Reinvent democracy with Aarhus’ “everyday activists” and habit-breaking “Givisme” culture!

Ferenc Szigeti

By Ferenc Szigeti, on September 29th, 2016

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I have never been welcomed by a butler in black overcoat with a top hat, especially not during a formal meeting organised by a city council. Then I was invited to step into a house, which looked like a huge magician’s enormous suitcase and where I found myself somewhere between Alice’s Wonderland and The Addams Family’s strange world: some of the furniture was hanging from the roof, the door between the rooms was hidden in a wardrobe, paintings on the wall were stranger than any of Dali’s work, not to mention the pink coffee I drank from a test-tube…

It was clear that in such a bizarre environment I bumped into at Vanebruds Palæet– a private venue especially designed for habit-breaking trainings and meetings – everything was about enabling visitors to turn ideas upside-down. But what do city leaders do with illusionists?

Similar to a growing number of European cities, Aarhus is also seeking methods to rebuild its relationship with citizens and experimenting with new governance models to better engage citizens. What was extremely interesting for me is that how the city facilitates the relationship among people, how they mobilise residents to re-think democracy.

It is even more exciting if we take into consideration the journey Aarhus made in the last decades: from an average small city with big harbour industry it has become a destination in itself with its great creative and cultural attitude (Aarhus University is Scandinavia’s largest one), not only for tourists (see more about the city’s touristic appeal here), but urbanists too, and its hidden energy will detonate in the next year when the city will be the European Capital of Culture.

Although Aarhus is wealthy, it is also facing those societal challenges the rest of Europe is coping with too. The welfare system is being challenged by demographic changes and tight financial constraints. Maintaining and developing a social, economic and sustainable welfare society requires all layers of the society to rethink the way they collaborate in Aarhus. The municipality thus must create prosperity in collaboration with citizens.

There are an immense number of excellent local initiatives aiming to meet societal challenges, share responsibility and promote ownership, and all of this forms a great basis for moving forward towards a collaborative public service provision, which is the aim of the CHANGE! network, in which Aarhus is a partner city. Undoubtedly, the most important key words are “re-think” and “new citizenship”, and the most relevant initiatives are as follows.

“Let’s re-think” is not only the slogan for Aarhus 2017, but it is a philosophy promoted by the local government. Aarhus 2017 is about rethinking our standard values such as democracy, sustainability and diversity. The local government is very much committed to opening up a dialogue with citizens and shaping local policy together with people.

The best example for this commitment is Aarhus’ Citizenship Committee, which consists of 8 politicians and 8 citizens whose job is to “challenge the municipal practice and inspire a new practice of citizenship”. Volunteer citizens have been selected through innovative meetings (so called dinner parties) outside of the city hall to get new voices on board. Among others, committee members’ task is to rethink the roles and responsibilities of politicians, administrators and citizens; to imagine new cooperation models related to public services, and to revolutionise communication between politicians and citizens. The Committee works as an advisory committee for the council, but the fact that a citizen has been selected as chair and not a politician highlights local politicians’ commitment towards the Committee and its work to set up new visions and generate new ideas.

Besides being a smart city, opening up the dialogue with and having proper insights from citizens through ICT platforms (Digital Neighbourhood), boosting community engagement and empowering residents to share their ideas (Inspiration Catalogue), testing several small experiments with citizen budgets, and running a pilot project related to personal budget to be used with job-ready registered unemployed citizens, the city council does seeks new ways of encouraging everyday citizens to be the driver of change.

This is why the municipality cooperates with the ‘habit-breaker’ Thomas “Vovemod” Lütken, co-founder of Vanebruds Palæet, and many other inspiring residents. Thomas wants to use his unfailing energy to bring together Aarhus people on key social challenges. “Aarhus has a good reputation, and the city gets a lot of positive publicity nationally and internationally. We will use these positive vibes to get better in an important area; namely, the welcome and integration of new citizens, be they international students or immigrants! The ambition is to create a vigorous effort to provide the world’s best welcome to new citizens.” Within the philosophy of “Givisme” Thomas and his colleagues, in cooperation with the city council, will create dozens of informal public places (welcome living rooms as they call them) for networking, innovating, changing, gifting and sharing. Most likely the whole city can benefit from these new connections.

The other key change-maker in Aarhus is Paul Natorp, co-founder of Sager der Samler. This NGO creates connections among local people and enables them to take actions. I liked very much their slogan “everyday activism” as it expresses perfectly that every person in the society has responsibility to shape our joint future, whether we tackle ecological or societal challenges. They have several innovative initiatives known from other parts of Europe as well, but the Social Health mentorship programme is an excellent example of the so called people-powered public services, which is the focus of the CHANGE! network. Within this activity, medical university students as bridge builders, help socially disadvantaged people to get health service, as they rarely benefit from these services. At the moment Aarhus University is testing the opportunities to upscale this method on city level.

With regards to this, the question in front of Aarhus is the main question of the CHANGE! network: how people’ efforts could be embedded in public services to make them more collaborative and efficient, and how to organise this on city level? What kind of strategy can lead and coordinate this process? “If you bring up a challenge, you are already part of the solution” – said Tine Holm Mathiasen, citizenship coordinator at the Mayor’s Department. I am sure that it is worth listening to what is going on in Aarhus in the next years, how city leaders will become “habit-breakers”.


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