Stephen Boucher citoyensDuring the Interconnectés Forum 2017 in Lyon (France), we met up with Stephen Boucher, professor at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management of the Université Libre de Bruxelles and author of the book Petit manuel de créativité politique [in English: Little manual of political creativity]. We talked about participatory democracy and co-creating with citizens. He shared with us his views on the power of collective intelligence. 

Read the original interview in French here.

CitizenLab: In your book, you’re saying that politicians often have slogans like “it’s time for change”, “I represent change”. In the end, does change really remain solely in the hands of politicians?

Stephen Boucher: We are expecting a lot from our politicians, and they might themselves get caught in this trap of maintaining the illusion that they have the answers, and that they have to bring them – which can indeed be flattering. From this point of view, there should be a better distribution, and association with the citizens, to co-create and co-build the solution with them. It is very welcome because it brings new kinds of expertise in the political solutions development process. But globally, it has to be more open, and culture has to be changed, so that the citizens don’t always end up expecting, or even being passive.

You say that citizens sometimes seem passive, for instance because of the high abstention rate, etc. Can we still make them feel like co-creating politics?

There are contradictory expectations. On one side, there is a kind of frustration, which leads to 70% of French people saying that democracy has gone bad, even very bad. And at the same time, most citizens assure that they would like to be better involved. I think both go hand in hand. 75% of actors of French local authorities, when they are asked what digital tools can bring them, answer a better link with citizens, far before anything else. That is what they expect from such tools. Therefore, I think that we should give citizens the opportunity to get involved. What is going to be decisive, is that they are able to see the usefulness of this involvement. A citizen who gets involved should be able to follow the implementation of their idea, and assess the impact they have made.

70% of French people say that democracy has gone bad, even very bad. And at the same time, most citizens assure that they would like to be better involved.Click To Tweet

But how can we involve citizens when we are living ever so busy lives? What can we expect from these consultations?

What I am convinced of, is that citizens have – at least – one expertise, which is the one of their needs. Citizens have an overview of their expectations, their priorities, etc. It is at least very useful to consult them about these and not let the political agenda be solely overlooked by the media treatment of political strategies.

Then, it is very interesting to associate citizens to the development of solutions because they can enrich them. They don’t always have an answer, but they bring different perspectives. Beyond that, our political system should be able to be more creative. In the book “Petit manuel de créativité politique”, I give the example of things that are quite surprising, which are the result of different work methods.

Indeed, you mention the case of Colombia, which widened its pavements to reduce the feeling of insecurity in Bogotá. Our experience with local governments also taught us that consulting citizens can sometimes lead to solutions which are cheaper but as efficient as the ones considered. It helps us realize how powerful co-creation can be! What is its added value according to you?

Deliberation is the core of democracy and it doesn’t happen magically, it has to be properly organised. Today, we have a lot of experience on how to proceed, both online and offline, to enable a balanced and productive discussion, because a deliberation isn’t simply a reasoned exchange of arguments, it’s not just a debate confronting opinions without listening to one another. It requires some kind of expertise, but we have a lot of examples and know-how.

If we give ourselves the means to plan a qualitative deliberation, we are going to try and gather participants with diverse backgrounds, we will allow them to be exposed to complete and balanced information on the topic, so that everyone can get involved the same way in the discussion. Thanks to moderators, we can ease the debate, online or offline, and help the input of expertise which allows to go deeper in the deliberation. The added value here is collective intelligence, it’s the possibility to dive into the cognitive diversity that is to be found within the population.

Cognitive studies show that we are a lot more intelligent with a large group of people made of less proficient people individually or who have a lower level of skills on average, than with a small group of experts which is going to be way more homogeneous. This last method is the one we usually use, we know how to implement it. Today, what we do less, even though we know how to implement it, is calling to a larger number of people, but also more diverse. This is the added value: cognitive diversity which will allow to find solutions faster.

The added value here is collective intelligence, it's the possibility to dive into the cognitive diversity that is to be found within the population.Click To Tweet

Sometimes, in deliberative processes, we are looking for a consensus, we ask the citizens to come up with a list of recommendations on which they all agree. Sometimes, we use the technique of the deliberative poll where we are asking a number of questions. There, the goal is more to look for an orientation, before and after the debate: how do opinions evolve on such or such aspect once we have been discussing the topics together?

As intelligence is collective, does that mean that we don’t need politicians anymore?

No, I don’t think so. I believe there is a way to enrich the representative system, to make it more open, more inclusive, more collaborative, more daring. But there is always a part to play for administrators and officals, and citizens don’t necessarily want to play that part. It’s an evolution, even a revolution, based on a distribution of the role which is a bit different, and which can bring back trust.

The same way we cannot dispute that citizens have the expertise of their needs, we can agree that politicians have the expertise of how institutions work. However they don’t always have the expertise of the solutions themselves. They may have a very good knowledge of the institutional machinery, legal frames, etc. which will enable the implementation of solutions. That’s why we need to open the system to these different expertises, and make them rub against one another, starting from the values and the vision people have for their future, what they profoundly desire, until the punctual and precise measure that will be implemented.

Citizens have one expertise, which is the one of their needs.Click To Tweet

Today, we go towards punctual measures too quickly. We see that during electoral campaigns, or in the daily life of a country or a city, we very punctually talk about topics like “should we change the duration of the work week?” “should we change the laws about labour?” ,”should we build a new swimming pool for the city?”, without taking the time, beforehand, to associate all the stakeholders and ask them about the vision of the future they have: a city or a country which is more united? More open? More competitive? More liberal? Which also allows to open the possibilities of these measures.

Our objective at CitizenLab is actually to invite these stakeholders to take part in the discussion thanks to digital platforms. What is the strength of the online tools in all of this?

Digital is not going to solve everything, it’s only a tool, but a powerful tool. The fundamentals of being inclusive, of allowing people to work together, to be daring, we find them both online and offline. And in both cases we can make the mistake of implementing processes that do not meet these requirements.

Digital tools are very beneficial: cutting costs, new services, linking citizens with authorities of any level, it’s amazing, but sometimes public actors can be unaware of some more demanding aspects of the political work because there might be the illusion that a large number of people is getting involved, a feeling that it’s very easy. The communication side of it is very useful, but there needs to be a real political engagement to make it happen.

Many thanks to Stephen Boucher for his time and this very insightful talk!

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