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Creating the Digital Agora

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” (Jacobs, 1961).

In her influential book ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jane Jacobs claims that our cities should be a product of collaboration between the different groups that compose them. Public participation is a key tool used by cities to try and achieve this goal.

The rise of ICTs, coupled with the shift to e-governance, enables municipalities to engage faster and with more citizens through a variety of online platforms. Under the construct of the ‘Smart City’, websites, smartphone apps and other means are quickly supplementing traditional public participation meetings usually attended by self-appointed activists and lobbyists.

By using digital engagement cities generally aim for four key objectives:

  1. Increase participation and democratic debate.
  2. Create better decision-making mechanisms based on the wisdom of the crowd.
  3. Improve their image and relationship with citizens.
  4. Gain legitimacy for their actions.

In this post, I explore the use of technology for public participation through several examples from around the world.

Some of the more known platforms are London’s Talk London site, Delib; a “digital democracy company” used around the UK, Crowdbrite; a more design-based platforms, and MindMixerIdeascale and Open TownHall, which all allow users to share, comment and vote on ideas using similar options and interface.

Here are three further examples from across the globe that I found to be both engaging and interesting:

Complaints turned to background music – Seoul

In an act of participatory art, the Seoul City Government installed a giant ear outside City Hall. Residents and other by-passers can speak their praises and complaints into the ear as sensors record and transmit their voices to the Citizens’ Affairs Bureau inside the building. Comments that accumulate many listeners are preserved while the rest are turned into background music that plays around the building’s Sound Gallery.

This is an exciting and innovative combination of technology and public art that allows people to voice their opinions. Yet it doesn’t provide a full engagement opportunity and can be easily regarded as a mere gimmick. In the long run, if the Mayor and his officials don’t take people’s comments into account, pretending to listen can be worse than not listening at all.

Post your idea – New York City

The City of New York has taken the simplest and perhaps most used ‘innovation tool’, the post-it, and digitalised it for public use. 'Change by Us' is an interactive website where people share their ideas, join or start projects and find resources to support them in an attempt to make their city better. This platform is suitable for broad and user-directed participation.

Here the issues of feedback and upkeep arise. While a platform for community members to collaborate on is important, City Hall itself should play a bigger role in the discussion if it really wants to empower citizens for action. Nonetheless, the simplicity of the concept is quite ingenious and the platform had expanded to other cities across the US.

Post, like and share – Tel Aviv-Yafo

The Municipality of Tel Aviv decided to meet users online where they already spend most of their time – on Facebook. The ‘Make Your City’ projects ask residents of each neighbourhood how would they like to spend a regeneration grant in their area. The Municipality collects people’s responses and comments and passes it on to the professional bodies for a viability assessment, with the feasible options put up for a vote on the Facebook page.

While the use of Facebook raises issues of user identification and privacy, the process involves a highly attuned feedback loop. Nearly all ideas get a response from the Municipality and a majority are followed-up on for implementation. In this case, relying on local ideas for local regeneration proves effective.

What Next?

Whilst these tools allow municipalities to be more responsive, they also require them to be more responsible; responsible in the way they communicate with users, responsible in the way they handle users' information, and responsible in the way they implement users’ inputs.

For an improved relationship between municipalities and citizens, a truly engaging digital participation should provide a variety of actors more control over decisions in order to create a smart city that is intelligent and inclusively imagined by all.

If you have come across any other interesting and engaging platforms used in your city or anywhere around the world, please share your thoughts!


Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Intern, Innovation Lab

Assaf was an Intern within our Innovation Lab, supporting the design of a new public innovation lab for Wales.

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