To inhabit democratic cities

Anyone who remains outside of democratic cities, who doesn't accept the open rationale oriented towards the common good, will have one name: the enemy of democracy. Español

Bernardo Gutiérrez González
19 August 2016

Madrid´s Mayor, Manuela Carmena, makes a speech on Sunday, May 24, 2015. AP Photo/Paul White. All rights reserved.

The smart city model has become extremely influential throughout the world in the last decade. But this model, based on centralised management and the commercialisation of citizen's information, is now falling apart. It doesn't stop there. All of the practices, narratives and methods that relate to 'data' and 'city' are beginning to point in the opposite direction.  The research-action symposium data for the common good, held in the Medialab Prado in Madrid, is reinventing the management of such data from a non-centralised perspective.

Following Edward Snowden's revelations, cryptography has become the latest trend in this new era, which is simultaneously reclaiming transparency for the public and privacy for individuals. What's more, for the first time ever, the ecosystem of the commons – collectively owned resources which are accessible to all members of a society – is beginning to relate directly to democracy. So what would democracy of the commons be like? How could commons technology improve participation in the city?

Democratic Cities: commons technology and the right to a democratic city, organised by D-CENT and the City Council at the MediaLab Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum (MNCARS), was an opportunity to reflect on how to make the democratic system more in-sync with collective aspirations. The Democratic Cities event is worth studying for many reasons, from the guests to the content of the programmes featured. It brought together three aspects of 'the commons' ecosystem which do not usually blend together easily: the digital commons, which is waging a war on mass surveillance; the urban commons, which opens up the city to its citizens; and the commons based on democratic participation. It seems that the symbolic framework of democratic cities is being transformed into a common space, within which different ways of life and political visions of the commons coexist.  

The commons and participation

Following the event in Madrid, the new Democratic Commons Network was formed, made up of activists, academics, social movements and institutional technicians. The network will help share experiences, coordinate efforts, and support the implementation of new democratic innovations in democratic cities. The DemoCommons network which was launched on July 5, aims to build "a completely democratic society in all aspects, driven by possibilities for collaboration and work (digital and on-site)". Although it has yet to be fully defined, the method proposed by the DemoCommons marks a new direction: "creating, opening up and sharing organisational, technological, methodological, and practical models, legal and narrative material, and, in general, accessible communal resources that bring us towards new forms of democracies based on the collaborative participation of everyone."

The Democratic Cities event, common ground of DemoComunes, was an authentic inventory of practices, methods, technology and innovative thought aimed at reforming and redeveloping democracy. Working to decentralise it. An inventory of the commons which, by empowering citizens, regulates democracy. By supporting collective intelligence, it opens it up. Democratic cities, understood as communal and accessible, is becoming a symbolic brand which is displacing, perhaps permanently, the 'smart city' and the obsolete politics of its multinational patents. Moreover, the democratic commons reveals that it is possible to have political thought woven around the commons and its corresponding activities and practices, generating a salient feedback between institutions and civil society. The democratic commons is a world vision which combines thought and practices: it is a political vision that goes beyond theoretical frameworks and draws on engaged digital tools.

How do we measure and relate the diverse accounts, forms and imaginaries of the democratic commons? Where do the institutional and introductory practices related with direct or deliberative democracies, such as, come from? The development of the Spanish 15M or the Icelandic financial crisis protests in 2008, mark the importance of taking squares, which began with the eruption of the Arab Spring.

Democracy based on a topology of distributed networks, endorsed by the movement-party Wikipolitica in Mexico, Iceland's participatory platforms and the direct democracy practiced in some "councils of change" (in Madrid, Barcelona, Oviedo or Coruña for example), is just one practise to have resulted from the occupied squares in 2011. It is not the only achievement, nor is there a direct correspondence between the two elements, but the mantra which has arisen from these occupied squares demanding political distribution is beginning to become a reality.

The influence of collective protests like these, strengthened through the presence of accessible free software in the taken squares – such as the protestors who camped in the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid  –  has been especially relevant for the development of, an open government portal in Madrid. It is not a coincidence that the #DemocracyLab session in the Democratic Cities event in Madrid used both hackathons and datathons of collective work to improve the digital tools for direct democracy. For example, consider the Consul app for the open government portal in Madrid on which the is based. These are not so different to the collective work carried out in the occupied squares.

Urban Betas: the relational city

The urban commons is also a vision for the world which fuses together citizen practices and political thought. The effervescence of citizen interaction with public spaces – with Madrid and other Spanish cities being global epicentres – can be understood by the term "relational goods", coined for the first time by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in 1986. These relational goods could be defined as the "relational constituents of the good life"; intrinsically valuable human experiences. The conversation with a waiter that makes us return to the bar. A shared communal bookshelf in a cafe. Passing a neighbour taking his kids to school. The welcoming chime of voices in the square.

"Relational goods" are formed by intangible things such as trust, reciprocity or friendship. They are co-consumed and co-produced simultaneously by the interaction of individuals. In this world of important public relationships, competition gives way to collaboration. Sharing is the DNA of this new ecosystem of goods, relationships and interdependent reciprocities.

There is a strong correspondence between public relationships and space: shared spaces, relational spaces, online spaces. This notion fits in with the concept of the relational city as explained by María Naredo. The relational cities model is forged with intersubjective ties and woven with layers of affection: "the 'relational' model proposes greater security in cities, thanks to improved public associations, relationships and dialogue. In this model, security is grounded in the recreation of strong social ties. Not avoiding the streets, but doing the opposite: repopulating cities by strengthening relationships, with both our neighbours and strangers. Thus, we can trust that should something occur in public, someone will lend us a helping hand, whether it's the neighbour from five doors away or the shopkeeper below." And if that weren't enough, the relational city is also to be found in the mini-'manifesto' written by Enric Ruiz-Geli, which looks for bridges, multi-directional relations and connections between the inhabitants.

Just a few years ago, facing the brutal neoliberal attack on urban spaces, public space was considered an unbreakable ideology. Today, public space aspires to be communal space. A space belonging to everyone -– not to anyone in particular – it is an atmosphere and norm where everyone can breathe. Communal space – the very fabric of relational goods – is ceasing to intuit urban prototypes, incomplete and collective, like those that the Emerging Cities in Chile, or the Campo de Cebeda in Madrid. Communal spaces live on in the last assemblies of humans on the planet (the occupied squares, protests in the streets) or in processes like the Ciudad Escuela in Madrid, which incentivise urban mobilisation built with free licences, citizen participation and open code processes.

Consequently, also featured in the Democratic Cities meeting, was the Urban Betas session which brought together the projects, stories, experiences and digital tools of diverse collective projects and institutions including the Todo Por La Praxis, the Red de Espacios Ciudadanos (REC), Territoris Oblidats o the Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas. The city, as a collective political subject and a manifestation of relationships, is beginning to communicate with the digital commons. It is enriching the world vision of the democratic communes, overflowing digital platforms with processes, stories and practices.

The open, collaborative city has a double heart: digital and analogical. It can be a synergy of hackers and town planners, of kids and pensioners who build the city together. The open, communal city is a polyphony of local, community-run cinemas (such as the User cinema in Madrid), and of self-managed power stations in the suburbs (such as Orcasitas, also in Madrid), networks of allotments, urban amenities which are built by the neighbours, the true architects of the 21st century. As the researcher Ted Nelson would say, our bodies are the hardware, our processes the software. So, territory (the urban commons) is completing and creating a new meaning for the participatory digital aspect of the democratic commons.  

Human rights by design

The third feature highlighted in Democratic Cities meet in Madrid was that of the digital commons. More specifically, this refers to the new battlefront that has been launched to counter mass spying, which is often used by huge multinational businesses and governments. There was a world that existed before Edward Snowden's revelations. There is also a 'Snowden era', in which we are currently totally immersed, marked by the right to filtering and transparency. Cryptography, the variable which guarantees the right to digital privacy, is another of the common elements of Democratic cities. We will never have equality if large, elite companies practice mass spying on citizens. The Brazilian sociologist Sérgio Anadeu states that the world needs a "human right by design" technology which guarantees human rights. Following Edward Snowden's revelations, which showed that some of the most important technological multinationals are accomplices to mass spying conducted by the USA's National Security Agency, privacy has become of the fundamental human rights of our times. A human right for which, until now, there was no international protection. Next to privacy, we find another key concept; transparency. Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, a Jimi Hendrix of our era, sums up the relationship between privacy and transparency very simply: "more privacy for the weak, more transparency for the powerful". What is the connection between these three features of the commons (democratic, urban, digital)? How exactly can these commons, with their world visions, practice and political thought, exist within the symbolic framework of democratic cities?

Aggregator frameworks, communal practice

The development of the Smart City concept offers a didactic example. After marketing itself as a paradigm city in which technology aims to solve communal problems, the smart city has become a common symbolic framework for everyone who wants to improve cities through the implementation of innovative technology. As criticism of both this model and the conduct of the large multinationals based on smart cities heightened, many social collectives, researchers and town planners began to talk about "smart citizens". To talk about smart citizens is essentially to accept the smart city: to critique and discuss what is intelligent and what isn't, but not to forget this framework completely. The equipment used by technological multinationals has no problem in accepting the narrative debate in the symbolic frameworks built specifically for it. After initial criticism of the smart city, the market launched a new narrative: "smart citizens", thus reappropriating the constructive criticism and transforming it into its own.

The market, cognitive capitalism and governments are essentially bleeding hacker ethics dry, in addition to the collaborative or culture lab, without truly understanding them. Opportunism seems to rub salt into the wound in the case of large companies like Microsoft or Oracle, hard copyright enforcers that play with open figures, dressed up as sponsors of the hacker or smart citizens. The same thing happens in government: cities governed by vertical parties and politicians, driven by Capitalism, creating spaces with hacker narratives. The local council in Rio de Janeiro-- who jumped on the bandwagon of real estate speculation, evictions, the creative city of cognitive capitalism and the technological control of the Smart City-- created the The narrative lab of citizen laboratories and their subnarratives (citizen innovation for example) are also fashionable. And they are started by the people/ institutions that do not know how to work online nor know hacker ethics.

To counteract the machines of fake symbolic frameworks and the mafia of stolen narratives, other brands such as the rebellious city are attempting to get a look in. But will such combative and anti-establishment frameworks such as rebellious cities actually be able to enter the system, the market, the mass media and the citizenry? Will it serve to create essentially antagonistic frameworks? 

Living in democratic cities

The Democratic Cities event was more than just a coming together of presentations, seminars and meetings, it left a very important legacy: a neutral symbolic framework which continues to develop, made up of communal practices. Because imaginary holes, empty narratives, and marketing which misappropriates the voice of the citizens, do not serve anyone. Democratic cities without the commons could become an empty framework that the market will not take long in filling. Consequently, citizen participation, to ensure it doesn't wind up as nothing, must function in accordance with decentralised internet, an online commons, from below. Moreover, this is why the international democratic cities conference picked out a new common sense of democracy: pro transparency filtering, cryptography, peer-to-peer technology, mechanisms for direct democracy, more dialogue, institutional hearing and civic hacking. The framework for Democratic Cities, working in accordance with the democracy of the commons, is another thing. It means cryptography and the right to filtering, privacy and participation, open networks and collective intelligence, the right to a city and the democracy of the common good. Democratic cities might dream with the ideologies of rebellious cities, but will configure in an aggregate space in which the whole world, and not just those with ideological affinity, can participate.

Yes, the system wants to dispute the framework of democratic cities; what enters, what is debated, what is proposed. But it will find it difficult if the operative system and the logic of democratic cities follows the path set by the democratic commons, urban commons, and new conflicts surrounding digital commons which all featured in the democratic cities conference in Madrid. It will be difficult to dispute such an incompatible symbolic framework while citizenship participation is encouraged by people such as Raquel Rolik, ex court reporter from the UN who participated in the meeting in Madrid. "The real storm destroying the world today is financial capital," Raquel stated in his conference. So, we will continue to pave the way for democratic cities, living and developing the framework in which not everything can fit, not least neoliberalism. Anyone who remains outside of democratic cities, who doesn't accept their open rationale oriented towards the common good, will have one name: the enemy of democracy.


This article has been translated from its original in Spanish by Mary Ryder, member of openDemocracy's volunteer Program

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