I was at a conference on digital social innovation recently and one line from it has stuck in my head.
Francesca Bria from the European-funded D-CENT (Decentralised Citizen Engagment Technologies) programme said: “Cities are the best scale at which to try digital innovation.”
It makes sense. Cities are coherent entities but mostly don’t have the huge scale of a nation state (hello there, London). They usually have clear leadership (though in the UK the nature of that leadership is being contested). Finally, as anyone in local government knows, cities usually have a healthy sense of rivalry with each other.
From a citizen perspective, cities have enough people and variety to make digital innovation truly useful. Digital innovation in a village is great for connecting it to the outside world, but why would you want to go online to talk about local issues when you could have the same conversation with better beer at the Fox and Geese?
Within a city, you have multiple communities, but on a manageable scale – a digital connection between Sutton Coldfield and Balsall Heath has the potential to start conversations that would not happen offline.
How do we make it happen? The big shift I saw at the conference was towards joining up rather than reinventing. Three lessons came out of it for me:
- Don’t build new specialist tools, use what’s there. Paris’s participatory budgeting process was praised for its design and process but criticised for using custom-built tools rather than those already available. Compare that with the work of the Scottish Government, which is working with 18 local authorities to find the right existing digital participatory budget tools rather than investing in new ones.
- Move fast and connect things. Programmes such as D-CENT are trying to create single open-source platforms for democracy by stitching tools together rather than creating new standalone ones.
- Cross the streams. Digital and offline are being seen as different streams of one conversation rather than different worlds. I’ve talked before about how our NHS Citizen project is trying to do this. That’s a natural strength for cities because existing networks for offline meetings (voluntary sector forums etc) can be identified more easily than across a whole country.
It should encourage authorities that are experimenting with digital participation to collaborate around open solutions rather than compete: if Bristol and Birmingham are both improving the same tools and networking approaches, that makes them better for everyone.
Finally, it should support the conversation around democracy in combined authorities, providing some tools that can create a flourishing participatory and democratic network below the high politics of new elected mayors.
Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, Democratic Society