22 May 2023
Baccarne wants us to recognise a more multi-layered approach to citizen participation at the city level. New technologies can provide us with new insights into what participation may mean for different groups of people. Up to now, he believes that the development of citizen participation tools has focused on depth, rather than reach. Radical technological disruption like hacktivism or low-level participation patterns found in clicktivism, offer ways to change this.
The barriers to deeper levels of participation are typically high-time. Social and technical challenges mean that normally only an already-active group of participants become involved. The kinds of in-depth discussion required are also often best achieved offline. But new technologies have provided us with opportunities to re-think the way we view participation if we’re open to doing so, argues Baccarne.
New technologies provide opportunities to broaden participation, typically from a bottom-up, grassroots level, explains Baccarne. Although clicktivism or ‘couchivism’ as it is sometimes called, has typically been dismissed as too superficial to be of real value, it can help address issues of representativeness and inclusivity. These are issues with which many participatory processes struggle. “Every level of participation is inherently very, very valuable,” maintains Baccarne.
Clicktivism – a first step?
Although a click on its own is not a very strong data point, it does signal that a particular person is interested in a particular topic and might perhaps be engaged further in debate in the future. Clicktivism allows the so-called shadow publics – those who have traditionally not been reached by more in-depth participation – to engage, even if only at low levels. Clicktivism typically takes place within an existing repertoire of social media, such as Facebook or Instagram. This means that adoption barriers are very low.
Some, therefore, see clicktivism as a first step toward deeper levels of engagement. However, Baccarne warns against jumping to such a conclusion. He prefers to use the 90-9-1 % rule which is typically used to describe engagement levels on social media platforms. 90 % of users participate on the lowest levels (i.e. clicks or likes). About 9 % will typically engage with content by making comments or similar. Just 1 % will fully engage by actively creating content. Baccarne suggests that engagement levels for participatory democracy are similar.
Smart mobs and issue politics
Smart mobs were enabled by the development of the smartphone. They provide the means for large numbers of people to mobilise quickly, around a particular issue or cause. They also represent a hybrid form of participation. The initial mobilisation of participants happens online. But then culminates with groups of strangers coming together in real life to protest or campaign on a common issue. Participants then dissolve just as quickly.
Smart mobs and grassroots activism more generally, helped further the development of issue politics, for example, LGBTQ rights or climate action. They have provided a lot of new opportunities to engage in protest participation, particularly via social media. Indeed, Baccarne also argues that the Smart mob system works best as a form of protest. It is not particularly constructive.
Digital technologies in general tend to be “very individualistic”. Online environments tend to favour protest and criticism rather than a sense of communal responsibility that says, ‘we can fix this’ stresses Baccarne. This in turn can lead to polarisation rather than participation.
If we’re looking for a more constructive approach to technology that goes beyond what participation tools allow, Baccarne highlights the opportunities that the hacking of local government data affords. Hacking has traditionally been associated with negative, sometimes illegal online activities. However, hacktivism and hackathons capture the idea of technologically savvy citizens working with government data in new, unorthodox ways. The results: increased dialogues on how best to use data, a better understanding of what’s at stake and more engaged citizens.
The hackable city
This is the idea that technology should always be open, at least to some extent, for re-appropriation. Hackers can re-purpose technology to be used in ways for which it was not originally designed. “I think we should be promoting these practices because that’s what a vibrant city is about,” says Baccarne.
Hackathons are used to encourage the creation of new urban technologies using data from the city council. For example, a Living Lab framework was used in Ghent as a platform to facilitate the governance of bottom-up smart city innovation, by and with the citizens. Baccarne explains that as a researcher in such projects, he has been involved in internal discussions at the city council level. Hackathons using open data typically elicit questions like “How will they [the participants] use the data.” The answer: “We don’t know!” Hacktivism of this kind can be “very scary” for some public officials, admits Baccarne.
However, in reality, only a small portion of city data represents a real security risk. Even budgetary information should, ideally, be publicly available. Currently, there are those in the Ghent municipality who are very eager to make changes like these. Baccarne calls them the early movers, who work to encourage others to get on board. He admits that the apps developed as a result of these hackathons are often of poor quality. But what is interesting is the discussions they spark about the use of city data by the citizens, for the citizens.
Debate typically centres around questions like: ‘What should the digital infrastructure of our city be?’. And, ‘how can we collectively shape it to suit our citizens rather than simply importing a one-size-fits-all package from Microsoft or similar, that provides a perfect but essentially closed system?’
For Baccarne, the real challenge is finding a way to incorporate the technology-driven, bottom-up approaches to participation that lend themselves to issue politics and the top-down, institutional approaches that are associated with parties and representative politics. The first step is to acknowledge the importance of different levels and forms of participation by envisaging it as multi-layered.
Technology is generally good at highlighting issues of concern to citizens at the grassroots level. This includes clicktivism on existing social media platforms, smart mobs and even hacktivism. However, there are some things to which technology is not well suited – namely in-depth deliberation. “The core dynamic that you need in deliberation for democracy to work is empathy and that, I’m afraid, is something the online environment will always be bad at,” maintains Baccarne.
So technology may be useful to monitor and identify issues of public concern. But for more in-depth discussions, typically associated with longer-term policies and strategies, offline participation may hold the key. Baccarne envisages these processes happening in “a cyclical, complimentary way,” so that the two sides (on and off-line) and the two levels (top-down and bottom-up) can enrich one another.