Over the last three years the COLDIGIT project has examined the application of collective intelligence methods and tools to transform 21st-century public institutions. In this update we share lessons from the three project pilots in Trondheim (Norway), Gothenburg (Sweden) and Helsinki (Finland) and their work on citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting.
Digital technologies have revolutionised the way we live, work and interact with each other. They pose both a risk and an opportunity for our democracies. On the one hand, digital technology has fuelled misinformation and misuse of data which risks undermining trust and participation; on the other hand, technology provides innovative approaches to deepening and scaling our ability to collaborate, deliberate and make decisions together as a society.
The challenges faced by our democracies are illustrated by a number of studies. The Economist’s Democracy Index found that while the global decline in democracy has stagnated, conditions aren’t improving. Similarly, the Open Society Barometer – one of the largest studies of global public opinion on human rights and democracy undertaken to date found that people in many democracies think their country is headed in the wrong direction and in nearly every country surveyed, people have less trust in local and national politicians than in other actors to work in their best interests. A response to the crisis in democracy has been a rapid increase in the use of democratic innovations such as citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting to engage the public in policy development and decision making. However, while they have demonstrated their ability to engage people in new and better ways, the use of these new approaches often fail to sustain themselves over time because we haven’t understood how to mainstream and scale their use within public institutions.
COLDIGIT is a collaborative research project involving Nordic and UK partners in the cities of Helsinki, Gothenburg and Trondheim to explore this challenge. Its core objective is to foster accessible and inclusive citizen participation in public decision-making by promoting and implementing innovative digital participation tools and strategies. By integrating localised actions with international best practices from places ranging from Taiwan to Paris, COLDIGIT has sought to identify best practice, what the barriers to scaling democratic innovations are and how these can be addressed.
Below we explore some of the main lessons from our three local pilots in Helsinki, Trondheim and Gothenburg.
COLDIGIT has released three detailed reports chronicling case studies of democratic innovations, each set against distinct scales and contexts. Explore Helsinki's city-wide participatory budgeting (PB) journey, Gothenburg's initiative of public housing company PB within two stigmatised neighbourhoods, and Trondheim's citizens assembly designed to capture residents' perspectives on its new master plan. Instead of drawing direct comparisons, these studies lean on the Co-creation Radar framework, offering a nuanced understanding of the benefits and challenges inherent to these varied democratic approaches.
Delving into the PB process of OmaStadi in Helsinki provides invaluable insights into the intricacies of civic engagement in the digital age. Launched in November 2018, OmaStadi's journey, spanning its initial two rounds, offers a firsthand account of the successes and
challenges of PB initiatives. Through the lens of the Co-creation Radar evaluation framework, this exploration reveals how the program navigated challenges and harnessed opportunities, addressing issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic's impact to striking the balance between digital and in-person participation.
Balancing digital and physical spaces: Fine-tuning the mix of online and offline engagement strategies is essential for enhancing citizen participation.
As part of the Gothenburg urban development strategy, Digidem Lab was contracted to launch PB in the public housing company Bostadsbolaget, with 24,000 rental apartments in Gothenburg, Sweden. The PB pilot was initiated in 2019 in the neighbourhood of Biskopsgården and expanded in 2020 and 2021. In 2022 it was also implemented in the neighbourhood of Hammarkullen. In both areas around 6,000 tenants were invited to participate. These areas are stigmatised and have a majority of the population with a foreign background and a lower average income than the municipality as a whole. However the areas also have a higher degree of local involvement and significantly more active associational life. With the aim of increasing residents' participation in civic processes and enhancing face-to-face trust-building, the project combined digital methods with partnerships that the Union of Tenants and the University of Gothenburg developed in previous research.
Recommendations: Enhancing local stakeholder interactions, aligning PB with the goals of the public housing company, boosting digital outreach, and acknowledging the pandemic's influence are key to optimising future PB endeavours.
In 2021, the municipality of Trondheim, Norway, piloted a landmark citizens' assembly to garner insights for their overarching municipality master plan. Over a span of four months, 50 quasi-randomly chosen residents met periodically to dissect social challenges and ponder prospective solutions. SINTEF was invited as observer during these meetings and conducted follow-up interviews with some of the citizen participants and organisers. While the initiative was lauded for its organisation and municipal anchoring, the conspicuous absence of politicians during discussions was noted as a limitation. Although these meetings were organised during Covid-19 restricted periods, they mainly occurred as physical events. Notably, the inclusion of participants through use of online platforms (for hybrid meetings) faced significant challenges, as the use of digital tools to share information and facilitate remote attendance was not carefully planned. Although a digital Decidim-based platform named Borgerkraft (translating as citizens' power) was employed to disseminate basic information to the participants prior to the meetings, apprehensions, eg, about potential negative external feedback influencing the citizens assembly process, restrained more comprehensive public online sharing. Despite this hesitancy in digital tool deployment during the assembly, the municipality sees potential in leveraging such platforms for clearer data presentation in future endeavours.
Lessons from the three pilots and our wider research into global best practice illustrate the many opportunities in using citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting to change how public institutions engage citizens. However, they also illustrate the challenges in maintaining and scaling these practices. Over the next two months we will publish our recommendations for what policy makers and others interested in developing and investing in democratic innovations can do to create the right enabling conditions for these to succeed and scale.
Additional writing by Pekka Tuominen, Pierre Mesure, Jenny Sternberg, Jaan-Henrik Kain, Jacqueline Floch and Matthieu Branlat.