Social summit lightens Rio+20 gloom

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Thousands of citizens joined business leaders, NGOs, government representatives and digital media players yesterday in a global online conversation to discuss the “future we want”, as the UN Conference on Sustainable Development gets under way in Rio.

Pessimism has clouded the Rio+20 Summit, which aims to find a way to support equitable human development without exhausting the planet's resources. Critics have slammed the current draft text as a weak document with watered-down commitments, and negotiations look set to falter as governments focus on other pressing matters, such as the Euro crises and Middle East conflict. While several presidents are attending, the heads of state of prominent countries like the US, Germany and Britain will not be present, sending high-ranking officials in their place.

Outside the official meeting rooms, however, interest has been more forthcoming, with several public campaigns driving momentum behind ensuring a more sustainable future. The Rio+ Social event, for example, gathered leaders in digital media, technology and philanthropy, along with the private sector, government, and civil society, in a dialogue to address major global challenges.

Leveraging the power and reach of social media, prominent figures joined citizens from around the world to share solutions on how to provide energy, water, education and healthcare to the nine billion people set to inhabit the planet by 2050, while ensuring environmental sustainability.

“There has never been a better time for the community of global citizens to engage in the global conversation about sustainability and the earth's future,” said Aaron Sherinian, communications VP at the UN Foundation, in a statement.

“Social media and technology have brought our world closer together, and the Rio+Social community is a powerful symbol of what we can achieve when we come together to work on common goals and find innovative solutions,” he added. “You don't have to be a world leader to make a difference.”

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson joined a list of high-profile speakers at the event, including Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore, UN Foundation chairman Ted Turner, and the executive director of UN Women and former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Individuals watching online were able to participate by asking questions and adding comments to live discussions.

According to a UN News report, Mashable's Cashmore stressed the importance of linking technology with development issues and communities, to make global dialogues more accessible and give people a voice in addressing major challenges. “People have realised that revolutions happen around the world powered by social media. Political and power structures are being upturned, so I think people are beginning to see that social media can drive a change in action and not just create buzz.”

Twitterstorm for social good

The Twittersphere was also with teeming Rio+Social news, as the event's hashtag #RioPlusSocial trended globally. Another campaign making waves on Twitter and mobilising mass public support has been the 'end fossil fuel subsidies' movement, which aims to do away with the reported $1 trillion in government support received by coal and oil companies annually.

Around one million people have signed a petition to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and campaigners are pressuring Rio negotiators to address the issue in the final conference text. Hundreds of thousands of tweets pushed #endfossilfuelsubsidies to the number one trending topic in the US and second globally yesterday. Several celebrities including Mark Ruffalo and Stephen Fry also came out in support.

As part of the Rio+Social event, organisers called on the world's citizens to give their views on issues surrounding Rio+20, including water, energy, oceans, food and health, in what they call the 6-Minute Speech Project. It's a follow-up to the speech given by 12-year-old Severn Suzuki at the Rio Summit in 1992, but will be a crowdsourced speech based on contributions from people worldwide via videos and social media.

The Rio+20 Social event was organised by the UN Foundation in partnership with tech news site Mashable, community organisation 92nd Street Y, energy company EDP, Ericsson, digital media firm LiveAD, sustainability platform Planeta Sustent'avel, Virgin Unite, and United Postcode Lotteries. See RioPlusSocial for more information and to see the speech when it's released.

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