As part of our research on digital social innovation, we spoke to a new Brussels-based citizen participation platform about their growth and plans for the future.
Mention Belgian politics, and efficient, effective democracy probably isn’t the first thing to spring to mind. You’re more likely to think of the period in 2010-11 when political parties spent 541 days negotiating a coalition, pipping war-torn Iraq to the record for the longest time a country has gone without a government.
Indeed, despite very high voter turnout (89% in the most recent elections), partly due to compulsory voting laws, Belgium ranks below the European average in the UN’s E-Participation Index and below the OECD average for stakeholder engagement in developing regulations, a measure of civic engagement. Belgium came 35th in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and scored lowest in Europe (5.00 out of 10) for political participation.
But CitizenLab is trying to change this, and to engage citizens in the co-creation of their communities and their cities.
CitizenLab was founded less than two years ago in Brussels by three university students, Wietse Van Ransbeeck, Aline Muylaert and Koen Gremmelprez, who were disenchanted at the lack of democratic participation in local decision-making and place-shaping.
CitizenLab is an online, cloud-based platform which provides local governments with a civic engagement platform to engage citizens in local issues. It allows people to put forward ideas and collaborate on projects, and discuss how to improve their neighbourhoods.
“We started in late 2015 with a process of prototyping, business development and interviews,” says Wietse, who holds a degree in business engineering. “We then launched our first project with the city of Hasselt, in the Flemish region of Belgium, in April 2016. The city government wanted to get citizens’ input into the renovation of the local Kapermolenpark.”
Using the platform, citizens could share their ideas, filter them, shape them, and put them forward to the city government. The city government then gave accurate feedback to make sure people knew the outcomes of their participation.
“It was a really big success, and a great example for other cities, as it had a tangible impact - every city has a park,” Wietse says.
From there, CitizenLab was engaged in projects with other municipalities, including the mid-sized city of Ostend, which is seen as one of the most innovative cities in Belgium. Only a year later, CitizenLab has worked with over 20 Belgian and Dutch municipalities.
In Brussels, for example, CitizenLab worked with the Civic Innovation Network (CIN) to develop OpenWall, an ideas-sourcing platform covering issues including work, production, education, consumption, urbanism, economy, politics, healthcare and culture. CIN will use these ideas as a starting point for their future work developing and implementing collaborative strategies for issues in the capital.
Beyond the formulation of responses to local issues, CitizenLab is also now working with governments at higher levels. Working with the Flemish and Walloon Ministers for Brussels Affairs, they have developed a bilingual platform, “Cabinet Citoyen/Burgerkabinet”, for both communities to voice their “opinions, proposals and frustrations” which the ministers will then use to write future policy. Meanwhile, in Denmark, they are working with the Ministry of Business to crowdsource ideas relating to challenges in different areas, kicking off with a consultation on the sharing economy.
I asked Wietse how the company had grown from a pilot project to the stage it’s at now in such a short time.
“It’s a combination of factors,” he says. “Central to our growth has been working with governments from the inside. In contrast to some of the really bottom-up approaches, we try to align how CitizenLab works with how government works, and make it easy for them to integrate.
“It’s a market with very high barriers to entry,” he continues, “but once you are in it’s a big market, and cities are watching each other, following best practices, and sharing with each other.”
He believes recent changes in the political climate have also contributed to CitizenLab’s success. “With elections and a general feeling of democratic deficit, more cities are getting involved and we feel things are changing. Things have changed a lot in only one or two years.”
Furthermore, the CitizenLab team - only eight people, but growing - brings together a range of complementary skills. These include strong business, marketing and sales skills - Wietse and his colleague Aline both have business training - and the technological capacity to create a product which is appealing, easy-to-use and intuitive. It’s also customisable and delivers data analysis, reports, ideas processing and feedback mechanisms. Indeed, CitizenLab demonstrates just how important user experience is to successful engagement in DSI.
Communication is also key. One member of staff is full-time dedicated to making sure CitizenLab can tell really clear stories of impact: tangible examples of success which other cities can learn from, replicate, adapt and build upon. “If there aren’t success stories, clients won’t come back,” Wietse says.
And, of course, there is the perennial question of the business model. CitizenLab was originally incubated with €25,000 from the Belgian incubator iMinds (now imec), and has since raised €500,000 in investment and €50,000 from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. This is in part because, unlike many civic participation platforms, CitizenLab is a for-profit company with an embedded social purpose. It offers software-as-a-service (SaaS) to governments, charging an annual subscription fee which varies depending on the services and functionalities used and the size of the city. While this business model could dampen organic growth, Wietse says, the decision to work with government as the main client makes CitizenLab financially viable and offers strong growth perspectives.
What’s next for CitizenLab? “We’re working towards deeper integration with government, working from within to support co-creation of cities. Our end goal is that a citizen should be able to put forward an idea, discuss it, get support from other citizens, put it on the agenda, and get it onto desks in City Hall.”
This blog originally appeared on digitalsocial.eu, a platform for people, projects and organisations using technology to tackle social challenges.