Madrid as a democracy lab

Bernardo Gutiérrez at OpenDemocracy: “…The launch of Decide Madrid, the city participation platform running on the Consul free software, signaled a real revolution. On the one hand, it paved the way for democracy from the bottom up, through direct and binding mechanisms. Unlike other historical participatory budgets, the 100 million Euros devoted to Decide Madrid participatory budgets in 2017 are allocated according to proposals coming from below. The proposals that get the most votes, whenever technically feasible, are approved. The platform also carries a section for “citizen proposals”. …

The Decide Madrid platform was not initially well received by the traditional neighbourhood associations, used to face-to-face participation and to mediating between citizens and government. In order to tackle this, a number of face-to-face deliberation spaces are being set up, such as the Local Forums (physical participation spaces in the districts), and also projects such as If you feel like a cat (participation for children and teenagers), or processes such as G1000, which aims at promoting collective deliberation and fostering proposals from below on the basis of a representative sample of the population, so that the participants’ diversity and plurality is guaranteed.

Most projects are being carried out with the support of the new Laboratories of Citizen Innovation of the prestigious Medialab-Prado. The Participa LAB(Collective Intelligence for Democracy), the DataLab (open data) and the InciLab (Citizen Innovation Lab) are joint public/common initiatives, acting as a bridge between local government and citizens. The Participa LAB, which is the one working more closely on participation, is collaborating with Decide Madridin a number of projects (Codat Madrid hackathons, If you feel like a cat, community lines, gamification, G1000, narrative groups…) and coordinates the Collective Intelligence for Democracy international call. InciLab has launched, among many other initiatives, the Madrid Listens project, to connect City Hall officials with citizens on concrete projects, blending disintermediation and the citizen lab philosophy.

More than 300.000 users strong, Decide Madrid is consolidating itself as the hegemonic space for participation in the city. It activates a variety of processes, debates, proposals, and projects. Its free software means that any city can adapt Consul to its needs, without any substantial investment, and set up a platform. From Barcelona to A Coruña, from Rome to Paris and Buenos Aires, dozens of institutions around the world have replicated the initial Decide Madrid core, thus setting up what Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, calls a “liquid federation of cities”. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, praising the cooperative network of participation cities says: “It is very interesting that in Barcelona we have been able to carry out our first experience of digital participation, Decidim Barcelona, adapting Madrid’s base code. Once we have had a first proposal, we have shared it with many municipalities throughout Catalonia”.

Distributed democracy

The brain as a metaphor. A map of Hamburg (Germany) as a symbol of the networked, decentralized city. Neurons and neighbourhoods connected by flows, inevitably synchronized. Both images are to be found in Emergency, Steven Johnson’s classic book on collective intelligence processes. The city as a brain, as a whole made of decentralized nodes. The city as an open network, where any neighbourhood-node can connect with any other. Caio Vassão’s concept of a distributed city rounds the edges of the city with no centre, “networked, open, fluid, flexible, adaptable, reconfigurable”. A city where the neighbourhoods in the suburbs dialogue and relate to each other without the mediation of a historical center.

Left: Diagram of the human brain. Image source: Mittermeier. Right: Map of Hamburg, circa 1850. Image source: Princeton Architectural Press.

Madrid has kick-started a forceful decentralization policy. Distributed democracy in Madrid can be seen in how budgets are allocated, how city districts have multiplied their resources and partly manage cultural festivals (like the Summers in the City) and cultural projects (Madrid District).

At the same time, the launching of the Local Forums is a clear move to decentralize power and participation in the city. Through projects such as Experiment District (travelling citizen laboratories), Imagine Madrid (rethinking 10 territories) or the M.A.R.E.S project, Spain’s capital city is redrawing its neighbourhood fabric, its economic relations, and citizen involvement in decision making. The successful Medialab-Prado’s Experiment District project, which has already visited Villaverde, Moratalaz and Fuencarral, is in full expansion. It is about to even launch a global call, as dozens of cities around the world want to replicate it. Medialab-Prado, one of the city innovation centres, defines Experiment District as a set of “citizen labs for experimenting and collaborative learning in which anyone can participate”. Citizen (neighbourhood) labs based on the prototyping culture, an open and collaborative way of developing projects. Citizen (neighbourhood) labs for learning and teaching, where the result is not a perfect product, but a process that can be improved in real time through the collaboration of citizens from the Madrid neighbourhoods….(More)”