Democratic cities: new technologies for participation

Democracy by lottery, participatory budgets, internet voting, census and privacy, deliberation and consensus are some of the topics discussed in Madrid at Ciudades Democráticas (May 23-28). Español

Yago Bermejo Abati
21 July 2017
Media Lab Prado_0.jpg

Democratic Cities Conference. Network of democratic commons. Media Lab Madrid. Elvira Megías, MediaLab Prado, D-Cent / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The term "democracy"[1] was created to differentiate certain systems of government that prevailed in some cities of ancient Greece, which, by the size of their population, would be considered villages[2] in modern times. They were communities of no more than a few thousand citizens endowed with rights, in which debate, reflection and decision-making could be conceived and practiced directly – that is, in person. People in office were chosen by lottery on a rotating basis.

Times have changed, we have now mass societies and the original Greek polis model is a thing of the past. The republics that began to consolidate in the 19th century, such as the American or the French ones, appropriated the meaning of the word "democracy". Its system, although inspired by classical culture, adapted the "people's assembly" into an assembly of representatives elected by suffrage. The change in scale justified the switch from direct to delegative participation and from having the position determined by lot and rotation to the position chosen by suffrage. The political parties and mass media that settled during the twentieth century culminated the drift of the democratic system towards government models different in essence from the original democracy. This way, they succeeded in passing down to us the notion that "democracy" has to do with elections, with choosing between a limited number of options representing different modern aristocracies[3] , and this notion endures to this day. Our system of government is based on electing every four years or so representatives who are organized in oligarchies[4] called political parties, which are influenced to a great extent by the media and economic power. We have been told that aspiring to achieve real democracy, where power be controlled by ordinary citizens, is apparently utopian, an approach that is simply impossible to apply in our big modern states, with millions of citizens and populations living thousands of kilometers[5] apart.

It is as if, without studying classical history, the social consciousness in the squares had discovered by itself the fraud beneath the word "democracy".

It is no accident that during the systemic crisis we have been experiencing in Spain, expressed through the 15M movement - a crisis that has been replicated in many other countries, from Taiwan to Iceland -, the slogans chanted were "Real Democracy Now" and "They call it democracy, but it’s not”. It is as if, without studying classical history, the social consciousness in the squares had discovered by itself the fraud beneath the word "democracy". The ancient Greeks would tell us, of course, that when they invented this word they were not thinking at all about elections and an inbred political class. They were thinking about government by the people, about the citizens’ direct intervention in decision-making.

Fortunately, crises offer opportunities. The 21st century is fraught with radical changes in the way people communicate and relate to each other. The information revolution that the Internet and mobile connectivity have brought offers a whole new field of possibilities for realizing the old ideal of "democracy", and we have only just begun to explore them. The new participation technologies allow us to connect the local, territorial and face-to-face scale, with the city and state dimension - and beyond. They allow us to envision an emerging networked collective intelligence that can help us regain control of 21st century societies, through a distributed form of government in which citizens can actually make decisions.

In this historical context, the city of Madrid is currently experimenting with the aim of sharing and learning along the way. 

In this historical context, the city of Madrid is currently experimenting with the aim of sharing and learning along the way. It does it generating strategies based on free formats. Non-proprietary technologies that seek to replicate practices capable of producing deep social changes. Citizen labs betting on open formats for cultural and prototyped production. Spaces that are being assigned for neighbourhood meetings and self-management. Network tools for channeling proposals from the bottom up as a form of direct democracy. Secure internet voting as a way of recovering the "assembly" of all citizens. Deliberative and inclusive spaces, such as G1000, with citizens elected by lot, and the Local Forums, where participation is free. Tactical and participatory urban transformations. In short, a rainbow range of methods, forms and innovations which have turned Madrid into a city willing to show its progress, but at the same time eager to learn the paths opened by other cities. Democratic Cities, a festival to celebrate and explore the new participation technologies, was born precisely to make this exchange possible.

Ciudades Democráticas will be a collaborative event for the production of thought and technology in the Medialab Prado workshops. It reached its peak with CONSULCon, a meeting bringing together the entire CONSUL community, the Decide Madrid free software and ten other platforms which allow hundreds of thousands of users worldwide to participate. Management technicians, innovative civic representatives from municipalities and regions which are already using CONSUL, or want to start doing so, share their challenges and experiences. To wrap up, the international conference brought together experts, intellectuals and activists from different parts of the world who presented several borderline experiences in the new open field of participation technologies. Democracy by lottery, participatory budgets, internet voting, identity, census and privacy, collaborative legislation, deliberation and consensus, were just some of the topics discussed.

You can check on all the information from Democratic Cities here



[1] The literal translation of the Greek is "government of the people".

[2] At the height of their civilization, the Athenian population entitled to participate in the democratic system of government reached 30,000, excluding women and slaves.

[3] Rule of the best. In today's world, it is translated into the best-prepared for the media rush that is an election by suffrage. In the Middle Ages, it meant the best prepared to win battles.

[4] Rule by the few. Party structures are controlled by a relatively small number of people who hold office in institutions.

[5] For a more detailed historical argument see "Against the Elections" by David Van Reybrouck.

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