Within the framework of this year's "Fearless Cities" summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America.
Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.
In this page, the innovators share their answer to the first of these topics:
TOPIC 1: To what extent do you consider your experience to be a "political innovation" process? Is this process a new creation, does it contain elements of rupture with previous processes, or elements of experimentation, by trial and error, which attest that there is, or there is not innovation in it? What are your criteria for considering that there is real innovation at play?
Javier Arteaga Romero, Nariño (Colombia)
I think that the word innovation, if we understand it as it is understood in the business world, means that something new is being created. That is, there is no innovation if something completely new has not been successfully created. In this sense, there may be different levels of innovation, and some innovations are much more disruptive than others, but what is needed is for something new to be created.
In the case of politics in Colombia, it may be relatively easy to innovate for the yardstick, the political standards, is very low when it comes to doing things that are different, or doing them in a different way. It is very easy to break through the established boundaries with things that are sometimes basic, and so, to be able to innovate.
In our case, we base innovation on two factors: First, action. Action is a key concept in innovation. People often confuse innovation with creativity, with doing things which have never been conceived before. We start instead from the idea that what is important is to act - for, if there is no action, if things are not done, there is no innovation.
I think that the very first thing to be said is that things getting done in Nariño. In other words, that there is action. We may fail, and it may be that many of these things have no meaning yet. Maybe later on we will write and theorise about them, because I think that many things will come out of what is happening here that can be useful for the rest of Colombia, and maybe for the outside world. But we start from the fact that "we are doing things" and that, through our action, we generate innovation.
Secondly, I believe that as far as politics is concerned, innovation has to do with focusing on citizens. However progressive or advanced politicians may be, normally they act in the same way. Whether they are from the left, right, or centre, no matter how different their ideas are, their form of action in doing politics is very similar. They are all locked in their offices, deciding what is best for citizens. So, creating change and making it possible to govern from the public space and putting citizens as the centre of our political action - as we have done – that is what gives meaning to the word 'innovation'.
Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva, PSOL, Belo Horizonte (Brazil)
I believe that, rather than pure innovation, what we do is a mixture of rupture and innovation. We try to leave behind outdated political practices - such as patronage, or hierarchy, all those political practices which do not work towards peoples' emancipation. Today, people are not the agents of democratic construction and we are trying to change that, to break away from this. This is crucial for the kind of politics we are fighting for. I think that innovation is trying to change how politics is perceived, and is making the point that politics is not reduced to a game of electoral competition.
We believe that politics can be a space for coexistence. A space that has to be democratic, integrating our differences so as to make us all full citizens. If politics becomes a deal between equals, even if we are very different, then we start innovating through cooperation, collaboration and experimentation processes. In order to innovate, we must change not only the practices but also the people leading the policies and the processes. The profiles of the people at the forefront are important. We have to have women, black women, indigenous women, LGBT people, people who are not perceived as conventional political actors.
We must also change the content of politics, we must ask ourselves honestly what our most important needs are. That is why a feminist politics is essential, because it is a politics that puts living together as a priority. It prioritises caring for all the creatures in the common space. The good life pursue depends on what content we associate with the new practices.
Caio Tendolini, Update Politics, Sao Paulo, (Brazil)
I think that a central issue in innovation is experimenting, trying things and making errors. To put it in a wider context, I believe that we are experiencing generally, not only in politics but in most things, due to the current crisis of references. The repertoire of solutions and actions we have so far accumulated after the experience of all these years seems no longer enough to face our reality, to face the problems humanity is currently facing – from education to health and hunger, infrastructure and services. No matter what the issue is, it seems that our repertoire of policies is very limited. So, there is no choice but to experiment.
But I do believe that when we talk about political innovation it is important to define what innovation is - and is not. Because there is a certain synapse, almost automatic, about the concept of innovation which immediately brings to mind technology, and I think it is important to make it clear that we are not talking about technology, but about processes that may, or may not use technology. The apps are not going to save the world. I do not consider political innovation to be that.
Nor are we talking about a purely generational question. Not everything old is bad and not everything young is good. I do not believe that innovation has to do with denying the past. It is not: "None of this is good, so we have to start all over again". When it comes to political innovation, it is important to know what political innovation is not.
Above all, as we can see in projects such as Update or Bancada Activista, innovation is connected with the idea of bridging the gaps existing today between representatives and those represented. Essentially, that is what we are seeing through practices of participation, transparency, accountability, independent media, public innovation in government, and political culture.
In general terms, for democracy to function better, we must have a stronger citizenship – that is, citizens who are better informed, better educated, more empowered, capable of accessing power, capable of questioning power. I think that this is what we are talking about when we talk about political innovation.
And, finally, there is something which we discuss a lot in the political innovation network: the decentralisation of power. We are not challenging power just to obtain power. The question is: should we deny the system of incentives that facilitates access to power? As an economist, I believe in systems of incentives and sanctions, but the incentive and sanctions systems we have today have led us to the negative results that we currently have. So, it is not enough to consider oneself clean and transparent, we must put participation, accountability, and communication into practice. If we do not do this, and once we achieve power we close ourselves off, we shall make the same mistakes that we are fighting against.
Sâmia Bonfim, Bancada Activista (Activist Caucus), Sao Paulo (Brazil)
Considering what politics is in Brazil, I believe that our Bancada Activista candidacy does indeed have some elements of innovation. In the way of doing politics, however, I think that it is more of a rupture than an innovation, because it is something completely new. The usual relationships in politics here are very fraudulent, and financial and economic power totally dominates them: it buys representation, political position, chooses candidates and the causes to defend, and those not to defend. So, in that sense, I believe that the Bancada represents a complete break with what is considered to be normal in Brazilian politics.
We understand the need to rebuild politics, to elect representatives, parliamentarians and figures that are part of specific causes, of social movements, of specific niches, of social groups organising for particular purposes and demand changes in society. In that sense, our option represents a rupture.
But it is also true that, in certain respects, it is also an evolution. From the very beginning in the history of humanity, people have organised themselves, they have come together to try transforming things - and that is what we are now trying to do: uniting people, so that they can claim their rights. Only, this time, we want to do it within the political institutions. And this is where we can talk about innovation: what we are doing is bringing what already exists in society to spaces where it was not present before. In this sense, we can say that our political option is a mixture of rupture and innovation.
Susana Ochoa, Wikipolítica (Wikipolitics), Jalisco (Mexico)
I believe that innovation results from a need to find answers we are lacking to problems we have. There is much talk about innovation, but when you are campaigning, you cannot talk about innovation. You cannot mention the word "experiment", for example.
We used it once in the campaign, at two election events, and the mother of one of the campaigners told us: "Do not use that word, people do not want experiments, and the less so with public money”. Of course you have to communicate that you are innovating and experimenting in the campaign, but without using words like “experiment".
Also, when you think of political innovation, you immediately think of apps and technology, but we have found that, in fact, an app often does not solve the problem of citizen participation. It can be a perfect app, but if people do not use it, it is useless. So, I believe that innovation does not necessarily have to do with technology but, rather, with how creatively disruptive you can be. But not disruptive for the sake of being disruptive - anyone can do crazy things - but actually for doing things that make sense to people, so that they can say: "that could have happened to me too". Common sense things, most likely, making a sense that I think the political class is lacking.
Jorge Sharp, Movimiento Valparaíso Ciudadano (Valparaíso Citizen Movement), Valparaíso (Chile)
The political process we have started in Valparaiso is, in a way, disruptive and, in this sense, it is also innovative. What exactly does a rupture mean? Is it simply the evolution of something which was already under way that we have simply catalysed? I think the process has something of both continuity and change.
What happened in Valparaíso with the triumph of the Valparaíso Citizen Movement is, on the one hand, the culmination of a long string of city struggles - for education, for gender equality, social struggles centered on questioning the Chilean economic model which manifests itself in all its harshness in the city of Valparaíso.
We are talking here about at least a decade of sustained maturation. But there was change also, for we were able to break into the political scene through a new, different political practice: the "citizens' primaries" – that is, the tool with which citizens were able to decide which candidate from a wide range of organizations they wanted to see running against the traditional parties.
There were five candidates, and each candidate had a specific project. People voted, and that was extremely disruptive because this was not just an almost symbolic exercise: it was a new, self-organised, transparent political practice, with no intervention by the State. So, I believe that, in this case, innovation was the combination of both the continuity of a long-time process, and a dynamic of change, which ended up bringing it about.
Caren Tepp, Ciudad Futura, Rosario (Argentina)
A few years ago, we coined a sentence from Simón Rodríguez that says: "Either we invent, or we make a mistake". We, the militants, tried many times in the past to adjust reality to our theory and not the other way around – that is, building the theory from practice, understanding and incorporating what the territory itself was demanding. So, I think that the most distinctive feature of Ciudad Futura is a new conception about the role of the State and society and, above all, of the future and the present. How do we build today the society that we want for tomorrow? What can we do so as to not merely keep on complaining and to challenge what is wrong by offering pointers to citizens – “pieces of Ciudad Futura” which show what the society we want is like and how it can be achieved?
The parties of the Left are very good when it comes to denouncing capitalism, neo-liberalism and international imperialism. But if we are not capable of offering a vision of the future and of drawing a path to that future, no one will believe us, no one will get excited about our proposals. This is the reason why we set up what we call Prefigurative Projects which exist here and now, in the territories, especially in the periphery of the city of Rosario.
These are projects which do not merely say "Education and work are important", but they show it. For example, we have two social management schools where young people and adults from the districts of Rosario are able to finish their middle-level education. They are mostly young people from the periphery who perhaps did not have the possibility of a future; that they had perhaps gone through public or private education but, somehow, ended up leaving. And, today, they do have a chance. For the last seven years now, these young people can, not only finish their studies, but build a space of collective identity and build a project for the future.
Here, in Argentina, that model is now a response to the issue of reforming the education system. When we began to study what could be the keys to reforming the system, we noticed that they were the same as in the city of Rosario. The problem for kids who finish their school education is the way in which contents are addressed - social phenomena, political issues. This is why we changed the way in which we used to do our courses, and switched to a horizontal construction of education.
When students enter our social management school, they find that power, somehow, is distributed horizontally. There is a collective appropriation. Power is no longer power over, but power with. It is a power which enables teachers and students to build not only the ways in which to address the educational content, but also the management of the school: cleaning, schedules... Now, this also works for the kindergarten in the morning, in that same space, for children up to 4 years. The appropriation of the project is key to the setting up of a political project which currently guarantees, in two city neighbourhoods, that more than 100 young people each year finish their secondary education and can begin to imagine a different life project for themselves, without any input from the State – that, for us, is political innovation.