Written by Rimma Samir
CONSULCON and the Democratic Cities conference are a yearly international meeting that explores the possibilities offered by participatory technologies and digital tools to improve citizen participation and engagement in democracy. In November 2018, for the second year in a row, the conference will be held in Madrid. Over the past three years, Madrid has come to the forefront of democratic innovation, with its tool Decide Madrid (based on the CONSUL open source software) changing the ways in which the city works and giving the world an example of how projects and public budgets could be decided on through a free and open source platform. In anticipation of the upcoming conference, let us unpack what Madrid has been doing in recent years, and how these processes came into fruition. This article is going to be a part of a three-part series about Madrid and its progressive use of technology in democratic processes. (Part 2, on Decide Madrid, is now also out – read it here).
In the age of modern communication technology, making our cities smarter, more democratic and sustainable, becomes even more realizable. This is why, over the recent years, innovative, relational and participative politics have been sprouting up all over the world. Many cities all over the globe are currently developing technological tools that have the potential to put forth innovative approaches that would allow and enable more people to resolve collective societal issues. Thus, the government could get more feedback from the citizenry as well as counsel from professionals from different fields in the city. Since technology has already profoundly changed our personal day-to-day lives, we might as well put it towards redefining our democracies. Instead of making our society fully dependent on political representatives that we get to choose, say, once every year/four/seven years, the emerging tools can create fora for collective participation, elaboration, and decision-making.
By leveraging modern technologies, the municipality has more opportunities to take advantage of various judgments, sources of information, and citizen expertise. This beneficial added insight has the potential to improve the quality as well as the legitimacy of the law and policy-making on the part of the municipality. From developing an open-source citizen participation tool (CONSUL), the source code of which is used in 90 governments globally, to introducing its own online municipal platform (Decide Madrid) based on CONSUL, in the recent years, Madrid has been on the forefront of municipal and democratic innovation. But how has the city gotten there and what are the results of this municipal digitalization? To understand the case more clearly, let us unpack what it was that Madrid was doing in recent years and how these processes came into fruition.
Roots in the Indignados (15-M) Movement
The processes that take place today, began in 2011 with the Indignados (the Indignants) anti-austerity movement in Spain. In it, the protesters went against the rising levels of corruption and the government’s increasing austerity measures. In the face of growing unemployment and staggering government approval rates, Spanish administration passed laws such as the one that increased the retirement age from 65 to 67, along with a highly controversial in the country Sinde law. According to this law, an administrative commission has the mandate to shut down any website that features links to or lets users illegally download copyrighted content. Laws like this made the already unhappy population furious with the government, which resulted in the creation of various counter-movements such as Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), #NoLesVotes (Do Not Vote for Them), etc., which were all unified under the aegis of Los Indignados (The Outraged) movement.
Mobilized through social media the protesters went to the streets of every major Spanish city. In Madrid, protesters camped in Puerto del Sol, one of the city’s busiest spaces, their ranks growing from 200 on May 17 to nearly 30.000 on May 20. Citizen encampments such as the one at Puerto del Sol evolved into ‘cities within cities’, which according to Postill were governed through popular assemblies and committees. These structures were increasingly horizontal, and majority rule based with rotating spokespersons. In this way, Spain’s citizens were experimenting with inclusive, engaging, participatory and direct forms of democracy. Already then the participants of the demonstrations started creating digital tools (such as Propongo) that would allow them to organize and scale the movement on the neighborhood level. Even though most of them did not prove to be successful, they paved a way to today’s technological practices in many municipalities across Spain.
Fast forward to 2015, a year when the popularity of “citizen confluences” was surpassing the traditional party structures. The technopolitical intelligentsia, which was present at the forefront of all 15-M demonstrations, now started to take up space in local governments. For instance, a famous hacktivist and programmer Pablo Soto took up the position of a head of participation of the Madrid City Council that year. Soto then used his programming skillset in order to promote the adoption of digital technology tools which would allow citizens to have a bigger say in what would happen in the city. As a result of such dynamics, various online participatory platforms were created, one of which was Decide. The platform allows Madrileños to propose, deliberate and vote on projects and policies for the city, as well as decide on the distribution of a portion of the city’s budget. These functions of the platform make the government action more participatory and transparent, as well as, empowering the citizens through the creation of an environment in which existing collective intelligence and expertise can be mobilized.
Madrid plays an important part in this not only because the city was one of the first ones to implement participatory technology, but also because it was in Madrid that the free open source software CONSUL was created. The Madrid City Council developed the software from scratch. The developers’ team who has worked on the project now offers advisory service to the governments who want to employ it. This software allows any city to set up an electronic participatory platform without investing substantial funds into the project, which opens possibilities for direct and inclusive participation that were unimaginable in the past. Free and publically available, CONSUL code is now used by more than 30 other local governments around Spain. With dozens of institutions that are recreating their own versions of Decide Madrid a, as Taiwan’s digital minister called it, “liquid federation of cities” is created. According to Tang this federation is “ruled” by a “federal government” that is coded into the software of CONSUL. This digital structure allows for a bottom-up re-centralization of the political sphere in the web of the cities that adopt it. This web of cities connected by software allows for the cities to share their progress, experience, and innovation in a way that never existed before.
In order to learn more about how the CONSUL software works in local practice in Madrid stay tuned for part two of our article series, which will deliberate on the practices and projects of the Decide Madrid platform.