking to engage people in activism every day. Some conventional wisdom suggests that the ability of these organizations to successfully generate activism depends on things like having a charismatic leader or a catchy message, leveraging big data to target recruits, technological prowess, or just plain luck.

I find that while all of these things matter, what really differentiates the highest-engagement organizations is their ability to engage people in activities and experiences that changed their sense of individual and collective agency. These high-engagement organizations didn’t just try to get more people to do more stuff, they also tried to get people to do things that would transform their interests, their motivations for engaging in further activism, and the skills they needed to do so. They combined this kind of transformational organizing with transactional mobilizing, or a hard-nosed focus on developing not only the depth of activism they needed, but also the breadth.

Q: How did you go about conducting this research?  What organizations did you study?

An organization’s ability to get people involved depends on many factors that are out of control of the organization itself. I wanted to study whether what the organization itself did mattered.

I chose two national organizations working in health and environmental politics (because of confidentiality agreements, I disguise their names). Both organizations have state and local chapters that operate relatively independently. I chose pairs of chapters in these each organizations that were similar in other respects. These pairs of chapters were working on the same issue in the same kind of community and attracted the same kind of people, but one chapter was more effective than the other at engaging people. By studying these pairs, I could try to understand why.

Q: After studying chapters of these two different organizations, you distinguish three models of how organizations do their work: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers.  What are the differences among them?

Each model of engagement begins with a basic assumption about how the organization can build power to achieve its goals.

Lone wolves choose to build power by leveraging information — through legal briefs, public comments, and other forms of research advocacy. Mobilizers and organizers, by contrast, choose to build power through people.

Organizers distinguish themselves from mobilizers, however, because they try to transform the motivations and capacities of their members to cultivate greater activism. As I quote Joy Cushman, the Campaign Director for PICO in the book:

The organizer thus makes two [strategic] choices: 1) to engage others, and 2) to invest in their development. The mobilizer only makes the first choice. And the lone wolf makes neither.

Each model of engagement led to a different set of choices about how to recruit, engage, and support volunteers, which I describe in the book.

Q: Why do some organizations actively try to mobilize and especially organize their members, but others do not?

I was surprised in my research to find how much highly active organizations struggled to maintain a focus on the transformational work of building democratic citizens. Cultivating, and transforming, people’s motivations and capacities for activism is not easy.

Sometimes, contemporary political circumstances can create incentives for organizations to abandon this long, patient work. New online technologies, big data, and analytics, makes getting to scale easier than ever before. Whereas getting 1,000 signatures on a petition used to take weeks of pounding the pavement, now a well-crafted email to a targeted list can generate it in a matter of hours. Dramatic stories have been written about “viral engagements” such as Occupy Wall Street, the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

It seems like it is easier than ever to get people engaged in the twenty-first century, and the political process seems more open to citizen input. Yet, many of the activists and organizations I talked with have a vague unease that all this activity is not adding up to something bigger. That is why I wrote this book. Models for how to engage people in activism are not necessarily transparent in today’s complex political environment. Providing these models is fundamental to helping these organizations build the power they want and also to supporting democracy.

Q: You also conducted some field experiments to test the effectiveness of strategies to create activists.  What did you find there?

One of the key findings to emerge from the field experiments is that organizations can foster political activism by giving people the sense that the social relationships they desire (with each other and with the organization) are more likely to emerge within that organization.

Social relationships are distinct because they are not based purely on transactional exchanges. I may, for instance, have a relationship with my mechanic that is based on a contractual exchange of goods for services. Psychologists distinguish social relationships as being more open-ended, focused not on protection of individual interests but on being responsive to each other’s needs.

For organizations seeking to engage activists, these kinds of relationships are at the root of real organizing. But many organizations maintain a purely transactional relationship with their members, simply asking them to donate money or take action without being responsive to members’ needs in return. In a series of field experiments, I found that organizations that emulate characteristics of social relationships—such as being responsive to people’s goals, referring to a shared past and implied future, and acting as openers who invite others to open up to them–make people more likely to sign petitions, recruit others, and attend meetings.

Q: You have a forthcoming book about the Obama campaign’s field organization. What did you learn in studying it and how does it connect to your argument in this book?

The 2008 and 2012 Obama field campaign was a great example of an organization that combined both the transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing I describe in my book. In our book Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, Elizabeth McKenna and I describe exactly how the Obama campaign did this–how they built neighborhood teams, trained volunteers, and held them accountable. The Obama campaign was able to engage more people in activism than any other campaign that preceded it, but our book is the first to tell that story from the perspective of Obama volunteers and staff.

So much of what has been written about the campaign has focused on its technological and data prowess. We argue that while those things were really important for helping the campaign mobilize, it is the work they recruiting, developing, and training volunteer leaders that allowed them to organize. The combination of those two things was what enabled them to engage 30,000 volunteers who led 10,000 neighborhood teams that brought 2.2 million volunteers into the 2012 campaign.

4 Online Tools for Activists, by Activists

Article originally found on


Why are social networks powerful tools for causes and campaigns? Many times, people begin to engage in activism only after they’ve been attracted by the fun stuff in a campaign — connecting with old friends and sharing photos, for example. When they witness others participating, they’ll be more likely to join the cause. With socializing as the primary draw, it’s become easier for organizers to attract more and more unlikely activists through social media.

But once a campaign reaches its critical mass, activists might think about moving to other platforms made with their needs — especially digital security — in mind. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter will remain standard fare for online activism. But the time is right for niche-oriented startups to create tools that can supplement these platforms. Here are a few worth investigating.



Similar to the social media aggregating service Storify, but with an activist bent, CrowdVoice spotlights all content on the web related to campaigns and protests. What’s different about it? Founder Esra’a al Shafei says “CrowdVoice is open and anyone is a contributor. For that reason, it ends up having much more diverse information from many more sources.”

If one online activist comes across a spare or one-sided post, he can easily supplement information. Furthermore, campaign participants can add anecdotes and first-hand experiences so that others can check in from afar.

CrowdVoice makes it easier for far-flung audiences to stay abreast of protests and demonstrations, but it also helps organizers coordinate and stay abreast of other activist movements.


Off-the-Record Messaging

Off-the-Record” (OTR) software can be added to free open-source instant messaging platforms like Pidgin or Adium. On these platforms, you’re able to organize and manage different instant messaging accounts on one interface. When you then install OTR, your chats are encrypted and authenticated, so you can rest assured you’re talking to a friend.



Crabgrass is a free software made by the Riseup tech collective that provides secure tools for social organizing and group collaboration. It includes wikis, task files, file repositories and decision-making tools.

On its website, Crabgrass describes the software’s ability to create networks or coalitions with other independent groups, to generate customized pages similar to the Facebook events tool, and to manage and schedule meetings, assets, task lists and working documents. The United Nations Development Programme and members from the Camp for Climate Action are Crabgrass users.



Pidder is a private social network that allows you to remain anonymous, share only encrypted information and keep close track of your online identity – whether that identity is a pseudonym or not.

While it’s not realistic to expect anyone to use it as his primary social network, Pidder is a helpful tool to manage your information online. The Firefox add-onorganizes and encrypts your sensitive data, which you can then choose to share with other online services. It also logs information you’ve shared with external parties back into to your encrypted Pidder account.

Understanding Violent Jihadism with Pieter Stockmans


(c) Xander Stockmans

On the 12th of February, we received a visit from Pieter Stockmans. Pieter is a freelance journalist and human rights activist specialized in the Middle East, with — as he puts it himself — a focus on Freedom and Happiness. Pieter came to tell us about the seeds of radicalization and the reasons young muslims join the IS front. He has conducted research on the topic in poor neighborhoods in Jordan from where important Jihad leaders like Abdullah Azzam and Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi originated. Read more

10x Civil Acts in Syria

Every month, KeshMalek, a Syrian revolutionary civil society organization, provides a newsletter highlighting ten inspiring civil activities by Syrian NGOs, local committees and activists.

Click on the picture for a link to the initiative’s website or Facebook.
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