City as a Platform: How It Changes Governance

What is the future role of city governments? As digital technologies are changing the way we interact with each other, cities have to undergo a transition as well. Tomorrow’s government is not merely a centralised, rule-driven body, but enables and facilitates citizen-led innovation through an open ecosystem, called ‘city as a platform’.

“We tend to think of government as doing things…but we should also think of government as a platform that lets things happen.” –Tim O’Reilly

We often expect our governments to do things, but we should also think of the government as a platform that lets things happen. That’s the transition we are currently undergoing under the sophisticated name of ‘City as a Platform’. Thanks to the omnipresent connectivity through Internet, smartphones and other sources of data, the “smartest” city is the city which knows how to leverage these digital networks in the most intelligent ways.

Smart Governance

This digital transformation has also its implications for the governance of cities. Aspen Institute puts it powerfully: “Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing.”

Smart Citizens
City as a Platform (© iBestuur)

Governments start to realise that expertise is not centralized, but distributed amongst all the eyes of the city. Governance is not just about getting most of the votes during elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies. It is also about efficiently collecting and curating information, coming from citizens and other data points, in order to enrich the decision-making process.

Indeed, civic crowdsourcing (or ‘citizensourcing’) is drastically changing the relationship between cities and their citizens. In the traditional governance system, every citizen has a single vote every X years. Today, using digital technologies, it is much easier to voice your opinion as a citizen.

New forms of city making

Collecting the ideas in a easy-to-use interface for the citizens is a first step in the right direction for municipalities. A digital solution should be designed in such a way that posting an idea for every citizen is as easy as one, two, three.

Yet, governments often do not have the in-house resources to develop the software. That’s why public authorities are increasingly looking to cloud software solutions to help them bridge the gap between the city and the residents. Last week at the European Sustainable Cities Summit in Brussels, the Belgian Minister of Digital Agenda expressed that governments should focus on their core: serving the citizenry with optimal public services.

To give a concrete example of how citizens engage in an act of co-creation with the city, the Belgian city of Hasselt crowdsources input from their citizens for an urban renewal project. Namely, the citizens share how they imagine the new big city park ‘Kapermolen‘. The city government will consequently use these ideas to start drafting the plan for the park, which will get reconstructed in 2017.

Power of Data

The power of participatory crowdsourcing goes beyond simply collecting and curating ideas. It gets even more interesting when the ideas get analysed and one can derive underlying preferences amongst the diverse groups of citizens. Which city governor wouldn’t be interested in finding out how citizens from different neighbourhoods think about ideas? How opinions differ amongst the different age groups? Data insights help cities reach a more inclusive public decision-making.

In the concept of ‘City as a Platform’, the data is open. Open data makes city governments more porous, invites cross-sectoral cooperation and initiates an enhanced engagement between citizens and cities. An open government as an enabler for citizen-led innovations, that’s where we are going.

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5 Inspiring TED Talks About Our Governments In The Digital Age

New governance technologies are redefining authority and change what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century. Thanks to this digital transformation, decision-making will become more collaborative, government budgets more transparent and their data open for the outside world. The following 5 TED Talks will inspire you about how our governments will evolve over the next years.

1. Pia Mancini: How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era

Pia Mancini and her colleagues want to upgrade democracy in Argentina and beyond. Through their open-source mobile platform they want to bring citizens inside the legislative process, and run candidates who will listen to what they say.

2. Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

The open-source world has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services like GitHub — so why can’t governments? In this rousing talk Clay Shirky shows how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet, to be not just transparent but also to draw on the knowledge of all their citizens.

3. Jennifer Pahlka: Coding a better government

Can government be run like the Internet, permissionless and open? Coder and activist Jennifer Pahlka believes it can — and that apps, built quickly and cheaply, are a powerful new way to connect citizens to their governments — and their neighbors.

4. Catherine Bracy: Why good hackers make good citizens

Hacking is about more than mischief-making or political subversion. As Catherine Bracy describes in this spirited talk, it can be just as much a force for good as it is for evil. She spins through some inspiring civically-minded projects in Honolulu, Oakland and Mexico City — and makes a compelling case that we all have what it takes to get involved.

5. Beth Noveck: Demand a more open-source government

What can governments learn from the open-data revolution? In this stirring talk, Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO at the White House, shares a vision of practical openness — connecting bureaucracies to citizens, sharing data, creating a truly participatory democracy. Imagine the “writable society”.

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Why Citizen Experts Are The New Paradigm

We have the means to build a strong digital environment where citizens can connect with each other. This opens up the possibility of calling upon their collective expertise. So, why do we still put forward an institutional class of professionals as our go-to solution to solve today’s challenges?

Questions of Legitimacy

The consumer paradigm is over and done. The space for active participation has opened up and people are using it daily. Today, we have the means to collectivise our expertise to solve all sorts of problems. We can truly doubt the current organisational structure of our environment. In this article we will assess the value of an institutional class of professionals in dealing with everyday problems. But first, what is a professional?

The Professionals

A professional is a person who is considered to hold the legitimate means and knowledge to deal with specific problems. He is specialised in a certain topic, giving him the recognition of holding the properly attuned expertise to deal with specific issues.

The current paradigm is built upon the primacy of individual expertise, which can receive aid through collective collaboration with other professionals.A connected world

Institutions are found to deal with the burdensome communicative issues to connect professionals. This happens mostly offline, in a specified location with a specific focus on a certain problem.

However, we now find ourselves equipped with tools that allow to connect people with different sorts of expertise to each other. We can harness a broad range of knowledge efficiently, from the highly knowledgeable expert to the amateur enthusiast.

The Citizen Experts

The previous communicative function of the institution can be done more efficiently; online and without institutional ties. This process is called the democratisation of expertise. The question is now: does it work? Does the collective expertise of all types of individuals trump the knowledge of a particular group of experts?

The democratisation of expertise is the process of collecting knowledge from all societal layers to put it to the test in solving contemporary challenges.

The answer seems to be ‘yes’. For instance, Wikipedia shows that building an encyclopedia made by ‘amateurs’, relying on their active participation, creates a larger, more up to date and virtually as accurate collection of knowledge as the Encyclopædia Brittanica.[1] The collective participation of amateur and expert users generates value. The legitimacy of professionals dealing exclusively with specific problems appears hollow. After witnessing its success on a public level, we need platforms that enable participants to create this value on a civic level.

Granting the exclusive rights of dealing with everyday problems to an institutional class of professionals wasn’t the best way, it was the only way. But not anymore.

The democratisation ofCitizen expertise expertise on a governmental level not only raises its legitimacy, but also its efficiency. It holds the promise of a future of co-creation, of a government who is in direct contact with its citizens, of the possibility to real participation. All this to your individual preferences and efforts.

Paradigm Shift

So, let’s harness our individual expertise and share it collectively. Let’s open up the restrictions on the uses of knowledge and apply it’s force not only economically, but also socially and politically. But most of all, let’s shift the paradigm: the collective expertise of citizens first, with aid by the individual expertise of professionals.

[1] As was shown in a Nature study in 2005:


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