tiistai 12. elokuuta 2014

Stepping beyond citizen participation as we know it: multiple participations and the path towards collaborative work

Joanna Saad-Sulonen

Citizen participation is something all democratic societies aim for. For the last twenty years or so, much effort and hope has been placed on online digital technologies, which have the potential to enhance participation by making it easier for people to engage in issues of concern anytime and anywhere. Through the years, a plethora of e-tools have been devised. These include online questionnaires, e-voting systems, Geographic Information Systems-based tools, to mention but a few (Kubicek, 2010). Additionally, there has recently also been a growing interest in turning to blogs, wikis, and social media in general as new means for enhancing participation. Whereas all these different types of online digital technologies can indeed make citizen participation easier, there are many challenges that remain. I have identified in my research (Saad-Sulonen, 2014) two major limitations related to the way participation is currently addressed, especially by official bodies:

1. Participation is still understood in a conventional way; it most often means staging processes of consultation, where citizens are invited to give feedback on issues identified as important by officials. In other words, it is very much still a top down process.
2. Participation is still orchestrated around the use of single online digital technologies. The whole aspect of interacting with a multitude of technologies that make up people’s everyday digital landscape is ignored. Equally ignored is the need for participation in the design of digital technology, be it new technologies or the design and adaptation of useful ecologies of existing technologies.

These two limitations mean that participation is not in tune with the realities of our digital age. In fact, participation as conventionally understood ignores many of the emerging practices of citizens. A good example is the case of a group of active citizens in the neighborhood of Arabianranta-Toukola-Vanhakaupunki, in Helsinki, who decided to do something about traffic safety issues in their neighborhood. Through their collaboration with the Helsinki Neighborhood Association (Helka ry), and researchers from the Aalto University, this group of active citizens got to know about various existing online tools. They decided to use the openly available map-based Urban Mediator tool (um.aalto.fi) to ask fellow residents of their neighborhood to report issues related to traffic safety. 

Then, with the help of a Helka ry representative and the Aalto university researchers, they analysed the information collected and created individual Google maps for each category of identified issues. They shared these Google maps with the traffic planners of the City of Helsinki, who then informed them on the issues that had already been included in future plans, and also noted relevant issues for the future. The group of residents then co-wrote, along with a representative of Helka ry and the traffic planners, a report on the activities undertaken and the decisions taken. This report was shared publicly on the Arabianranta-Toukola-Vanhakaupuki neighborhood website. Finally, the traffic planners negotiated with the Registry Office of the City of Helsinki the possibility to archive the material collected and analysed by the resident group in the city’s archival system, so that it could also be accessible later to planners and other city employees. 

The example I have reported above serves to show that citizens need to sometimes address issues of concern regardless of the schedule for participation imposed by official processes in place. Furthermore, many citizens are tinkering with a wide array of existing digital tools in order to better self-organize, as well as better document and report their issues of concern so that they can communicate them to authorities.

In order to ensure a more solid democratic and participatory grounding for our societies it is not enough to focus on developing new technologies that support conventional types of participation, such as consultation. First, we need to acknowledge that there are different types of participation, which are all equally important. Citizen self-organization is one type of participation, which can very well co-exist with more conventional types. Second, we also need to accept that we can’t aim at developing single technologies that would somehow fully support all participation needs. Rather, we should aim at enabling people to shape ecologies of tools that together can support the different needs of participation. This means that what becomes important is to make sure that the new tools that authorities provide can be linked to other existing official or mundane tools. Open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) thus become important. Moreover, we also have to ensure that information, media, and data gathered by either citizens or officials should always be transferable from one system to another. Thus, import and export features become important.

If we keep these new aspects of participation in mind, we can even start building the ground not only for solid participation, but also for genuine collaboration between citizens and officials. Collaborative work can take place by sharing information, media and data about the living environment, across tools and platform, as well as engaging together in their analysis in order to together shape a better living environment.

Joanna Saad-Sulonen has recently defended her doctoral thesis on participatory e-planning at Aalto University. Joanna will pursue her research on the relationship between participation, urban planning, and the design of digital technology at Aarhus University’s Department of Computer Science in Denmark for the next year and a half.

Suomenkielinen tiivistelmä
Kansalaisosallistumisen välineiksi on kehitetty osallistumista helpottavia, internetissä toimivia kyselyitä ja GIS-pohjaisia työkaluja, ja sosiaalista mediaa hyödynnetään yhä enemmän. Erityisesti julkisen sektorin suhtautumisessa osallistumisprosesseihin on kuitenkin vielä rajoitteita:
1.    Osallistuminen on ylhäältä päin ohjattu prosessi, jossa käsitellään ennalta määritettyjä aiheita.
2.    Osallistuminen tapahtuu yhden teknologian kautta, eikä digitaalisia menetelmiä suunnitella osallistavasti.
Osallistumismuodot eivät kehity sopusoinnussa digitaalisoitumisen kanssa, ja kansalaisten omaehtoiset toimintatavat ei huomioida virallisissa prosesseissa. Esimerkkinä erilaisista toimintatavoista on Arabianrannan, Toukolan ja Vanhankaupunginlahden alueen asukkaat, jotka huolestuivat liikenteen turvallisuudesta. He kartoittivat sitä yhteistyössä Helka ry:n ja Aalto yliopiston tutkijoiden kanssa avoimin verkkosovelluksin. Tulokset esitettiin kaupungin suunnittelijoille ja julkaistiin raporttina. Tarve osallistumiseen ei aina ilmene virallisen osallistumisprosessin aikana. Osallistumismuotojen tulee tukea toisiaan ja linkittyä keskenään, ja datan tulee olla helposti käsiteltävissä. Parempaa elinympäristöä ja yhteistyötä luodaan jakamalla informaatiota eri välineillä ja alustoilla.

Kubicek, H. (2010). The potential of e-participation in urban planning: a European perspective. In C. N. Silva (Ed.), Handbook of Research on E-planning. ICTs for urban development and monitoring (pp. 168-194). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Saad-Sulonen, J. (2014). Combining Participations. Expanding the Locus of Participatory E‐Planning by Combining Participatory Approaches in the Design of Digital Technology and in Urban Planning (Doctoral Dissertation). Helsinki: Aalto University.

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