‘The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away’. This famous saying may have been spoken by a Nobel Prize winner about scientific discovery, but its truth is now being discovered in politics.
Crowdsourcing citizens’ ideas via the internet is proving to be a powerful way for cities to improve their plans. Nowhere knows this better than Lille Metropole, which is home to 1.3 million citizens across 95 municipalities. Its participation platform is enabling decision-makers to collect and consider proposals from all citizens who ask to receive its newsletter.
Since its launch in 2018, citizens have shared their ideas for creating common vegetable gardens and new sports tournaments and for recycling textbooks and waste. They have inspired a hugely popular ‘summer passport’ giving young people special access to events, cultural centres and public transport.
They have told Lille Metropole where new bus routes are needed, what facilities they’d like to see in a major new park and where they don’t want to see advertising hoardings. Recently, they added their voices to discussions about how Lille Metropole and citizens can work together to overcome the impact of Covid-19.
From social media to civic tech
“In opening the debate to all audiences and involving each participant in the life of projects, we can better identify the expectations of the general public, of parents, children, business leaders – of every citizen,” says Alain Bernard, former deputy vice president for governance.
“Even if the consultation stages can make some projects more challenging, they emerge strengthened when the exchanges provide answers to citizens’ concerns and make use of their local expertise, which can considerably enrich public policies and projects.”
Digital democracy is not, of course, solely about harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. At a time when democracy itself is facing increasing scrutiny and challenge from citizens, interactive digital tools acting as what has been called a ‘civic alternative to Facebook’ are well placed to help.
By reaching deep into communities and directly into individuals’ homes, these tools enable governments to start rebuilding relationships and establishing new connections. They can also repair trust in decision-making by democratising data, providing open access to information and reports relating to all consultations.
Throwing open doors and windows
When Lille Metropole developed its digital participation platform in 2018 to capitalise on this potential, it had already spent four years carefully crafting the right culture, civic expertise and governance for it to flourish.
It was in 2014 that the Metropole’s President Damien Castelain first talked of ‘opening the doors and windows’ of the city and starting a process of listening and dialogue with citizens.
Within 12 months, a department dedicated to citizen consultation had been set up. The next year saw another step forward with the adoption of a citizen participation charter.
Aiming to bring participation to life and make it accessible to as many people as possible, the charter set the scene for the most challenging project yet: developing a multi-functional platform centralising citizen participation.
“Our ambitious citizen participation policy has made it possible to lay the foundations for a new governance of metropolitan public policies,” says Romain De Nève, head of citizen participation. “This has resulted in new methods of project management, placing the user and the citizen at the heart of the system.”
Experimenting to give citizens the best experience
Aspirations for the platform itself were also high. Not only was it to be as attractive and interactive as necessary to ensure effectiveness. It was also going to act as a test bed for the development of ever-better participatory tools.
Lille Metropole was particularly keen to explore ways of giving citizens the greatest possible range of choices and modalities and addressing the issues involved with creating private exchange spaces for citizens to talk with each other. “Through the last three years, the platform has made it possible to experiment with different ways of questioning and engaging citizens and to test a methodology for supporting projects and operational departments that has proven itself in qualitative terms,” says De Nève.
The outcome of this approach is a user-friendly space where citizens can propose ideas, upload attachments, talk to fellow contributors and vote for others’ suggestions. They can also respond to surveys, arguing their case and helping the city see the popularity – or not – of proposals.
An interactive mapping module makes it possible for people to leave a place-based comment about their feelings or findings related to any aspect of life in Lille. Meeting functionality makes it easy to book upcoming offline participatory events.
Local plans, farmers markets and cycling routes
When citizens log on, they’re met with an incredibly broad range of issues and plans to be inspired by and get involved with.
They can choose to put forward ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or making summer in the city extra special. Or they might prefer to contribute to local plans relating to everything from accessibility to agriculture, housing to higher education and natural areas to household waste.
Every electronic consultation is complemented with face-to-face activities in the form of site visits, meetings and Fab’MEL, the city’s consultation-specific workshops.
Together, these participatory mechanisms proved a recipe for success when it came to getting citizens’ input into Lille Metropole’s territorial food programme.
After hundreds of people had made their opinions known on the participation platform, the sharing of ideas continued at the farmers’ market. Finally, at a very well attended Fab’MEL, citizens developed concrete actions.
There was much food for thought too from responses to a mobility consultation which activated local cyclists in particular. As a result, the Lille Metropole decided to make a big investment in cycling infrastructure and set up a subsidised purchase scheme.
Nurturing participation among digital natives
Digital tools are always going to be a draw for the ‘digital native’ generation and Lille Metropole has made the most of this attraction to develop an ambitious youth policy.
“Lille Metropole wanted to bring together in one policy all the actions that could help support young people with a view to reducing inequalities, in particular through education, citizenship, social and professional integration, housing, health, security, mobility and sports, leisure and culture,” explains De Nève.
“Through a digital consultation we were able to reach the greatest diversity of young people, including those furthest from traditional consultation methods, and ask them direct questions. Questions such as ‘what would make your life easier?’ ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of Lille?’ And ‘what would your ideal city look like?’”
Lille Metropole’s use of its platform also brings home how operating in the digital world can take participation from the local to the international level, very easily.
Ahead of a Horizon European Mission climate neutral and smart cities event organised by Lille Metropole, for example, city leaders and citizen participants answered a series of questions on the platform which were then explored in breakout sessions on the day.
Will citizens be replaced by algorithms?
“Co-building public policy with citizens is now a reflex,” says Bernard Gérard, vice-president of Lille Metropole responsible for citizen engagement from 2014 to 2020. “The participatory platform is a great tool which modernises representative democracy. It is together that we will answer the big challenges of today and tomorrow.”
But what will digital democracy itself look like tomorrow? Might it develop to the point, as some academics are saying, where algorithms are used to predict political preferences and relieve citizens of the need to constantly participate?
Or is it safe to believe that no matter how good the technology, democracy will always be about people – government of the people, by the people and for the people?