Sissy-Ve Basmer-Birkenfeld, a participant at the Hamburg Smartathon, is a researcher at the Helmut Schmidt University and a current PhD candidate at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. Her dissertation deals with participation in politics and economics. She agreed to be interviewed about her academic experience in researching participation, and how this relates to smarticipate.

Participatory approaches have seen marked growth in recent years, and it seems that the explosion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT ) in daily life will push participation forward in the future.

Sissy-Ve Basmer-Birkenfeld lives in Hamburg and first become acquainted with the smarticipate project through her participation at the Hamburg Smartathon in November 2016.

What do we mean when we talk about participation?

At the outset of a discussion about participation, a clear definition of the term is warranted. In fact, there is no agreed upon definition, and the meaning of “participation” in local government takes different meanings in different contexts. “For my research I chose a more general definition of the term,” explains Basmer-Birkenfeld.

“I define participation as people having influence on a decision-making process. In the context of urban planning, people have this influence together with other citizens, and this influence intersects with other actors in the city.”

Who holds the cards?

In the case of urban planning, how can citizens know that they hold any influence on decisions? “A common problem with participatory approaches, especially in urban development, is that some people have inherent distrust in the procedures of the government,” says Basmer-Birkenfeld. “They are sceptical about whether the government really wants to involve citizens or simply wants to claim that they are a participatory city.”

Being up front about the realistic potential for influence is a critical factor for city administrations to maintain legitimacy among citizens.

“It’s important to state what people can expect – what they can influence and what the outcomes could be,” she continues. “I often hear from experts that it is difficult to define what ‘real’ participation is. It is probably necessary to discuss these questions of expectations every time you initiate a participatory process.” Being up front about the realistic potential for influence is a critical factor for city administrations to maintain legitimacy among citizens.

Transparent participation goes both ways

As explored in the smarticipate scoping report (PDF), ICT enabled governance approaches are cropping up in cities across Europe and the wider world. The rising ownership and usage of internet-enabled devices means that more citizens than ever are connected to the internet. When asked about the risks and benefits of using ICT for participation, Basmer-Birkenfeld was optimistic.

Better flow of information can make stakeholders on all sides more empathetic towards competing viewpoints.

As a medium for delivery of information the internet can make more stakeholders aware of an issue at an early stage. Consequently, this better flow of information can make stakeholders on all sides more empathetic towards competing viewpoints. For example, citizens are more likely to accept the rejection of their proposal if a city planning expert publicly backs up the rejection with sound reasoning. Citizens are also more likely to understand the perspectives of other citizens who have different priorities, ideas or objections to a local urban development project.

The transparency of the process goes both ways, however. When it comes to citizen participation platforms, “it’s not a closed room,” notes Basmer-Birkenfeld. “Citizens with proposals are not alone with a politician. Everyone can view and comment on each others’ proposals.”

In an open online forum everyone can see your idea and react, which means–at least in theory–that citizens can more easily garner support from their peers. “There are also citizens with technical expertise who can speak up on your behalf. This is an advantage of a digital tool,” she adds. This is, however, dependent on a large base of active users, which is difficult to achieve.

What’s stopping cities?

Despite the great benefits that online participation can offer, not all cities are jumping on board just yet. According to Basmer-Birkenfeld, the greatest barriers to participation are the resources required. “You can’t just ‘install’ a participatory platform,” she explains. Resources are required to both develop and maintain an online participation platform. This financial and administrative commitment can prevent local governments from quickly adopting such technology.

“You can’t just ‘install’ a participatory platform”

Citizens may also not wish to participate online, instead preferring other forms of engagement. This is just one reason why local authorities cannot rely solely on ICT based solutions to involve their citizens in planning decisions. “It has to be a mix, you can never have only online participation – you need offline meetings in addition,” says Basmer-Birkenfeld. Equally important is making sure that ideas, comments and suggestions are transferred between both settings. In other words, proposals that come up online must be discussed in-person, and vice-versa.

When things get confrontational, bring in a mediator

One concern raised during a Smartathon in London was the potential for city officials to “hide” behind an online system, effectively using ICT to avoid personally confronting potentially dissatisfied residents. But Basmer-Birkenfeld sees this only as a minor hindrance: “This is an example of why these processes need to be evaluated. An evaluation would quickly find that such a process is not successful.”

But even if there is little risk of officials shirking their duty, a productive cooperation is not always guaranteed. City officials and citizens alike often complain that their voices are not being heard, and it’s not unusual for public meetings with city administrations to become polarised.

In situations where citizens and officials seem pitted against each other, the involvement of experienced external facilitators can improve the situation through moderation.

“There are new companies with business models around the theme of participation, who have designed effective participatory methods,” says Basmer-Birkenfeld. “They can work together with governments and citizens in the role of a mediator.”

She also notes the parallel to open innovation, which has gained wide praise by both business and government as a vehicle to increase innovation while stimulating new markets. In both cases, an organisation can harness the creative capacity of citizens and take into account their critical feedback to better their services.

smarticipate to the rescue?

The feedback from Basmer-Birkenfeld, and that from all other Smartathon participants, has been an essential step in the development of the smarticipate platform. But how will the platform bring true added value for participatory processes?

“With the smarticipate tool, if someone wants to plant a tree in Hamburg they can receive immediate feedback about whether it is a suitable location. This direct interaction between the experts in the government and the citizens is great. People need to know what the outcome of participation is – where their input has an impact and where their influence has an end,” says Basmer-Birkenfeld.

“In the past you would need to literally go to the city offices, look at a big map or model and inform yourself about what is possible. The easiest option was perhaps to send something via mail or drop it off at the city office. This is a process which could easily take weeks and is not necessarily transparent. For these reasons smarticipate has good potential to improve this process.”

With the next round of Smartathons approaching, Basmer-Birkenfeld looks forward to returning and continuing the discussion in Hamburg. But she also mentions that to truly know how well smarticipate will work, participants will need hands-on experience: “I hope there is a prototype we can play with!”