Reykjavik // participation // public engagement // deliberative democracy // participative budgeting // online tools

From March 27th to April 5th 2016 I participated in the interdisciplinary training school “Co-creating Urban Spaces: the Transformation of the Given City” organized as part of the COST Action People Friendly Cities in a Data Rich World (TU1204) in Reykjavik, Iceland. We had the opportunity to explore why and how the Reykjavik commune of Breiðholt is being transformed from a disadvantaged suburb into a thriving community. Using Reykjavik as a site for in-situ exploration, participants - early career investigators, architects and entrepreneurs working in the area of urban development, social innovation, engineering and design - were given the opportunity to explore various local approaches to urban innovation and community engagement through lectures and field work on real case studies.

Together with Iva Bojic (SENSEable City Laboratory, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) and Giulia Marra (Politecnico di Torino) we worked on the topic of online tools for public engagement and e-participation. During the training school we had the objective to assess the benefits, challenges and successful methods for public engagement through different online media using the example of Reykjavik in Iceland. With Iceland being one of the most digitally connected countries where almost 98% of people have access to Internet at home, it makes a good case study also because the idea of innovating the way people connect in order to participate in democracy, politics and civic life was born there after the economic collapse in 2008. Since then Iceland has developed open source tools and methods to promote online, democratic debate and to increase citizens’ participation in their community and worldwide. Many citizen initiatives emerged in an attempt to tap the potential of digital platforms to increase access to information, transparency and accountability.

We collected and reviewed published information on the subject and carried out a field base assessment, involving structured interviews with different government representatives and urban policymakers. At the final event held in the foyer of the municipality, we presented our analysis of how social media are used by different public bodies to enhance public participation in deliberative democracy. We concluded that the benefits of e-participation include the potentials of overcoming time and space constraints, ease of access to information and participation and non-discrimination, and the possibilities of crowd-sourcing collective knowledge, and using playfulness to increase participation and attractiveness to young people. However, in terms of empowerment, online deliberation and social media could only supplement ongoing efforts to involve citizens in co-creating their environment and cannot be treated as panacea or substitute to traditional and much necessary forms of democratic governance. Participatory decision-making on matters of public concern justly consumes time and resources, therefore online tools should be applied with consideration of scale and efficiency, i.e. on burning issues for a majority of citizens or small-scale local platforms, and in combination with meetings in real time and space. The budget and workforce allocated to managing online engagement tools should be proportionate to other political and administrative efforts to bring to execution proposed ideas and act on collected feedback in order to satisfy the needs expressed by the communities and not undermine their beliefs about their power to influence decisions.