Communications and Society Program

Forum on Communications and Society

FOCAS LogoAt the annual Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS), invited participants develop strategies for using new information and communications technologies for the greater benefit of society.  

The 2013 FOCAS titled, Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Governments, took place in Aspen, Colorado July 10-13.  Citizen leaders, public officials, technologists, and academics gathered together to find creative and effective ways to enhance the relationships among governments and citizens and measure the impact of open government. 

 For more information, read the FOCAS 2013 Report or visit the FOCAS 2013 page 


Past Projects: 

FOCAS12 ReportRoad to Government 2.0: Technological Problems and Solutions for Transparency, Efficiency     and Participation
August 5-8, 2012
Aspen, Colorado                                                                                                                                    

The 2012 FOCAS convened 38 leaders and developers from government, media and communications enterprises, localities, consumer/user groups and academia to define the problems of open and innovative governance and develop solutions.  Road to Government 2.0: Technological Problems and Solutions for Transparency, Efficiency and Participation, summarizes the insights, initiatives and recommendations emanating from the Forum.  The report describes the origins of the open government movement, provides a discussion of the meaningful open governance efforts around the world and then addresses a number of serious shortcomings and subsequent solutions in open government. The recommendations include measures to enhance public awareness and media engagement, modifications to the government procurement process, and an emphasis on useful participatory government to help improve information flow, communication and citizen interactions.  The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation served as Senior Sponsor of FOCAS 2012.

For more information, see the FOCAS 2012 Page.

Road to Government 2.0: Technological Problems and Solutions for Transparency, Efficiency and Participation is available for download in PDF.


 Networks and Citizenship: Using Technology for Civic InnovationNetworks and Citizenship: Using Technology for Civic Innovation
August 1-4, 2011
Aspen, Colorado

The 2011 FOCAS brought forty-three distinguished citizens with considerable experience working in and around the institutions of democracy to address two questions: (1) What does citizenship look like in an era of digital networks? and, (2) What are the emerging roles of individual citizens and institutions in this changing environment? Networks and Citizenship: Using Technology for Civic Innovation summarizes their insights, discussions and finding. The Report details the use of information and communication technologies to enhance the public sphere, provide access to information (open-source and open-data networks), connect citizens and government, create global networks, globalize and localize citizenship and use crowdsourcing as a self-governing process. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation served as Senior Sponsor of FOCAS 2011.

For more information, see the FOCAS 2011 page.

Networks and Citizenship: Using Technology for Civic Innovation is available for download in PDF.


News Cities: The Next Generation of Healthy Informed Communities

News Cities: The Next Generation of Healthy Informed Communities
August 15-18, 2010
Aspen, Colorado

The 2010 FOCAS engaged Government officials, media and business executives, civic leaders, user representatives, and other thought leaders in roundtables and private working groups to arrive at specific action steps that communities can take to improve their information health. The report includes a description of the continuing difficulties, yet encouraging advances in local journalism, and a series of recommendations to strengthen public media, increase government transparency, encourage public engagement, promote digital and media literacy, and provide universal broadband access. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation served as Senior Sponsor of FOCAS 2010.

For more information, see the FOCAS 2010 page.

News Cities: The Next Generation of Healthy Informed Communities is available for download in PDF.


 Of the PressOf the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism
August 16-19, 2009
Aspen, Colorado 

The 2009 FOCAS convened more than 40 leaders, academics and entrepreneurs with backgrounds in news, business, nonprofits and foundations to explore new models for sustaining enterprise journalism. The Forum looked at models for online payments, examined research from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on hyper-local news sites and news ecologies in metropolitan areas, and explored further ways to serve citizens and consumers with abilities to gather and share important information in the coming years. The report of the 2009 FOCAS, Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism, details the innovations, experimental business models, and evolving philosophies that could be harnessed to preserve journalism as a critical instrument in American society. We'd like to thank the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for serving as Senior Sponsor of FOCAS 2009.  

For more information on the Forum, see the FOCAS 2009 page.

Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism is available for download in PDF.


Media and Democracy
August 10-12, 2008
Aspen, Colorado

This report summarizes the results of the 2008 FOCAS, on Media and Democracy. This includes deliberations from four interconnected roundtables, covering topics such as communications and elections, civic engagement, and global citizenship. The dialogue led to three projects, all in the development stage. The Online Peace Corps brings individual efforts and ingenuity to bear on the problems of the developing world. Groundswell is a software application that will serve as a kind of eBay for civic engagement. The American Dialogue Initiative is an initiative to bring a variety of disparate media together to foster a dialogue between the citizenry and its government on a particular topic and at a particular time each year. The final recommendation was widespread diffusion of broadband in the United States, a goal that is being implemented as part of the 2009 Economic Stimulus Package.

FOCAS 2008 clips are available on demand at www.aspeninstitute.tv.

Media and Democracy is available for download in PDF.


Media and Values: Issues of Content, Community and Intellectual Property
August 2-12, 2007
Aspen, Colorado

FOCAS 2007 examined how the new media paradigm intersects issues of content values, intellectual property and local community.  The event included three interactive roundtables: Content Issues for New and Old Media- how consumers, businesses, and governments treat issues of content at a time of rapidly changing business models; Media & Community Values- how media policies affect the coherence of local geographic communities; and Media & Property Values- new approaches to intellectual property issues occasioned by the sharing generation.  Keynote addresses were given by Kevin Martin- Chairman, Federal Communications Commission and Viviane Reding- Commissioner for Information Society, & Media- European Commission.

Watch the archives of the 2007 FOCAS discussions at www.aspeninstitute.tv or download the report which frames the debates surrounding such topics as offensive, harmful or missing content; fair use, new business models and international approaches to intellectual property; and local media and the future of democracy.  The report also offers constructive suggestions for resolving several of the more contentious challenges that have accompanied developments in new media.  Richard P. Adler, Drew Clark and Kathleen Wallman, rapporteurs.


Next Generation Media: The Global Shift
August 9-12, 2006
Aspen, Colorado

In the sessions on “Next Generation Media: The Global Shift” the group explored two major shifts brought about by the new media: user-generated content and the emergence in online communities of interest in both creating and sharing information. Participants explored how the blogosphere creates transparency and trust, as well as polarization and disinformation, all of which has a tremendous impact on the delivery of news, the growth of brands, and virtually every other aspect of life today.  In the session on the impact of media on global issues, the participants were critical of governmental approaches to public diplomacy over the years, particularly since 9/11, and concluded that it might be more effective for US citizens and businesses to reach out to the international community themselves to counter the negative image of America -- a "citizens' diplomacy."  Others suggested that the country look at the issue as "brand management," with similar approaches of researching and listening to the international community. After exploring in a simulation the prospects for direct digital democracy (much skepticism), the group concluded with a session on how new media can have a positive impact on leadership on a global level through the free flow of information and open democracy.  The roundtable co-chair Marc Nathanson proposed adding “Access to Appropriate New Technology” to the existing 8 Millenium goals of the United Nations.  Funmi Iyanda stated that the meeting had inspired her to reach out to the youth in Nigeria via her television show to encourage them to innovative and become leaders, using the new technologies in doing so. The report from the 2006 conference authored by Richard Adler is available for download in PDF and is also available to read online.


 The Use of Digital Technologies and Network Principles in Relations with China
August 11-14, 2005
Aspen Meadows, Aspen, Colorado

The 2005 CEO-level gathering of the Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) placed emerging concepts of digital networks, globalization and public diplomacy in a Chinese context.

The Forum, co-chaired by Marc Nathanson and Reed Hundt, composed of 23 Chinese and American leaders from business, government, media, academia, and the non-profit or NGO sectors, explored the role of digital technologies in China’s emergence as a major player in global economic and political affairs. The role of the Chinese government in fostering the development and use of digital technologies was an important theme of the roundtable. Participants also discussed the role of internet, mobile and digital technologies as democratizing forces in China. But the discussion, highlighted by a role-playing session, concluded that the digital forces were only a relatively small factor in the major, complex series of inter-relationships between China and the United States, and indeed China and the world.

Chinese entrepreneur and Crown Fellow Scarlett Li, Bear Stearns’ Donald Tang, Walden Capital’s Lip-Bu Tan, Goldman Sachs’ Robert Hormats, and Chinese businessman Joshua Cooper Ramo helped set the scene in China while international experts such as UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, Rand’s James Dobbins, and communications expert John Rendon chimed in on the international implications of certain policies.

The group drew many conclusions from the two day introduction to the topic, among which are:

The US-China relationship is not mature, but has great potential to develop if each looks upon the other as both competitor and collaborator. By and large, the interests of each, such as jobs, security and energy (keeping prices down), are inter-related, compatible and unlikely to be destabilized by external global circumstances. Destabilizations are more likely to come from internal politics within US or, more likely, China. Both countries need to come to grips with the changing economic situation. Jailing of Chinese dissidents and media controls were of considerable concern to the group, however.

China is filling a soft power vacuum in the world. The group saw China, which tends to look longer term than the US, as holding a "good hand" in the diplomatic front, rendering the US on the defense with soft power. The group proposed an increase in the teaching of Mandarin in American schools, and measures for greater engagement between the two societies. The US Values of democracy, human rights, capitalism are exportable, they suggested, but to do so, the US needs to engage in long term thinking, and keep international trade from becoming a partisan issue.  They proposed a Bipartisan Planning Commission for inter-relations.

There are many new opportunities in the digital and communications technologies in China, and while this could prove disruptive to stability there, it is more likely a force for openness and eventually, democracy. There are great opportunities for foreign media in the digital space. The group agreed, though, that China should work for ubiquity in communications connectivity as soon as possible.

Finally, the group discussed specifics regarding an open digital environment, creating incentives for forcing the piracy issue in China on intellectual property, perhaps by encouraging more direct ownership of content in China. They also observed that the media businesses are changing rapidly, while the role of media remains crucial. On that point, they debated the role of private and public service media, the importance of traditional journalistic values, and the need for the domestic media to catch-up to democratic forces of the people.

For more, read Soft Power, Hard Issues by Shanthi Kalathil.


Negotiating the Clash of Values: The Role of Communications in Globalization and Democratization

The 2004 annual meeting of the Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) addressed the role and impact of communications and information systems in negotiating among the values of capitalism, democracy, and security throughout the world. Participants discussed whether societies can achieve peace, prosperity and equal dignity at the same time, or do some take precedence over the others? If the fulfillment of each of these goals poses a tension to the others, how do the media exacerbate or ameliorate those tensions? In a time when there are pressures to embrace capitalism, democracy and security measures simultaneously, how do the media affect the ability of countries, organizations and individuals to sort among those values?

For more, read Michael Suman's report of the conference,
Opening the Realm: The Role of Communications in Negotiating the Tension of Values in Globalization.


The Media and the Clash of Civilizations: An International Agenda for the Information Business

The 2003 FOCAS considered issues of globalization and the media in the United States and beyond. As pressures mount for consolidation of ownership of the various media, and as companies are vertically and geographically integrated, what international and national measures are warranted to assure a free and open press, a robust dialogue on the issues, and a thriving global paradigm for the values of democracy?


Media Convergence, Diversity, and Democracy

With the FCC's change to media ownership rules in recent times, FOCAS took on the timely issue in August 2002.

The 2002 conference addressed the underlying role of the media in a democratic society and policies that could improve the ability of citizens to exercise their roles as informed sovereigns in that society. The resulting report examines the concern of many over the shrinking electorate in American elections and the possible role the mass media play in that trend, the debate over whether consolidation in old and new media raises democratic as opposed to antitrust concerns, and opportunities for new media to enable citizens to communicateboth in terms of gaining new information and exchanging their own opinions with others. The report also addresses the concern that new media will become bottlenecked rather than continue the open architecture of the Internet, and the apparent choices available to government at this time.

Read more in Media Convergence, Diversity, and Democracy, authored by Neil Shister.


In Search of the Public Interest in the New Media Environment

Much of the discussion of the digital divide in recent years has concentrated on building out the infrastructure to give access to the enabling technologies to an increasing number of people. FOCAS concentrates more specifically on the human element, promoting information literacy so that once connected, citizens and consumers can effectively navigate the networks and learning tools made available.

In 2001, FOCAS turned to the element of content. What is available to learners and citizens that can enhance their effective participation in our economy and society? More specifically, what policies can create the conditions and tools for our scholars, libraries, museums, schools, universities, and other sources of publicly available knowledge and information to create content for the digital media? And what policies are necessary for the learner to gain reasonable access to such content?

For 2001, FOCAS explored methods of funding and sustaining cultural and educational content for access by the broad citizenry, specifically private sector financing, government funding, and foundation funding. No doubt, content is and will continue to be funded by all three means. The 2001 FOCAS session, however, explored whether or not there are other, hybrid approaches that can enhance our quest for a learning society.

One hybrid is set forth in A Digital Gift to the Nation by Lawrence Grossman and Newton Minow (2001) in which they suggest that the proceeds from spectrum auctions could become an endowment for the funding of cultural and educational content. FOCAS analyzed and critiqued this approach. It also explored whether there are other ways to fund content that are economically sound yet bold and innovative.

Read In Search of the Public Interest in the New Media Environment, by David Bollier, for a full report of the forum findings.


Information Literacy: Advancing Opportunities for Learning in the Digital Age
Richard P. Adler (1999)

The report explores the barriers that impede acquisition of the knowledge and skills needed to effectively manage information in its myriad forms, especially digital. It explores six concrete initiatives that individuals and institutions might develop to remedy this problem. The report includes a background paper on information literacy by Patricia Senn Breivik, dean of Libraries at Wayne State University and chair of the National Forum on Information Literacy.


Jobs, Technology, and Employability: Redefining the Social Contract
Richard P. Adler (1997)

This report examines the changing nature of the employee-employer relationship and whether the economic, technological, demographic, and social trends driving the global economy will lead to the development of a new "social contract" between employer and employee.


Creating a Learning Society: Initiatives for Education and Technology
Amy Korzick Garmer and Charles M. Firestone (1996)

This report addresses specific issues in the K-12 classroom, as well as broader issues of lifelong learning outside the classroom. The report offers a range of initiatives for overcoming barriers to funding technology in schools and training teachers how to integrate technology into the classroom. Please contact the Program for a copy of the report, (202) 736-5818.