The ecosystem of political innovation in Latin America

A mapping of practices aiming at improving different aspects of the young Latin American democracies can help to understand, interconnect and strengthen emerging political innovations across the region. Español Português

21 June 2016

Students occupy the administrative offices of the Rio de Janeiro Rural Federal University, UFRRJ in Seropedica, Brazil, 2013. AP Photo/Felipe Dana

The platform was launched in May this year. It is a tool to explore the ecosystem of political innovation in Latin America and learn about each of the more than 700 initiatives mapped by Update in 20 Latin American countries.

The reason for the mapping was the search for practices aiming at reducing the gap between society and government, with a focus on their strategies and the tools they use. The observation of the initiatives and actors that have been mapped highlights some of the particularities of this ecosystem, such as the regional circumstances that drive them, the characteristics of their formation and the trends they outline.

Let us start by considering three factors that stimulate the emergence of the practices and the growth of this ecosystem in Latin America.

Democracy’s maturation

Democracy in Latin America is young and therefore fragile. The region has gone through a recent democratization period - between 1983 and 1990 - which inherited its social and historical factors (colonialism), including a persistent social inequality that makes the possibility of full democracy unviable.

The democratization of the Internet

Contemporary to the maturation of democracy, the spreading of the network culture and the democratization of access to the Internet have been expanding the access to and the production of information, the collaboration in knowledge generation, the participation in and the commitment to causes, and the convening and connection of a more active citizenship. Internet access has doubled from 2008 to 2016. Today, 60% of the population in Latin America has access to it.

The crisis of democracy

Democracy has gone through several crises throughout the world. We emphasize three of them, which converge and drive the emergence of the political innovation ecosystem: the crisis of representation, the crisis of the institutions, and the crisis of references.

The best known and widely discussed is the crisis of representation, which manifests itself in the inability of politics to reflect the real interests of citizens and to represent the culture, the ideas and values of a complex and hyper-connected society. To this we should add the influence of economic power over political power, which weakens the legitimacy of politics and distorts the role of politicians.

The institutional crisis is apparent in the lack of sync between the speed with which society and citizens evolve and the capacity of institutions to respond to the new practices and values of modern society.

Finally, the crisis of references, possibly the least known of the three, which relates to the difficulty of finding solutions, in the conventional political repertoire, to the challenges and complexity of society and politics today.

The Update mapping highlights the solutions that emerge in the periphery, often in a marginal or an ad-hoc way, but with an enormous potential, with the aim of showing pathways to address the structural problems of democracy. Analyzing these initiatives, we note the existence of an ecosystem, although these practices are often simple and are not identified in this way. We believe that these are valuable experiences for improving democracy and expanding the repertoire of political practices.

The characteristics of the ecosystem

After having spent 10 months mapping the actors and actions in it, we realize that this is a very complex ecosystem and thus hard to observe and study. The following characteristics show its complexity:

  • - This is a theme-rich ecosystem, where actors operate on issues as diverse as citizen participation, transparency, independent media, or social control.

- The actors adopt different tactics and strategies that are determined by the local or the global context they are facing or in which they are inserted.

- These actors use different languages to refer to the same concepts: they speak different dialects of the same language.

- Actions are not homogeneous, there is no common pattern: each one acts in its own way, often similarly, but without a common identity.

- This is also a volatile ecosystem: partly because some actions are specific and ephemeral by nature, partly because it is easy to start a political action, but very difficult to keep it up in the long term. During the ten months in which the mapping was carried out, about 15% of the initiatives ceased to exist.

Due to these characteristics, it is difficult to identify the ecosystem, to see the need to shed light on it and draw its boundaries in order to understand it. To this end, we have developed classifications and proposed a taxonomy, available on the platform, to allow anyone to visualize the initiatives, in an interactive and dynamic way, through their objectives (citizen empowerment, institutional incidence) and the mechanisms they use (education, data visualization, promotion, monitoring, mobilization), among other features.

The data base is freely available at the following link:

Examining the content, organizing the Update classification and conducting an analysis of the accumulated knowledge on the basis of the itinerary and the relations between the actors within the ecosystem, Update has identified four major trends driving political innovation in Latin America:

  • - Citizens’ centre-stage role, characterized by greater empowerment and citizen engagement in collective action, new forms of organization, and collaboration.

- Aesthetic identity. The spread of technology and the sharing of information make new forms of expression possible which allow learning through empathy, the creation of new languages for the issues through remixology, and the proposal of alternatives for politicization.

- Focus on citizens. This takes to the public sphere the aim of developing policies that address the real needs of citizens, on the basis that the best reference for setting up a service, building a process or developing a product is the experience of the users.

- Transparency 360. After the progress achieved in institutional transparency practices over the last 20 years, such as laws on access to information and open data, new formats exist today which give greater scope to the concept by revealing the activities of current public figures, checking the information accuracy and joining forces with investigative journalism.

In practice, each of these trends takes the shape of three micro-trends which will be described and presented, through specific cases, in several articles to be published shortly in democraciaAbierta, within the framework of our joint series "Democracy and experimentation Policy for the XXI Century" in Latin America.

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