About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Stories of digital social innovation: Democracy

This is part of a series of blogs profiling inspiring examples of digital social innovation (DSI).

The challenge

There is a widespread feeling today that democracy is in crisis across the Western world. In the past two years, we’ve come to see how divided our nations can be and how some communities feel left behind in the 21st century. We’ve seen this in France, Poland, Hungary, the UK, the US, Brazil and South Korea to name a few.

This has happened against a backdrop of falling membership of political parties, falling turnout in elections and falling trust in politicians, journalists and academics. Significant minorities in Europe and the US no longer see democracy as a good system of government – and worryingly, this view is particularly prevalent among young people.

Without a revitalisation of our political and democratic processes, we risk becoming further disengaged and divided.

How is DSI helping?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen huge growth in the number of initiatives using technology, usually married with offline engagement, to revitalise democracy in different ways. Here are five that we think are particularly exciting.

StemWijzer: Supporting citizens to vote more wisely (Netherlands)

StemWijzer is one of many Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) that have appeared over the past decade. VAAs are internet tools that help voters to compare different political parties and to find out which party aligns most closely with their own personal views. StemWijzer, which means “VoteMatch” in Dutch, was founded in 1989 with voters using a booklet. Nowadays, the platform is all online and users answer 30 questions to better inform them before election day. Almost seven million voters used StemWijzer in the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections. StemWijzer is developed by the non-profit ProDemos, and creates VAAs for municipality, county and national elections. It has also created VAAs for elections in countries including Switzerland, Bulgaria, the US, France, the UK and the US.

CitizenLab: Co-creating cities with citizens (Belgium)

CitizenLab is a civic engagement platform for citizens to co-create their cities. It offers governments, mainly local authorities, a platform for engaging their citizens in local decision-making. Using the platform, citizens can put forward, debate and discuss ideas to make their cities a better place. In just over a year since the first pilot, CitizenLab has grown to working with over 30 clients in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as the federal government in Denmark and the Flemish and Walloon regional representatives in the Belgian capital. Unlike many digital democracy platforms, CitizenLab runs on a for-profit software-as-a-service model with an embedded social purpose, and is sold directly to governments.

Citizen Lab

The CitizenLab app. CitizenLab is profiled more extensively in the final DSI4EU report, What next for digital social innovation? Realising the potential of people and technology to tackle social challenges (p.50).

Rahvakogu/Rahvaalgatus: Bringing citizens into national decision-making (Estonia)

Following a corruption scandal in 2012, and under pressure from unhappy citizens, the Estonian President held a series of roundtable discussions, which led to the development of Rahvakogu - ‘The People’s Assembly’. Seeking to bring citizens into policymaking, and using the open-source platform Your Priorities, the People’s Assembly allowed citizens to put forward and comment on proposals. These proposals were analysed and assessed, and eventually 15 were submitted to Parliament, of which three were adopted and four more partially adopted. One of the laws passed led to the establishment of Rahvaalgatus, an online platform where citizens can make, debate and vote on proposals and eventually have the chance to get their proposals on Parliament’s agenda.

Rahvaalgatus is profiled more extensively on the DSI4EU website.

Decide Madrid: Distributing power and decision-making (Spain)

Decide Madrid is the citizen participation platform of the Spanish capital. Developed originally in 2014/15 and implemented in 2016 under the new mayor Manuela Carmena, the platform offers different functions:

  • Proposing new laws. Residents can propose new local laws which, if supported by one per cent of the census population, are put to a vote. If this vote is successful, the council must assess the feasibility, legality and cost of the law and publish this online.
  • Debate. Anyone can initiate a debate about any topic. Although the online debate cannot lead to changes in laws, is is a useful way of understanding opinion; indeed, many councillors and local representatives open debates to gather constituents’ views.
  • Participatory budgeting. In 2016, €60 million of city money was allocated through participatory budgeting voted on through Decide Madrid, rising to €100 million in 2017.
  • Consultations on urban planning. Binding decisions have been made through citizen participation on the remodelling of major squares like Plaza España and Gran Vía, as well as 11 squares in the city suburbs.

Decide Madrid is built using open-source and modular software called Consul, so that other cities can take, build upon and personalise the platform for their own cities. Now, cities across Spain and beyond are using Consul for citizen participation. Alongside the platform, the city runs numerous complementary offline initiatives, such as local forums and “If you feel like a cat”, a project to involve children and young people.

Decide Madrid

An advertising campaign reminds citizens to vote in Decide Madrid's participatory budgeting initiative. This is a theatre on the Gran Vía, Madrid's main thoroughfare. Decide Madrid is profiled more extensively in Nesta’s report Digital Democracy: The tools transforming political engagement (pp.47-51).

Carticipe: Democratising town planning (France)

Carticipe is a map-based platform that involves citizens in designing the places where they live. Used in over 20 towns and cities in France, citizens can propose ideas for town planning, environment, mobility and other areas of urban life, and to discuss proposals for anything from a new park to stricter restrictions on parking. This process sits alongside offline discussions to ensure wider engagement and participation.

If you’re interested in finding out more and becoming part of the DSI4EU community, please do sign up to the digitalsocial.eu website, post a comment below, or drop us an email at [email protected].

Image credits: CitizenLab; Decide Madrid.


Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

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