The next wave of digital democracy?

Here’s a short review of the work the RSA did on digital citizen engagement in 2017 with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For this project, Clare Devaney and I did research to understand more about the innovative ways that cities and regional governments are engaging with citizens to talk about inclusive growth. Below is a summary of digital and data-driven methods in cities were pionneering then to enable citizens to inform policy.

Rowan Conway
6 min readNov 5, 2019

The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission completed its inquiry into how cities and regions can enable as many people as possible to contribute to and benefit from economic growth in 2017. Among its recommendations was the suggestion that city mayors and local leaders invest in ‘social infrastructure’ to help individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in decisions about society and the economy.

According to an Aspen Institute report: “the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways.” In an age of ubiquitous free wifi, smartphones and data, the social infrastructure that underpins civic participation will need to be “digital by default” if it is to engage the growing number of people — including poorer citizens — who now rely on mobile technology rather than computers to interact with government and services. This blog looks at three types of tech-enabled citizen engagement: the city as a platform; open and big data commons; and artificial intelligence.

1. The city as a platform

For centuries, cities in democratic countries have been governed through the traditional means of representative government. Technology is now challenging this by enabling a new type of direct access to the “city as a platform”. This concept is based on the principle that cities can invite bottom-up participation via online platforms and allow for more inclusive decision-making, from policy making to planning and budgeting.

As citizens become evermore connected with intelligent devices, the physical limitations of the city hall disappear, and the potential to collect and use dynamic input in a virtual way becomes real. This could represent a significant shift in how cities of the future might function and many places across the world are now experimenting with democratic participation tools.

Cities across Europe, most notably in Finland, are operating radical open data platforms to get citizens to participate in civic innovation. Recent nesta research found multiple trials of the city as platform model across the world with “political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party using tools such as Loomio, Reddit and Discourse to enable the general public to deliberate and feed into policy proposals. Local governments have set up platforms to enable citizens to submit ideas and information, rank priorities and allocate public resources.”

2. Open and Big Data Commons

If the city as a platform concept has a levelling effect — evening out the power dynamics between city and citizen — then the urban data commons could take it to the next level and encourage creative collaboration in the use of public data. Smart city data platforms have long held all kinds of different data feeds: from transport and mobility, to energy and waste. To date, these datasets have largely been toyed with behind closed doors, as city leaders seek to drive efficiencies and improvements through big data analytics. But as technology advances and the amount of structured and unstructured data rises, the potential to work with new, more human data sets, such as geo-located public health data or sentiment analysis from social media is becoming a reality.

The open nature of the commons unleashes the collective brainpower of citizens to come up with ideas through data mining. The success of any commons approach relies on the principle that data is open source so that it can be used for public benefit and innovation. Possibly the boldest experiment in digital civic commons is underway in Bologna, Italy, where the city has pioneered a system of “public-social partnerships” (as opposed to public-private partnerships). Described as “a post-bureaucratic model of the city government” the platform invites civic groups to propose their own projects for taking care of city spaces — in every conceivable way, from tending to public parks to managing social care for the elderly to converting abandoned buildings.

Commentators have praised the way the Bologna government is sharing data and responsibility with citizens and co-designing ways to improve neighbourhoods. Dozens of other Italian cities are now emulating this idea, which is part of a larger surge of urban commons initiatives led by activist groups like and the Commons Network (Berlin). If governments can open up datasets like this (and the proprietary nature of much personal data is still a problem), then data becomes another key aspect of the social infrastructure needed to affect citizen inclusion.

3. Artificial intelligence

If platforms and open data have the potential to promote transparency and collaboration in cities, the ways in which artificial intelligence is used in civic innovation is still something of a dark art. Last year, when Stephen Hawking was asked the question “will artificial intelligence kill or save humankind?” He said: “In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”

While much of hyperbole focuses on the threats of AI (and the fear of massive job losses), there are those who see its inherent opportunities for society and democracy — most notably Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In his post-US election manifesto entitled Building Global Community he wrote: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us…The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.”

Facebook uses forms of AI within its newsfeed (its algorithms decide what should be promoted), for scanning photos and providing facial recognition. With 40 million Facebook users in the UK and Facebook’s penetration into the US market at nearly 80% of all US internet users (and over 90% of US millennials), the potential of these tools for managing democracy, participation and inclusion is enormous.

Perhaps the most ambitious test of the use of AI in public participation is the vTaiwan project (v is for “virtual”) which was originally used for developing cyberpolicy in Taiwan but is now being expanded into other government domains. Over its two years of development, vTaiwan has matured into a phased process with mixed engagement methods: Firstly, an AI-powered conversation tool called is distributed through Facebook ads and stakeholder networks. This is followed by a live-streamed public meeting where officials respond to issues that emerged, which in turn is followed by stakeholder meetings facilitated by civil society and government, and broadcast to remote participants. At the end of the process, the Government agrees to bind its action to points that reached consensus.

While this sounds very efficient, there are deeper concerns about how AI will influence behaviours. In an article in Scientific American entitled “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?” the authors muse that AI-driven echo chamber effects on social media could (unintentionally) be destroying social cohesion. The authors suggest that where the news we are fed is curated for us by remote algorithms, and so the erosion of democratic systems is not far behind. They say:

“There is a danger that the manipulation of decisions by powerful algorithms undermines the basis of ‘collective intelligence,’ which can flexibly adapt to the challenges of our complex world…If our judgments and decisions are predetermined by algorithms, however, this truly leads to a brainwashing of the people. Intelligent beings are downgraded to mere receivers of commands, who automatically respond to stimuli.”

The future: Going beyond the experimental and into the mainstream

So digital citizen engagement brings with it great opportunities for democratic participation, but also considerable risks. The “networked city” is defined by decentralised governance, and its promise is that it can unlock the “hidden” or bottom-up knowledge of communities — the experiences, skills, and resourcefulness of citizens.

There is still a need for human interaction, and the sweet spot comes with the mix of the “high touch” conventional public engagement the “high tech” of digital platforms. Combining digital and face-to-face engagement with citizens will build trust and empathy, and foster relationships and cannot be achieved by digital means alone. With strong relationships comes the capacity to collaborate virtually.

The 2016 World Development Report suggests that digital platforms and virtual convening could be transformative in terms of citizen engagement, as long as it makes provision for digital inclusion and reaches out to those who are less likely to use the internet. ‘Cities as a Platform’ and open data movements paint a high tech picture of the future urban governance where city governments more open, cooperative and the power dynamics between citizens and cities is evened out and government is an enabler for citizen-led innovation.

The jury is still out on artificial intelligence as a force for good in citizen engagement, but two out of three ain’t bad.



Rowan Conway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.