Citizenship and democratic production

Article by Mara Balestrini and Valeria Right in Open Democracy: “In the last decades we have seen how the concept of innovation has changed, as not only the ecosystem of innovation-producing agents, but also the ways in which innovation is produced have expanded. The concept of producer-innovation, for example, where companies innovate on the basis of self-generated ideas, has been superseded by the concept of user-innovation, where innovation originates from the observation of the consumers’ needs, and then by the concept of consumer-innovation, where consumers enhanced by the new technologies are themselves able to create their own products. Innovation-related business models have changed too. We now talk about not only patent-protected innovation, but also open innovation and even free innovation, where open knowledge sharing plays a key role.

A similar evolution has taken place in the field of the smart city. While the first smart city models prioritized technology left in the hands of experts as a key factor for solving urban problems, more recent initiatives such as Sharing City (Seoul), Co-city (Bologna), or Fab City (Barcelona) focus on citizen participation, open data economics and collaborative-distributed processes as catalysts for innovative solutions to urban challenges. These initiatives could prompt a new wave in the design of more inclusive and sustainable cities by challenging existing power structures, amplifying the range of solutions to urban problems and, possibly, creating value on a larger scale.

In a context of economic austerity and massive urbanization, public administrations are acknowledging the need to seek innovative alternatives to increasing urban demands. Meanwhile, citizens, harnessing the potential of technologies – many of them accessible through open licenses – are putting their creative capacity into practice and contributing to a wave of innovation that could reinvent even the most established sectors.

Contributive production

The virtuous combination of citizen participation and abilities, digital technologies, and open and collaborative strategies is catalyzing innovation in all areas. Citizen innovation encompasses everything, from work and housing to food and health. The scope of work, for example, is potentially affected by the new processes of manufacturing and production on an individual scale: citizens can now produce small and large objects (new capacity), thanks to easy access to new technologies such as 3D printers (new element); they can also take advantage of new intellectual property licenses by adapting innovations from others and freely sharing their own (new rule) in response to a wide range of needs.

Along these lines, between 2015 and 2016, the city of Bristol launched a citizen innovation program aimed at solving problems related to the state of rented homes, which produced solutions through citizen participation and the use of sensors and open data. Citizens designed and produced themselves temperature and humidity sensors – using open hardware (Raspberry Pi), 3D printers and laser cutters – to combat problems related to home damp. These sensors, placed in the homes, allowed to map the scale of the problem, to differentiate between condensation and humidity, and thus to understand if the problem was due to structural failures of the buildings or to bad habits of the tenants. Through the inclusion of affected citizens, the community felt empowered to contribute ideas towards solutions to its problems, together with the landlords and the City Council.

A similar process is currently being undertaken in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Pristina under the umbrella of the Making Sense Project. In this case, citizens affected by environmental issues are producing their own sensors and urban devices to collect open data about the city and organizing collective action and awareness interventions….

Digital social innovation is disrupting the field of health too. There are different manifestations of these processes. First, platforms such as DataDonors or PatientsLikeMe show that there is an increasing citizen participation in biomedical research through the donation of their own health data…. projects such as OpenCare in Milan and mobile applications like Good Sam show how citizens can organize themselves to provide medical services that otherwise would be very costly or at a scale and granularity that the public sector could hardly afford….

The production processes of these products and services force us to think about their political implications and the role of public institutions, as they question the cities’ existing participation and contribution rules. In times of sociopolitical turbulence and austerity plans such as these, there is a need to design and test new approaches to civic participation, production and management which can strengthen democracy, add value and take into account the aspirations, emotional intelligence and agency of both individuals and communities.

In order for the new wave of citizen production to generate social capital, inclusive innovation and well-being, it is necessary to ensure that all citizens, particularly those from less-represented communities, are empowered to contribute and participate in the design of cities-for-all. It is therefore essential to develop programs to increase citizen access to the new technologies and the acquisition of the knowhow and skills needed to use and transform them….(More)

This piece is an excerpt from an original article published as part of the eBook El ecosistema de la Democracia Abierta.