Centralization vs. decentralization tensions in the Digital Economy

When we speak about Information and Communication Technologies, it is an almost unavoidable mantra to say that this is an era of democratization of technology, of democratization of (access to) information. Meanwhile, we witness how the major technological firms grow, acquire or bury their competitors, keep on growing and concentrate the market in a decreasing number of hands. Which is quite the opposite of the democratization of technology.

Let us simplify things a little bit for the sake of the explanation.

Two of the main reasons for the centralization of production in the Industrial Age were the cost of capital and the economies of scale. That is, the need to gather huge amounts of money to build up factories and infrastructures in general meant that only organizations with lots of money (e.g. governments) or large coalitions of people (e.g. big firms and their stakeholders) could afford huge enterprises and, thus, property of the productive tissue was concentrated in few hands. This concentration had, in its turn, a side-effect: the bigger the investment, the bigger the returns, as economies of scale are significant in mass production.

In a digital economy it does not exactly work this way. Investment costs usually are much lower than in the Industrial Age. Let us take creating a newspaper. Lots of in-house journalists have to be allocated inside a building (it is cheaper this way), and an expensive printing press and tons of paper are strictly necessary before a single issue sees the light. On the contrary, a free software installation on a cheap web server is enough for a decentralized team of freelancers to create content and automatically and very cheaply put that content online (remember this is a simplification of reality).

On the other hand, though, big returns come not with doing more with less (returns of scale), basically because we are already operating with lesser costs, both fix and per unit. Returns will come with people: the more people join your (publishing in this case) platform, the bigger the returns. These are the network economies or network effect: something is more valuable the more people use it.

Capital cost Low High Low
Economies None Scale Network
Appropriation Distributed Concentrated Distributed
Exploitation Distributed Concentrated Concentrated

Table 1. Centralization vs. decentralization tensions in the Digital Economy

And here is where the tension appears: as investment costs decrease, appropriation of capital — or technology — can be decentralized. That, is individual people or smaller groups have it easier to have state-of-the-art technology in their hands. When there is no copyright (an non-technical added barrier to the cost of technology), such as in openly licensed information, free software or open hardware, then costs are even lower and technology distribution can spread further and broader. This is where “democratization of technology” does apply.

But it is different with the exploitation of digital capital and digital infrastructures. Unlike appropriation, it still needs a critical mass to make the best of it, to benefit from its returns. Its nature is different — from production costs and economies of scale to network effects and network economies — but the result is similar: concentration of production of goods or delivery of services to have a deep impact.

This tension can be solved in two different ways.

  1. The first one is that people can still use technology for their own particular purposes, but main corporations will still dominate production — including media and agenda setting. You can have a blog, but media rule the communication market. You can have a 3D printer, but big factories produce everything. You can sell online your used stuff, but the big digital retailers distribute everything that there is to be sold. And so on.
  2. The second one is that there is a way where individual appropriation can be combined with collective exploitation. Or, better said, communal exploitation. Just like in cooperatives.

The latter is an idea with a highly transforming potential, because it may — it may — change the economy (and society) as we know it. It represents taking the best of XIXth century cooperatives with the best of the digital revolution. On of the most interesting ideas behind this model is described in Platform Cooperativism. Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy by Trebor Scholz.

Here come other references for reflection:

Acevedo, M., Moreno Romero, A. & Mataix, C. (2015). “ICT4D as the driver of Network Cooperation actors, connections and collaboration in the post-2015 international development landscape”. In Steyn, J. & Van Belle, J. (Eds.), Beyond development. Time for a new ICT4D paradigm?, 18-39. Proceedings of the 9th IDIA conference, IDIA2015, Nungwi, Zanzibar. Nungwi: IDIA.
Espelt, R., Peña-López, I. & Rodríguez, E. (2016). “Activismo desde el consumo cooperativo de productos agroalimentarios: ¿Economía alternativa o tecnopolítica?”. In Balcells et al. (Coords.), Building a European digital space, 560-581. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, 7-8 July, 2016. Barcelona: UOC-Huygens Editorial.
Saveri, A., Rheingold, H. & Vian, K. (2005). Technologies of Cooperation. Palo Alto: Institute for the Future.
Scholz, T. (2016). Platform Cooperativism. Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Book chapter. Environmental education in a world of networks

Cover of the book Educació Ambiental

In 2009-2010, some colleagues and I did a small research for the Diputació de Barcelona (Barcelona County Council) on new ways of political participation enabled by ICTs. The following year, my colleague Albert Padró-Solanet and I adapted some of that research and turned into a set of training sessions for city council officers in the field of communication, participation and environment, the latter being a field in which collaboration between institutions and organizations at the city level is crucial.

The Technical office of education and environmental promotion of the Barcelona County Council has just issued a book, Environmental education. Where have we come from? Where are we going?, in which we were invited to write a book chapter on how environmental education and awareness raising on environmental issues has changed due to the adoption of ICTs.

Our chapter —Environmental education in a world of networks— begins with an introduction to the digital revolution and the kinds of tools and applications that are more deeply changing information and communication between citizens and between citizens and public administrations. Of course, the list of specific applications will quickly be outdated, but the reflections around them and their categorization we believe will still be useful in the following years. After the digital revolution and some tools, we talk about the communication plan, how to identify our targets, how to campaign or how to think of communication as a way of building up a project-centered personal learning environment (PLE — in this case, the P would stand for project instead of personal). The chapter ends with some practical cases and some conclusions or things to keep in mind.

The book — and the book chapters — is published in Catalan, Spanish and English, and our chapter can be downloaded below.


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Book chapter:
Peña-López, I. & Padró-Solanet, A. (2017). “Environmental education in a world of networks”. In Diputació de Barcelona, Environmental education. Where have we come from? Where are we going?, Chapter 11, 544-559. Col·lecció Estudis. Sèrie Medi Ambient, 4. Barcelona: Diputació de Barcelona.
logo of PDF file
Capítulo del libro:
Peña-López, I. & Padró-Solanet, A. (2017). “Educación ambiental en un mundo de redes”. En Diputació de Barcelona, Educación ambiental. ¿De dónde venimos? ¿Hacia dónde vamos?, Capítol 11, 397-414. Col·lecció Estudis. Sèrie Medi Ambient, 4. Barcelona: Diputació de Barcelona.
logo of PDF file
Capítol del llibre:
Peña-López, I. & Padró-Solanet, A. (2017). “Educación ambiental en un mundo de redes”. A Diputació de Barcelona, Educació ambiental. D’on venim? Cap a on anem?, Capítol 11, 231-257. Col·lecció Estudis. Sèrie Medi Ambient, 4. Barcelona: Diputació de Barcelona.

Participation in Spanish Municipalities: The Makings of a Network of Open cities

A visualization of the network of decidim.barcelona
A visualization of the network of decidim.barcelona, courtesy of decidim.barcelona

In September 2015, Madrid — the capital of Spain — initiated a participatory democracy project, Decide Madrid (Madrid decides), to enable participatory strategic planning for the municipality. Less than half a year after, in February 2016, Barcelona — the second largest city in Spain and capital of Catalonia — issued their own participatory democracy project: decidim.barcelona (Barcelona we decide). Both cities use the same free software platform as a base, and are guided by the same political vision.

The success of the initiatives and the strong political vision behind them have caused an outburst of other initiatives around the whole state – and most especially in Catalonia – that are working to emulate the two big cities. They are sharing their free-software-based technology, their procedures and protocols, their reflections both on open events as in formal official meetings. What began as seemingly a one-time project, has spread both in length and width. In length, because it will not only stay but grow over time. In width, because there are serious plans to expand its adoption both at the regional level, led by the Barcelona County Council, and at the Spanish State level, being replicated by other municipalities.

Of course, the big question is whether this has had any positive impact in the quality of democracy, the very intention behind the participatory initiative in Barcelona.

Available open documentation suggests that decidim.barcelona has increased the information access of the citizens, has gathered more citizens around key issues. There has been an increase of participation, with citizen created proposals that have been widely supported and legitimated and finally accepted to be part of the municipality strategic plan. As pluralism has been enhanced without damaging the existing social capital, we can only think that the increase of participation has led to an improvement of democratic processes, especially in bolstering legitimacy around decision making.

This can be summarized in four key points:

  • Deliberation becomes the new democracy standard.
  • Openness as the pre-requisite for deliberation.
  • Accountability and legislative footprint as an important by-product to achieve legitimacy.
  • Participation leads to more pluralism and stronger social capital, which fosters deliberation, thus closing the (virtuous) circle of deliberative democracy.

Although the scheme may be simple, we believe that it already features most of the components of a new democratic participation in the digital age. What remains to be measured and analyzed is the strength and stability of the new relationships of power and how exactly these will challenge the preceding systemic structures and lead to newer ones.

Although some aspects have been identified in what relates to new relationships between citizens and organizations and institutions, and in what relates to the creation of new tacit communities, para-organizations relational spaces, the real trend and hypothetical final scenario will only become clear after several iterations of the same project evolve in a continuum of participation, radically different from existing, discrete participatory structures.

What has already been measured is the impact both at the quantitative level and on the culture of the organization of the City Council.

The culture of participation was scarce and mainly dealt with managing the support of the citizen in top-down type initiatives. Changing the mindset implied turning upside-down, many of the departments and processes of the City Council: new coordination structures, new balances between the central administration and the districts’, need to speed up the slow tempos of the Administration, manage public-private partnerships (that had to be coordinated too), enable private-private coordination and, in general, increase the workload.

Although the platform and the project in general changed the way of working, and changed it for good by contributing to visualize the work of the public servants, one of the main conclusions reinforces the old saying — democracy is not cheap.

Originally published on March 3, 2017, as Participation in Spanish Municipalities: The Makings of a Network of Open cities at the blog of the research project Voice or Chatter? led by IT for Change.

More information on this project:

Report. State of the Art: Spain. Voice or chatter? Using a Structuration Framework Towards a Theory of ICT-mediated Citizen Engagement

Cover for the report

This report aims at providing an overview of the normative and institutional state of art of ICT-mediated citizen participation in Spain. The first section provides an overview of the political and civic liberties framework in Spain. In the second section the landscape of ICT mediated citizen engagement is mapped. In the third section, the report engages with implications of technology mediations for deliberative democracy and transformative citizenship.

This report is the outcome of a collaboration between IT for Change and Ismael Peña-López, School of Law and Political Science, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya under a research project titled Voice or Chatter? Using a Structuration Framework Towards a Theory of ICTmediated Citizen Engagement.

The State of the Art reports provide an overview of the normative and institutional state of art of ICT-mediated citizen participation in various countries. They provide an overview of the political and civic liberties framework, the landscape of ICT-mediated citizen engagement; and delve into the implications of technology mediations for deliberative democracy and transformative citizenship.

A former version of this report was released as a working paper as Technopolitics, ICT-based participation in municipalities and the makings of a network of open cities. Drafting the state of the art and the case of decidim.Barcelona.

About the Project

This research has been produced with the financial support of Making All Voices Count. Making All Voices Count is a programme working towards a world in which open, effective and participatory governance is the norm and not the exception. This Grand Challenge focuses global attention on creative and cutting-edge solutions to transform the relationship between citizens and their governments. Making All Voices Count is supported by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and Omidyar Network (ON), and is implemented by a consortium consisting of Hivos, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Ushahidi. The programme is inspired by and supports the goals of the Open Government Partnership.


The author wants to thank the guidance, thorough review and suggestions made by Deepti Bharthur, Nandini Chami and Anita Gurumurthy from IT for Change. The author also wants to thank the indispensable help from Arnau Monterde from UOC/IN3.

Metadecidim (II). Silvia Luque: The participatory experience of the Municipality Action Plan through the decidim.barcelona platform

Notes from the Metadecidim workshop, within the decidim.barcelona participatory programme, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 25-26 November 2016. More notes on this event: metadecidim.

Silvia Luque, Fundació Ferrer i Guardia
The participatory experience of the Municipality Action Plan through the decidim.barcelona platform

One of the biggest challenges in a hybrid online-offline participatory process is, precisely, how to balance participation in both spaces, virtual and face-to-face.

The oneline platform has been the amplifier of what was going on in the offline arena. It also gathered all the information and contributed to trace the participation footprint.

Of course, the digital platform itself held lots of debates and collected proposals directly online.

Mobile points — ad-hoc kiosks on the streets — provided offline feedback from what was happening online.

The online platform was both a participatory platform and a work platform: everyone worked within the platform. Both citizens and managers used the platform for all the tasks and procedures related to the participatory process.

There was a good balance between online and offline participation, though in the online platform there was slightly more participation. The platform, though, affected the topic: in wellbeing, there were more proposals offline, while in the topic of environment more proposals came online. This sure has to do with the profile of people that participate online or offline. On the other hand, face-to-face events were mostly organized by the city council, who did not organize the same amount of events for each and every topic of the Municipality Action Plan. Participation and proposals, also, not necessarily go hand in hand: one can find topics highly participated that produced relatively few proposals, and lowly participated topics that notwithstanding produced lots of proposals. The topic and the nature of the participation sure explain the differences.

The nature of participation was also diverse: make proposals, comment on the proposals, support others’ proposals, vote proposals, attend events, interact with a mobile point, comments on online debates.

New tools require new literacies and new working logics. And also taking into account the possibility that there is a digital divide. As online and offline behaved differently, the most promising approach is a hybrid one that enables both logics of participation.

Metadecidim (2016)

Metadecidim (I). Robert Bjarnason: Digital tools for the democratic revolution in Iceland and beyond

Notes from the Metadecidim workshop, within the decidim.barcelona participatory programme, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 25-26 November 2016. More notes on this event: metadecidim.

Robert Bjarnason, citizens.is
Digital tools for the democratic revolution in Iceland and beyond

Citizens must have a strong voice in policymaking with formal and persistent participation in the political process.

The Citizens Foundation created three open source tools:

  • Your Priorities, an idea and debate platform, on crowdsourcing. Your Priorities is about building trust between citizens and government.
  • Open Active Voting, on budget voting, but very pedagogical on how budgets work. Participatory budgets are not only about having a direct influence on expenditure, but also on knowing how much things cost and what it means to have a budget. After that, trust is built and better decisions are made in collaboration with citizens.
  • Active Citizen: improved participation with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Artificial intelligence helps in participation with little time spent, helping to overcome bubbles and biases; virtual reality for data visualization and online meetings.

Participation must be fun, informative and educational. Yes, it has to be democratic, and rigorous. But also engaging, something you enjoy doing. Gamifying participation is a good approach for a successful participatory initiative.

Participation tools have to meet people where they are. Tools have to have a “mobile first” design in mind.

But the key for participation to succeed is that it has an impact. Decision-makers do have to listen and take into account what citizens say. If citizens feel they are participating for nothing, they will quickly move away from all other participatory processes.

Participation is also about communication and marketing: people do have to know to be able to participate. It’s not propaganda, but informing the citizen.

Metadecidim (2016)