New Democracy #5: The Politics of Experimentation

How new forms of governance arise from experimentation

On the 7th of April Harriet Bulkeley gave a lecture on the politics of experimentation in a session moderated by professor John Grin with contribution from Josien Pieterse, Frank Alsema and Pepik Henneman


Inefficient governance, multi-stakeholder problems, transnational connections and thus the huge size of problems that manifest themselves locally, such as climate change, urge policy makers and citizens to find new kind of solutions. Experimentation is an obvious tool for innovation. But how do you take care that an experiment does not disturb daily life without improving it? What is the benefit of experimenting? And can it really help to bring about structural change? During the New Democracy session on the Politics of Experimentation we discussed these questions with professor Harriet Bulkeley expert in urban climate change experiments and whether they can bring about new forms of governance. Three initiative takers joined the conversation and shared their experience with experimentation.

First establish the legitimacy of the experiment

A first thing that needs to be established is the legitimacy of the experiment. Is it an addition to society or is it merely a disruption? Like politics itself experimentation should be a means through which improvement can be delivered. Not something that hinders citizens in the livability of their city. When do you decide as government to design an experiment or to allow an experiment that has emerged bottom-up? It is an experiment because rules have to be broken and because there is a possibility of failure. To allow such an experiment is to create a space in the city where you can break the rules without knowing the result.

You carve out a space in the city where you can break rules and you can promise that it might not work. – Harriet Bulkeley

But for an experiment to be accepted by the people that it affects it has to get normalized and lived. This means that people should accept it as part of their daily life. It should however not get embedded to such an extent that it loses its ability to break rules or have an effect. A balance between normalized and innovative thus determines the acceptance of an experiment.

An example of an experiment that succeeded in finding such a balance is Buiksloterham. This area in North Amsterdam started out as a polluted mud field for which the municipality decided to invite initiatives to pitch their ideas for redevelopment. One of these ideas was De Ceuvel, which proposed to create temporary workspaces. Now De Ceuvel has grown into a circular working and living space with a thriving café that makes it a lively hub. Frank Alsema, one of the initiators, explained how they still keep experimenting to make Buiksloterham a circular neighborhood. For example by using new technological measures, which are not accepted yet by the system world. It is exactly this clash with civil servants and existing policies that keep Buiksloterham an experimental area. It is important for the government not just to let the experiment emerge, but also to stay involved as part of the design team. It is exactly by clashing that the experiment and government can find out what kind of governance is needed. Buiksloterham has thus become normalized and lived but it also remains a space to hack the system.

Factors for success

So when is an experiment a success? Harriet Bulkeley researched multiple successful and less successful experiments, which resulted in the formulation of two axes of success. One is the viscosity of the experiment. This means the capacity of the experiment to travel. This viscosity depends for a great deal on the urban condition in which the experiment takes place. Some conditions are more flexible and accommodating to change than others. Another axes of success is the transformative potential. This entails the degree to which the experiment is able to open up new possibilities, be innovative, break the rules, and engage people. When the experiment becomes lived and normalized it has a high transformative potential. When experiments score high in both viscosity and transformative potential they are generally more successful to open up a space for politics.

Netwerk Democratie
Josien Pieterse explained how Netwerk Democratie tries to open up spaces for politics. Netwerk Democratie uses the Internet to improve the accessibility, citizen participation, transparency, and accountability of the government. Some of their projects are more on an activist note, and some are in close cooperation with the government. They analyze a problem and try to design a project that should solve the problem for a specific group. Examples of their projects are a national whistleblower platform, Transparant Nederland, a databank that brings to light the relations between government and all kinds of organizations, and Voor je Buurt, a crowdfunding platform for social initiatives. Through these projects new modes of political participation become possible.

Experiments are not curiosities but disturbances

In the end an experiment should have an impact. Experimentation for the sake of coloring outside the lines merely because it is possible or exciting does not serve the general interest of society.

“I am going to challenge the idea that experiments are just mere curiosities to be admired, like Alice trying a little drink of this and a little bite of that to scale ourselves up and down to fit through the door into Wonderland. Instead we need to think of experiments as achieving some form of disturbances.” – Harriet Bulkeley

Experiments enable us to think differently and reflect on the way we do things. Especially in trying to disturb what is already settled, experiments can make a lot of impact. When an experiment gets lived by the public that it gathers around it, it can open up a new site for politics. Instead of scaling up experiments can increase their impact by getting joined up with other experiments and travel. When this happens there is a great chance that they can reconfigure the system of which they are part. It is thus by producing disturbances, which then circulate that a bigger systemic impact can be brought about.

Living Streets
Pepik Henneman shared an example of a travelling experiment, namely the Living Street. It started out in Ghent, where they gave a street a ‘haircut’. For a short period traffic is banned from the street, which enables residents to try out other uses of their street for other activities such as meetings, playground or as a green space. After successful use by residents the idea of the living street has travelled to other cities, and city officials have started to take it serious to rethink the social impact of the city’s infrastructure and citizens’ ownership over public space.