“We, the people”: Cities, digital tools and the reinvention of democracy

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on May 27th, 2016

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Douche v Turd

I’m stating the obvious by saying that Western democracy looks in trouble right now. In the US, the emerging Presidential line up increasingly resembles South Park’s classic Giant Douche versus Turd Sandwich episode. Meanwhile in Europe, the increasing use of national referenda combined with the downward spiral of voter participation reflects growing doubts about our established parliamentary systems.

To say that this is worrying is an understatement. But at least we can see some creative and innovative responses emerging. Some of this has been in direct response to the political repercussions of the seismic 2008 Global Financial Crash. At national level, one of the most notable examples was Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution. Although ultimately a failure, this small country’s attempt to redefine “We the people” and our role in detailing its governmental machinery was inspiring.

But it’s at city level that much of the most exciting thinking – and doing – around future governance is taking place. In a previous blog I mentioned the work of David Van Reybrouk whose work influenced the G1000 democratic innovation platform in Brussels. This produced a series of citizens panels, involving 704 city residents randomly selected. And it hasn’t stopped there.

Across the world cities are experimenting with new ways to refresh their governance mechanisms through smarter involvement of citizens. Another good examples comes from Melbourne, Australia, which found that its Participate Melbourne platform generated bolder plans than their elected politicians.

Cities and/or techies?

It would be wrong then to assume that the end game here is to get more people to vote. Sure, that would be nice. But the groundswell in the Melbourne and G1000 examples, addresses a more fundamental point. It’s about looking for alternatives to a participatory model that, for many, is now passed its sell-by date. Claudia Chwalisz has made a compelling case for this in her recent book, The Populist Signal.

The other week I got a reminder of this up close, while exploring the role of civic tech in widening democracy at the Ouishare Festival in Paris. Amongst our contributors were some tech platforms designed to help voters make or influence the current model. One of these was Voxe, a genius tool that enables you to instantly compare candidates’ key electoral promises. Another was La Primaire which aims to widen the selection process for the French Presidential elections (they point out that candidates are currently selected by 350,000 party members, equating to 0.5% of the entire population).

Alongside these were tech platforms seeking to reinvent the way political business gets done. For me, these are especially interesting at city level. In the room we had Liquid Democracy who have developed an open source tool to facilitate decision-making. They are also working with the city of Berlin to develop the meinBerlin participative platform, designed to widen the city’s decision-making process. We also had Matisse Bonzon from the Ourcities network, which has mobilised citizens across Brazilian cities through its digital participatory tools. Ourcities network already has a string of victories, where it has changed Brazilian law.

Making a Difference

Spark of democracy

What does this mean for our cities? Well, it confirms the important part they have to play in refreshing our democracies. As the form of government closest to people, they are well-placed to reach out, rebuild trust and to mobilise citizens. They are also best placed to innovate, experiment and take risks. Within cities, the most pioneering leaders are seeking to rewire the relationship with citizens, using digital tools as a way to encourage direct two-way communication.

But not all civic leaders are comfortable with this new agenda, which is playing out differently across Europe. Consequently, programmes like URBACT have a potentially important role in supporting politicians to engage differently with their constituents.

An even bigger prize goes beyond tweaking the relationship between electors and their politicians. This is where cities are challenging the old decision-making tools and seeking to replace or complement them with ones fit for the digital age. But we can see that this in not always a clear path. Our Liquid Democracy colleagues explained that even in vanguard cities like Berlin, the bureaucratic wheels can turn slowly, frustrating those looking for an agile response.

There is also the challenge to define this new working relationship between the ‘techies’ and ‘civil servants’. The former often seek a fluid collaborative working model, whilst the latter may be more comfortable with a more traditional contractual relationship – that keeps them firmly in charge. In an interview with civic hackers Spaghetti Open data, we found that this relational challenge with Italian local authorities was one of the biggest obstacles.

How can we support cities to support these new approaches more effectively? Improving city hall’s understanding of these new digital tools and how they can be of benefit is a key starting point. URBACT networks like Interactive Cities, led by Genova, can help, through providing examples, developing tools and building confidence. Another frontier opening up is procurement, where URBACT has facilitated previous experience and which is also the focus of another new network, led by Preston. In this technical, and at times legally complex arena, there is huge potential for peer-to-peer learning amongst cities.

Going back to where we started, Douche v Turd is an unappetizing contest. Without radical reinvention, many of us fear where our democratic systems are headed. So, there is no time like now for cities to engage in this existential challenge. Digital tools, together with capacity-building mechanisms like URBACT, can help them get started.




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