Going beyond the smart city? Implementing technopolitical platforms for urban democracy in Madrid and Barcelona

This post reports research into the situated development over time of two digital platforms for democratic deliberation and decision.

There has been renewed interest recently in techniques for facilitated citizen deliberation and democratic participation in public decision-making, beyond conventional representative electoral cycles and civic politics. A UK Climate Assembly, for example, was convened by the UK Parliament, and deliberated early in 2020 on on how the UK is tackling climate change and how it influences people’s lives. Similar initiatives around the world are being undertaken covering all sorts of public issues. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published a report ‘catching the deliberative wave‘ (June 2020), that reviewed a variety of models and innovative practices.

Alongside this attention from parliaments and public organisations, interest grows amongst citizens too in online platforms and digital deliberation and decision. Some argue the COVID-19 pandemic and its socially distanced aftermath will intensify use of these online platforms. Useful guides to digital tools and compendiums are being produced. These describe the technical features and helpfully illustrate them with example applications. There are also some helpful analyses of citizen use of these platforms – such as this analysis of the Decide Madrid platform.

Complementing these approaches and resources, our research (published in the Journal of Urban Technology) looks at the development and implementation of platforms in two specific contexts over time, in order to understand how those contexts shape the platforms and their use.

Understanding the local contexts in which these platforms are developed and implemented over time is critically important. So much of the successful operation online depends upon activity offline. The situations in which these platforms must embed, and to which they must adapt and embody, are key to building platform democratic legitimacy and sustainability.

In Madrid and Barcelona, it was the election into office of political leaders and parties committed new forms of urban democracy (i.e. representative democratic institutions), that gave digital platform developers the opportunity and resources to consolidate and improve direct democracy tools which they had already been developing through prior activism (i.e. direct democracy in social movements). Now advances could be sought through the Decide Madrid and Decidim Barcelona projects.

Backgrounds in 15-M activism meant developers brought into these projects a ‘technopolitics‘ orientation that committed to open, free software approaches, and which conceived the technology as a commons. Consistent with this ethic, open labs and deliberative fora were convened for reflecting upon progress in developing the technology, and in which citizens could participate if they wished. Technologies always have politics; in terms of assumptions about the societies in which those technologies will be put to use, and the value-based design decisions about who is expected to do what, when, where and how in order for the technology to work. Technopolitics takes this sociological insight, and argues the engineering of technology development (including tools for democracy) should therefore itself strive to be democratic. The Table below emphasises the technopolitical approach by drawing a contrast with Smart City approaches to urban governance.

Democratising technology brings practical advantages, as well as challenges. It requires openness and responsiveness. That was important in Madrid and Barcelona for many reasons, but particularly in relation to appreciating and adapting to the varied reasons and circumstances under which citizens and council administrators respectively would want to use these platforms (or not). Where the platform team is located within the council has implications for the work needed to convince other branches of the administration of the value in digital citizen deliberation, especially those departments responsible for implementing decisions taken. Citizens also need confidence that participation is worthwhile and that decisions will be acted upon. Such motivations arise and need to be cultivated offline, and whose success (or not) will flow back into the platform and influence its overall performance and democratic legitimacy.

Treating the technology as a commons means platform developments can be adapted in light of experience and accommodations made to ensure people feel involved. Particularly interesting here has been interactions with complementary processes offline, such as the facilitation of issue groups for building and coordinating proposals on the platform, or local planning deliberations run alongside the platform and in conjunction with it. In these ways, offline and online processes can strengthen one other. Different spaces for democratic expression and deliberation, online and offline, make possible different forms of democracy. Bringing the advantages of each into dialogue important – what we might call democratic interoperability.

This finding suggests to us that a sympathetic and supportive milieu is important in which myriad democratic demands, expressions, and processes can be recognised and connected (some orchestrated by authorities, others uninvited but no less important). Or, where such a milieu is not evident, then strategies by which platform use can contribute to the wider cultivation of democracy. What we learned from pioneers in Madrid and Barcelona is that digital platforms for citizen participation are at their best when conceived as part of broader movements for democratic renewal. They are not simply tools to plug and play in a consultative exercise. Indeed, commons-based technologies enable applications to spill over into democratic citizen initiatives beyond sponsoring authorities (e.g. energy cooperatives and other groups are adapting the tools for their uses).

So, much can and must be gained from studying platforms in a situated way, that follows the history of their development and learns from their advances and their setbacks. As societies develop distinct ways of living with the pandemic and emerging from it, so any use of platforms for deliberating with citizens will need to be sensitive to the situations in which they are being applied in order to make the most of the possibilities afforded by these tools, but also with a sense of what kinds of society they might help build.

Given the flourishing of interest currently, and the added impetus of the pandemic, we wanted to share our research insights in advance of the publication of results in the article. The article is open access.

Smith, A. and P. Prieto-Martín (2020) Going beyond the smart city? Implementing technopolitical platforms for urban democracy in Madrid and Barcelona, Journal of Urban Technology.

Abstract: Digital platforms for urban democracy are analysed in Madrid and Barcelona. These platforms permit citizens to debate urban issues with other citizens; to propose developments, plans and policies for city authorities; and to influence how city budgets are spent. Contrasting with neo- liberal assumptions about Smart Citizenship, the technopolitics discourse underpinning these developments recognises that the technologies facilitating participation have themselves to be developed democratically. That is, technopolitical platforms are built and operate as open, commons-based processes for learning, reflection and adaptation. These features prove vital to platform implementation consistent with aspirations for citizen engagement and activism.