It’s October, and fall is officially here! Those rainy afternoons are perfect to settle down inside with a hot cup of tea and some food for thought.

Every month, we curate a list with the most interesting reads from the realm of civic tech and digital democracy. In this October edition, you’ll find articles and opinion pieces about citizens’ assemblies, the human face of AI, democratic experiments, smart mobility, participatory budgeting, and the importance of (digital) democracy as a whole.

1. “We Need a Fourth Branch of Government” by The New York Times

In this opinion piece, ex-PM of Greece George A. Papandreou explores how to “reinvent and deepen democratic institutions” and “empower people, tame global capitalism, eliminate inequality and assert control over our international techno-society.” His solution to build a better, stronger democracy? The creation of a fourth branch of government.

Besides the executive, judicial and legislative branches, this new branch, founded on citizen participation, would digitally deliberate on possible laws before they’d be debated in parliament. He claims that, as we are “on the verge of momentous global changes, in robotics, A.I., the climate and more”, citizens should come together to deliberate the ethical side of their growing power. Besides, there are some challenges, like global warming, that simply require us to work together and surpass our nationalistic divisions.

“Our newfound powers can be used to abuse and hurt — (…) or they can be used to heal, and to include others in a democratic culture that supports the public and planetary good.”

George A. Papandreou

A must-read for both democracy fanatics and critics, administrators and policymakers.

2. “Citizens’ assemblies can fuel real climate action, but also hold danger for councils” by The Guardian

Citizens’ assemblies are booming. Throughout history, this type of citizen participation has more than shown its worth in dealing with difficult topics or defrosting polarised debate. And as the need for citizen-led change continues to grow, citizens’ assemblies are gradually gaining importance.

In the UK, at least 11 councils are currently relying on a citizen-powered approach to tackle challenges related to climate change. But while climate action is obviously highly necessary, these assemblies could potentially hold risks for councils, states the Guardian.

“Allow the assembly to charge towards the revolutionary end of the climate emergency and it will either raise expectations that can never be fulfilled or alienate other local people by presenting them with intolerable options. Exert too much control and it will stifle creativity and lose credibility.”

The success of the citizen assemblies in making a real change depends on a delicate balance of freedom to brainstorm and a realistic vision on what constitutes a feasible solution for everyone. However, the article also lauds these local councils for taking up responsibility where the central government continues to procrastinate. As you can see, it’s never a bad thing to take matters into your own hands – as long as you’ve considered all the facts.

A must-read for engaged citizens and local administrators considering a citizen-led approach.

3. “Artificial intelligence is more human than it seems. So who’s behind it?” by The Correspondent

Technology has taken over nearly every aspect of our daily life, and gradually, artificial intelligence is doing the same. If this ‘hype of the moment’ continues to grow, it will soon “detect our tumours, drive our cars, and fight our wars,” according to this article.

It’s time to get to know the people behind the technology, states Sanne Blauw, the numeracy correspondent diving into the numbers that lie at the heart of technology. After all, “behind any technology are people with ideals and blind spots, interests and prejudices. And that has consequences.”

The prejudices and ideas of the makers seep into the technology itself, and in a world where technology is increasingly almighty, that’s something we have to consider. This article might not be completely up the civic tech alley, but if we think about organising digital democracy and empowering citizens, the rise of AI – and the importance of its ethical side – are hard to ignore.

A must-read for tech lovers, citizens and social activists.

4. “A Belgian experiment that Aristotle would have approved of” by The Economist

Power to the people? It appears so! The smallest European federal entity, the German-speaking part of Belgium, has recently launched its own democratic experiment.

In a textbook case of direct democracy in action, the regional government has gathered a Citizen’s Council of 24 randomly chosen Germanophones. These citizens will have the power to point out priorities to elected officials, and to task a citizens’ assembly to deliberate on how to tackle these issues. In this brand-new Ostbelgien Model, the traditional decision-makers keep the final say, but citizens set the agenda.

This case is an excellent example of how citizen participation can be embedded in the government’s structure, and can play a continuous role in policy-making.

A must-read for local administrations, empowered citizens and Aristotle fans.

5. “Midsize Cities Hold the Key to Innovations in Smart Mobility” by GovTech

You’d think that it would be the biggest cities and metropoles that take up a pioneering role in social innovations, and often enough, that is the case. But as it turns out, midsize cities have specific attributes that make them extremely beneficial for innovative experimentation, especially in terms of mobility. “Midsize U.S. metropolitan areas have the potential to be test beds and leaders in innovation around mobility and other smart city areas,” claims this article.

Midsize cities, especially in the US, are heavily car-dependent and are facing a considerable rise in population in the upcoming years. This puts the question of mobility at the forefront and naturally creates space for innovation. But why are these cities so suitable to test smart mobility innovations? Basically, big cities and metropoles can think of mobility as an isolated area of policy, whereas in midsize cities, mobility is intertwined with other issues like public safety or education:

“The thing about midsize cities that makes them the best place to test this type of theory is, they don’t think about transportation in a silo. Because if you are a midsize city, you do not have the luxury of thinking in silos. You have to think horizontally across the silos.”

Bob Bennett, former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo.

A must-read for midsize city officials and policymakers.

6. “Pissoirs and public votes: how Paris embraced the participatory budget” by The Guardian

Can the renovation of a public urinal be funded with a participatory budget? Well, one can only try! Or at least, that’s what Arnaud Carnet must’ve thought when he submitted the renovation of the vespasienne to the Parisian participatory budget scheme that allows citizens to allocate 5% of the city’s budget every year.

If you consider that the old urinal is the last remaining 19th-century urinal in the city and thus part of the Parisian heritage and history, the whole story sounds a bit less bizarre. Still, Carnet’s proposal did not earn enough votes to become a reality. “The vast majority of projects “aren’t bizarre or complicated – they’re serious. They can be original, a bit new or innovative, but they’re not harebrained,” says Parisian deputy mayor for local democracy Pauline Véron.

And it shows, because the proposals that citizens prioritised with the allocation of their budgets are the ones that tackle actual pressing problems. From recycling facilities, cycling infrastructure to support for homeless women, the winning projects have the potential to leave a true impact on the city of Paris. But again – one can only try!

A must-read for citizens and local administrations looking into launching a participatory budget.

7. “A Strong Democracy Is a Digital Democracy” by The New York Times

When it comes to digital participation, Taiwan is the model student. In this opinion piece, Audrey Tang, one of the greatest Taiwanese computing personalities, shines a light on the Taiwanese model of digital democracy. Because, as she states, “democracy improves as more people participate. And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation — as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.

After a series of protests in favour of more transparency and political accountability in 2014, the Taiwanese administration reached out to a group of hackers, g0v, who’d been trying to improve government transparency through the creation of open-source tools. This sparked the beginning of “a crowdsourcing of democracy” and the creation of a more transparent and responsive government.

“In Taiwan, digital technology is boosting civic dialogue and infusing government with the spirit of social innovation. By giving everyone a voice, Taiwan is strengthening its democracy for the future.”

Audrey Tang

A must-read for believers in digital democracy and governments looking for successful examples.

That’s it for this month! If you would like to learn more about government technology and civic engagement, check out our resource page. You can also check out some of our previous selections herehere or here! See you in November!

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