Expert Session: Redesigning Democracy

Guidelines for a City Makers-proof democracy

This Expert Session was part of the New Europe City Makers Pre-Summit on the 4th and 5th of February at Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam.


During the expert session ‘Redesigning Democracy’ four City Makers from Greece, Croatia and the Netherlands discussed with a room full of European City Makers what practices are necessary to come to a more deliberative democracy. Amalia Zepou (vice-mayor of Athens) presented the novel, City Maker-friendly regulations enacted by the municipality of Athens. Antun Sevšek (architect and researcher) presented ways to collaborate with local authorities in cities to counter processes of privatization in Croatia. Danielle Arets (associate lector Design Academy Eindhoven) added the perspective of designers to come up with and test multiple solutions. And Tabo Goudswaard (intendant of the The Art of Impact) expressed the value of reframing social issues.

At the start of the session Niesco Dubbelboer summarized the broad developments that are currently reshaping our democracy. In catchphrases these are the change from top down to bottom up, from central to decentral, from a pyramid structure to a network structure, from party dominance to citizen/community orientation, and from procedures to flexibility. These kind of societal changes are the engine behind democratic change. This leaves the question, what can be done in practice to let our democratic system fit with these societal changes? As the outcome of the session, the following guidelines present the practical, on the ground strategies to create the ideal democratic structures for a more democratic process of city-making.

First: recognize marginal activities and broaden the scope of participation

In order to co-build the city, it should first be recognized that it is not just the city council that is making the city. There are many more activities that are positively contributing to the city, but these are not yet publically recognized as such. A first step is thus to map and include all activities that have a positive social impact on the city. Amalia Zepou showed that in Athens the city government created an online platform that maps all city making activities that improve life in the city including those of informal groups. Broadening the scope by including these previously marginalized activities, the city-making map can more genuinely reflect the existing priorities and stakeholders in the city.

“The municipality gives official voice to the unseen, to the invisible activists” – Amalia Zepou

The ultimate goal of such mapping is to use the creativity of city makers in order to upgrade the municipality. The municipality of Athens therefore also invented an evaluation chart in order to judge initiatives’ social impact and potentiality to reform local governance. The potentiality to reform local governance means the extent to which current regulations are obstacles for city-making activities and should thus be revised. By recognizing these activities as priorities of the city, they become a service of the municipality and can in that way help to reform local regulations.

“Here the notion of scale is important, to not only connect local initiatives but also include other ‘normal’ citizens” – Bart Cosijn

Another reason why the recognition of marginal activities is important is to stop the creation of a City Makers’ elite. Not only changemakers and frontrunners make the city, also many other stakeholders should be recognized and allowed to voice their recommendations.

Second: Reframe issues to be solution oriented

The shifting responsibilities in the city making processes, call for a new perspective on social issues. Compared to the current governmental structure in which social issues are represented as problems or complaints, city making should have a solution-orientated approach. City Makers are problem-solvers. This positive approach could also be implemented in municipal governance. This would result in a structure to collect solutions instead of complaints.

From a designer’s perspective Tabo Goudswaard introduced the method of reframing as a way you can create new ways of governance, which are structurally unknown but are surely based on different values. Reframing could thus make co-creation between City Makers and municipality more successful. Mees de Lind van Wijngaarden formulated it as: “stepping out of the current comfort zone, and create a new comfort zone together” that works for all stakeholders’ perspectives. Because of the important fact that co-creative governance is a multi stakeholder debate, finding a common ground can be done by taking on the search for solutions together. This takes time, but in such a solution-oriented approach there is more possibility for creativity to emerge.

© Jitske Schols

Third: Make space for experimentation and allow for failure

“We started celebrating ‘Failure Day’ in the municipality of Athens.” – Amalia Zepou

Danielle Arets warned that when you work in a solution-oriented way, you should be careful not to proclaim the first successful solution as the only right one. Just like the design-driven approach in the municipality of Athens, there should be a constant search for the effects that policy solutions have. Experimentation and testing of policies in new situations are important tools to do this. Also, experimentation can lead to new solutions that could not have been possible within the former governance structure. G1000, citizen summits, and other City Makers’ initiatives can be nice experiments to cope with the new forms of ownership in the city, but these experimental solutions should not simply be implemented without a step-by-step testing of their effects. Like in the evaluation chart in Athens, there should be reflection possible on which City Makers’ initiatives work and which do not. To let co-creation between government and city-makers work Tabo Goudswaard artfully proposed to create a permanent state of unfinishedness.

“We need to organize a permanent state of unfinishedness, when something is unfinished you feel invited to join in. Everyone related to the problem can be part of the solution. By working together a support base for the outcome is created.” –Tabo Goudswaard

Experimentation could thus lead to new policy outcomes, but it should also be recognized that it often leads to failure and that permanent piloting instead of implementing new policies can lead to a lot of frustration. Too much experimentation has the same adverse effects as failing to experiment. There is thus an advantage of experimentation and allowing for failure, because it enables municipalities to be more ambitious and to dare to start finding new solutions. However, as Antun Sevšek argued, using experimentation and allowing for failure is also a matter of scope and scale.

“Finding places where failure is constructive is all a matter of scope and scale. A certain amount should be reserved for failure, experimentation and growth, but not in general policies where it is a bit more tricky.” – Antun Sevšek

There is thus also a clear flipside to failure and experimentation. Experimenting works, but not for general policies, innovation and piloting are good, but not if that is the only outcome of the project. And maybe even more important failure can be very productive, but only as long as you work in a transparent way

Fourth: be accountable

Transparency is a fundamental principle in democracy, and it plays a vital role in enabling successful co-creation between City Makers and municipalities.

“As long as you work in a transparent and upright way, failure is ok. It would be able to work holistic, and do what is necessary instead of what is appropriate in the system” – Tabo Goudswaard

The new co-creation between City Makers and municipalities raises the question: where is the accountability when things fail? In this new division of responsibility with methods of experimentation there should also be more attention to design a new system of transparency and accountability. Transparency can account for stability in the context of experimentation and failure. It may also provide the way for City Makers’ initiatives to scale up, since transparency of interests and accountability in the case of failure create the basis for a broader support by citizens.

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