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21st century citizenship: Education + Participation + Technology

We are witnessing the alleged return of citizens to the center of power - or, to say the least, to the center of the narrative. Español Português

Pixabay. Public domain.

For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive - is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

It is difficult nowadays to come across a discourse which does not take into account the role of the people and the participation of society as necessary values for an open governance model. After decades during which the concentration of power into the hands of political elites has become more evident (and crude), the weariness, the frustration and the gaps between the ruling classes and the rest of the population have become almost insurmountable. The challenge is tremendous and, while striving to close the gaps, what we need is to create links between the old power schemes and the new spaces which have been developed and are now consolidated.

For this, it is necessary to identify which issues have had an impact on the way in which the notion of citizenship has been built, transformed and exercised. Namely:

  1. The history of citizenship as a concept and its role as a social component, and as a legal right.
  2. The narrative of how educational models have changed according to different needs and their effect on other areas of social interaction.
  3. The sophistication of the notion of citizen participation and how it translates into practice.
  4. The consolidation of technology as an enabler to allow civic exercise from different viewpoints.

Our aim here is to string together these points and thus generate a notion of digital, participatory and full citizenship for our times.

To make a long story short

The Roman Empire had already adjusted the way in which citizenship was exercised and conceived within a community. Imperial expansion made it necessary to generate specific rules for arranging relationships between cities. Roman citizens, who were obliged to participate in the exercise of government on a rotating basis, became members of a community sharing the same laws.

The fall of the Empire ushered in a long period of institutional darkness until the creation of nation-states strengthened the notion that citizenship was an acquired right which included both duties and responsibilities – a right acquired through the mere fact of being born in a particular territory. All was well and good (so to speak) till the English colonies in America began toying with the idea that what should prevail was popular sovereignty and that paying taxes and having no representation was an unsustainable proposition. This gave rise to the War of Independence of the United States, which in turn led to a series of revolutions under the banner of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which establishes a key link: birth grants citizenship and citizenship comes along with a set of rights which are natural, inalienable and sacred.

Today, the battle for this notion of citizenship is still waged in the context of border crossings and the recognition of rights, but huge progress has been made. As defined by the European Union, citizenship is “the right and willingness to participate in a community through self-regulated, inclusive, peaceful and responsible action, with the aim of optimizing public welfare”.

Reality proceeds by quick leaps and we must understand the concept of citizenship as a dynamic idea.

Reality proceeds by quick leaps, however, and we must understand the concept of citizenship as a dynamic idea. As societies have become more complex, giving rise to new meanings of the term, institutions have also been changing and transforming the ways in which we relate to each other - and, thus, the way in which we are citizens. One of them is education. In what way has the social function of education changed and what influence does it have on our lives as citizens? In what ways have educational models changed with the arrival of new tools and the emergence of new needs?

Education and technology

Technology has changed education. Today, what used to be the necessity and the aim of the universal education systems no longer applies. Ken Robinson describes this very clearly in this TED Talk. On the other hand, Cristóbal Cobo, a key promoter of studies on technology and education, in his book Invisible learning, notes that: "The advent of the industrial economy produced an increase in both salaries and the number of companies hiring salaried labour. Children were given precarious jobs, often even dangerous ones, until society began to worry about their well-being and so, stopped the practice. Thus came the industrialization of education. Children were displaced from primary production and became part of an institutional mechanism in which they learned from adults - not the other way around – and, after a while, became 'trained' young adults, ready for be employed by the industrial economy. "

After many decades in which this educational system met the needs of the industry, some small ruptures began to happen, as fewer technical workers and more people involved in the knowledge economy were needed. And this was when we took the great leap. Cobo again: "The emergence of the knowledge society came with the materialization that took place in the twentieth century. Information needed to be interpreted and thus required the presence of knowledge workers... Humans, understood as social animals, participate in social interactions and share their personal knowledge in increasingly complex systems. In the second half of the 20th century, this ecosystem of individually constructed senses and values led to the creation of what is now known as knowledge management. "

Things become even more interesting when the need to manage knowledge transforms the schemes through which knowledge itself flows and is distributed. Cobo: "Ongoing globalization allows knowledge to be distributed horizontally in areas that had hitherto remained incommunicado, creating heterarchical relationships and offering the possibility of applying knowledge in innovative contexts. In the field of learning, this means that we are all becoming co-learners and co-educators as a result of the collective construction and application of new knowledge. "

Technological change has changed educational models and the whole set of structures and relationships - especially hierarchy. Education ceases to be the place where one learns and another one teaches: more open, participatory, flexible learning mechanisms are established in constant feedback, giving the student greater responsibility in the content he or she learns and in the ways in which he or she does so.

When educational structures adjust to this and open up the ways to distribute and interact with information, this transformation transcends and affects other areas - governance, for one. If schools start transforming the way in which we relate to knowledge, it is no coincidence that the forms of governance change. Today, while rigid, traditional educational institutions are overwhelmed and find themselves increasingly obsolete in the face of easy access to digital information, the very same thing happens in the field of governance. Moving from discourses on the value of participation to open decision-making models requires the establishment of concrete (and binding) participatory models.

Citizen participation

Granted the value of participatory schemes and their intrinsic relationship with the exercise of citizenship, the challenge now is moving from the discourse to specific mechanisms: how is it to be implemented? How are we to evaluate it? What is its impact? How does it change the traditional way of doing things?

Here are some guidelines developed by the Citizen Participation Council in Chile:

Reach and levels of citizen participation

The levels of citizen participation refer to the different degrees and ways in which people and groups are involved, or can be involved in the management of public affairs. Another way of defining them is to say that they refer to “the different degrees to which the decisions of civil society, as part of a participation process, are binding".

Information and consultation: It is considered by some that these levels cannot be considered real participation processes and so they call them “symbolic participation”; others, despite their limitations, recognize them as sufficiently participatory.

Consultative-propositional participation: Its aim is to gather opinions and positions on a given issue through questions, suggestions and ideas established through a bidirectional relationship between the questioner and the answerer. Civil society can also put forward proposals to different spheres of government, which may or may not be obliged  to respond.

Decision- appeal: At the information and consultation level, Arnstein distinguishes collaboration and power delegation. The latter defined as the case when power is redistributed as a result of a negotiation between citizens and authorities, and the rules which are agreed upon cannot be unilaterally changed.

Co-participatory: The aim at this level is to engage citizens in the implementation and/or management of public programs and services through a negotiation process. Two co-participation modes can be distinguished: co-administration and strategic alliance.

Participatory impact and empowerment: In general terms, participation levels should be assessed in terms of their ability to generate a participatory impact in the application of public policies, while empowering civil society in its role as co-builder of public activity.

We need to recognize different mechanisms, with several levels of complexity and impact, and to identify the range of actors and activities that can be adopted and adapted.

Participating is —in theory— quite easy. Achieving transformative participation is harder.

Participating is - in theory – quite easy. Achieving transformative participation is harder. And while in most places participation schemes are only apparent, more and more citizens use any means at their disposal to generate a strong, constant, critical mass which can influence the way in which a country’s decisions are taken.

The challenges facing citizenship have become increasingly complex and technology has been key to refresh its participatory potential. It is called Civic Technology.

Civic technology

For some, Civic Technology can be defined as the bridge between the state's mission and the potential of technology. It enables involvement, or participation, with the aim of achieving more robust development, more efficient communication, and better use of public infrastructures. A study by the Knight Foundation describes the actors working in the field of civic technology and groups them thematically.

Just an example: DemocracyOS (discussion of laws); Nossas (organization processes); Vota Inteligente (electoral processes); Donde Van Mis Impuestos (tracking of public resources); A tu Servicio (public service evaluation); Chequeado and Del Dicho al Hecho (evaluation of promises); Codeando Mexico and Socialab (social needs and alternatives).

In short, in order to understand and defend our citizenship, it is important to realize where we come from in terms of social organization and recognition of rights - among them, the right to participate. We must then review the way in which we have learned, and the way in which we have learned to learn – so that we can see how we have changed the way in which we interact with our environment, our authorities and the knowledge at hand. Finally, we must identify what tools are available to help us make decisions in accordance with the public good: those which have been useful for thousands of years and those which are expressed today digitally and are renewed every second - tools which allow us to look and be looked at, and to open new communication and decision channels.

About the author

Pablo Collada es director ejecutivo de la Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente en Santiago de Chile, es un sociólogo mexicano que lleva más de 15 años trabajando en el ámbito del desarrollo social en temas como educación, juventud, género y participación ciudadana en América Latina y, más recientemente, en la intersección entre lo digital y lo presencial.

Pablo Collada is executive manager of the Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente in Santiago de Chile, is a Mexican sociologist who has been working for more than 15 years on social development in the fields of education, youth, gender and citizen participation and, more recently, on the intersection between face-to-face and digital experience


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