Citizenship and democratic production

Citizen producers take advantage of networked knowledge and benefit from new available production spaces. New skills and know-how are required, however, for the inclusion of all social sectors. Español Português

Valeria Righi Mara Balestrini
18 April 2017
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Citizens of Barcelona assemble a Smart Citizen Kit to access open data. Photo: Gui Seiz, All Rights Reserved.

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.

In the last decades we have seen how the concept of innovation has changed, as not only the ecosystem of innovation-producing agents, but also the ways in which innovation is produced have expanded. The concept of producer-innovation, for example, where companies innovate on the basis of self-generated ideas, has been superseded by the concept of user-innovation, where innovation originates from the observation of the consumers’ needs, and then by the concept of consumer-innovation, where consumers enhanced by the new technologies are themselves able to create their own products. Innovation-related business models have changed too. We now talk about not only patent-protected innovation, but also open innovation and even free innovation, where open knowledge sharing plays a key role.

A similar evolution has taken place in the field of the smart city. While the first smart city models prioritized technology left in the hands of experts as a key factor for solving urban problems, more recent initiatives such as Sharing City (Seoul), Co-city (Bologna), or Fab City (Barcelona) focus on citizen participation, open data economics and collaborative-distributed processes as catalysts for innovative solutions to urban challenges. These initiatives could prompt a new wave in the design of more inclusive and sustainable cities by challenging existing power structures, amplifying the range of solutions to urban problems and, possibly, creating value on a larger scale.

In a context of economic austerity and massive urbanization, public administrations are acknowledging the need to seek innovative alternatives to increasing urban demands. Meanwhile, citizens, harnessing the potential of technologies - many of them accessible through open licenses – are putting their creative capacity into practice and contributing to a wave of innovation that could reinvent even the most established sectors.

Contributive production

The virtuous combination of citizen participation and abilities, digital technologies, and open and collaborative strategies is catalyzing innovation in all areas. Citizen innovation encompasses everything, from work and housing to food and health. The scope of work, for example, is potentially affected by the new processes of manufacturing and production on an individual scale: citizens can now produce small and large objects (new capacity), thanks to easy access to new technologies such as 3D printers (new element); they can also take advantage of new intellectual property licenses by adapting innovations from others and freely sharing their own (new rule) in response to a wide range of needs.

Along these lines, between 2015 and 2016, the city of Bristol launched a citizen innovation program aimed at solving problems related to the state of rented homes, which produced solutions through citizen participation and the use of sensors and open data. Citizens designed and produced themselves temperature and humidity sensors - using open hardware (Raspberry Pi), 3D printers and laser cutters - to combat problems related to home damp. These sensors, placed in the homes, allowed to map the scale of the problem, to differentiate between condensation and humidity, and thus to understand if the problem was due to structural failures of the buildings or to bad habits of the tenants. Through the inclusion of affected citizens, the community felt empowered to contribute ideas towards solutions to its problems, together with the landlords and the City Council.

A similar process is currently being undertaken in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Pristina under the umbrella of the Making Sense Project. In this case, citizens affected by environmental issues are producing their own sensors and urban devices to collect open data about the city and organizing collective action and awareness interventions.

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The FrogBox, a temperature and humidity sensor created by citizens of Bristol. Photo: KWMC, all rights reserved.

Citizen work


In the last decade we have witnessed the emergence of new forms of micro-production through the expansion of the so-called citizen production laboratories – i.e., workshops for individual digital production -, equipped with a series of computer-controlled tools and materials which can produce "almost anything". Fab Labs, maker and hacker spaces have emerged in most cities, and have established themselves as co-creation spaces for digital social innovation, for learning 21st century skills, and for citizen entrepreneurship.

A number of innovations have emerged from these laboratories, such as the free code 3D Ultimaker printer, or a startup that creates toys and electronic devices from waste in Togo. In many cases, these innovations are co-financed by citizens through micro-sponsoring platforms like Kickstarter (for instance, the Smart Citizen environmental sensor), or are being commercialized through p2p platforms such as Etsy. In this way, citizens contribute to their city’s productive fabric, while learning new skills and creating job opportunities for themselves and others.

In addition, these design and production spaces enable the acquisition of digital production knowhow, creativity and collaboration, all of which have been highlighted as necessary skills for work performance in the future.

Citizen health

Digital social innovation is disrupting the field of health too. There are different manifestations of these processes. First, platforms such as DataDonors or PatientsLikeMe show that there is an increasing citizen participation in biomedical research through the donation of their own health data.

Second, creations such as the open-source artificial pancreas, resulting from the collaboration between scientists and amateurs, or projects such as the Open Hand project, which uses 3D printers to create prosthetic arms for low-income people, show that the combination of new technologies, the free code and citizen skills can improve the citizens’ quality of life at a cost and scale previously unimaginable.

Finally, projects such as OpenCare in Milan and mobile applications like Good Sam show how citizens can organize themselves to provide medical services that otherwise would be very costly or at a scale and granularity that the public sector could hardly afford.

Citizen diet

Eating/feeding is one of the most important and widespread human activities. However, industrial food production has a proven negative impact on the environment and, from time to time, on public health. A growing number of digital social innovation initiatives in this field are promoting the emergence of a food system that can improve people's lives and contribute to environmental sustainability, as well as to the creation of new production ecosystems in the cities.

Several existing manifestations of these processes allow us to view how networked citizen innovation can have an impact on the way in which we produce and consume food. On the one hand, initiatives such as the 900-strong Europe-wide Food Assembly, a local consumer platform that uses digital technologies to connect consumers and local producers, show that there is a willingness on the part of citizens to promote local production and consumption, and that this can be done at a very low cost, connecting already existing elements within the ecosystem.

On the other hand, projects such as Aquapioneers or Spirulina Lab show how customized digital production and open source tools allow citizens to produce their own food so as to achieve food self-sufficiency and reduce the negative impacts on the environment. Finally, urban garden initiatives and projects such as Connected Seeds or the Grow observatory show how neighbourhood communities are organizing to re-appropriate existing spaces, using sensors to monitor environmental factors and digital platforms to share knowledge in order to produce food collaboratively at local level but on a larger scale.


The production processes of these products and services force us to think about their political implications and the role of public institutions, as they question the cities’ existing participation and contribution rules. In times of sociopolitical turbulence and austerity plans such as these, there is a need to design and test new approaches to civic participation, production and management which can strengthen democracy, add value and take into account the aspirations, emotional intelligence and agency of both individuals and communities.

In order for the new wave of citizen production to generate social capital, inclusive innovation and well-being, it is necessary to ensure that all citizens, particularly those from less-represented communities, are empowered to contribute and participate in the design of cities-for-all. It is therefore essential to develop programs to increase citizen access to the new technologies and the acquisition of the knowhow and skills needed to use and transform them.

It is also necessary to establish the collaboration principles between the city and its citizens, so that the right of citizens to contribute to the co-design of the physical and digital environment of the city is not only acknowledged, but also appropriately valued (through incentives and rewards), and their contribution motivated and not exploited for other purposes. To this end, it is essential to establish an ethical code and a set of engagement rules as the backbone of open citizen innovation and of a new contributory model for cities.

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