Article. ICT-based participation in municipalities: from citizen empowerment to the open cities network

Cover of article: Participación electrónica en los municipios. De la emancipación ciudadana a la red de ciudades abiertas

For the last year I have been taking part of the research project Voice or Chatter?, part of Making All Voices Count, a programme working towards a world in which open, effective and participatory governance is the norm and not the exception, and focusing global attention on creative and cutting-edge solutions to transform the relationship between citizens and their governments.

I had already released three outputs resulting of the work on this project:

A new article has been published from the same project. It is a shorter version of the political and regulatory context, now in Spanish. It has appeared in Revista Internacional de Pensamiento Político (issue #11), within a monograph on the digital revolution, technopolitics and digital democracy edited by Ramón Soriano and Francisco Jurado — to whom I owe much gratitude, not only for the invitation to submit a paper, but for their idea to curate such an interesting monograph.

Below appear the abstract of the article in English and Spanish and the download of the full text in Spanish.

Abstract in English

The Spanish local elections in 2015 brought to many Spanish cities what has been labeled as “city councils of change”: city councils whose mayors and governing representatives come from parties emerging from the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement. This research focuses on the socio-political environment where this phenomenon takes place, specifically in Madrid and Barcelona, the two major cities of the state and featuring “city councils of change”. Our research revisits e-participation since the beginnings of the XXIst century onwards and most especially in the aftermath of the 15M Movement, proposing that recent ICT-based participation initiatives in such in municipalities could be far from just polling the citizens and be, instead, the spearhead of a technopolitics-aimed network of cities.

Abstract in English

Las elecciones municipales de España en 2015 trajeron a muchas ciudades españolas lo que se ha calificado como “ayuntamientos de cambio”: ayuntamientos cuyos alcaldes y representantes en el gobierno provienen de partidos emergentes del Movimiento del 15M. Esta investigación se centra en el entorno sociopolítico en el que se desarrolla este fenómeno, concretamente en Madrid y Barcelona, las dos mayores ciudades del estado y con “ayuntamientos de cambio”. Nuestra investigación revisita la e-Participación desde los inicios del siglo XXI y, sobre todo, tras las secuelas del 15M, proponiendo que las recientes iniciativas de participación basadas en las TIC en los municipios podrían estar lejos de ser meras encuestas para los ciudadanos para ser, en cambio, la punta de lanza de una red de ciudades tejida con prácticas tecnopolíticas.


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Peña-López, I. (2017). “Participación electrónica en los municipios. De la emancipación ciudadana a la red de ciudades abiertas”. In Revista Internacional de Pensamiento Político, 11, 63-88. Sevilla: Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

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.
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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.
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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
A visualization of the network of, courtesy of

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: (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 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.

What is social inclusion today?

Amartya Sen revolutionized the concept of human development by presenting his capability approach. From his point of view, it is not enough to have physical access to resources, but, in addition, one must be able to put them to the benefit of oneself. This step from objective choice to subjective choice has been completed in recent years with a third stage of development: effective choice. According to that, it is not enough to have resources, or to want or know how to use them, but, moreover, it is necessary that one is allowed to do so. Indeed, it is the strengthening of democratic institutions what has recently been at the center of debates around human development and, by extension, social inclusion.

In a digital world, in the Information and Knowledge Society, it is easy to establish comparisons between these three stages of development with the three digital divides that have been identified since the term made its fortune in the mid-1990s.

  • The first digital divide is one that refers to access (or lack thereof) to technological infrastructures. A gap that, although persisting, will soon be residual as economies achieve certain income thresholds.
  • The second digital divide refers to skills, the so-called digital literacy. A gap that schools, libraries and telecentres have been tackling as a priority for some years.
  • The third digital divide, which adds up to (and does not replace) the former two, refers to the strategic use of ICTs to improve one’s life. We speak of online education, e-health or technopolitics, to mention only three cases where this gap is already more than patent.

This third gap, opened relatively recently, is quickly widening with the increasing presence in our lives of teleassistance, online training or political participation through social networks and spaces of deliberation, etc.

Therefore, social inclusion, and by extension the active exercise of citizenship, will increasingly depend on that third level e-inclusion, which enables a development based on full objective, subjective and effective choices.

It is likely that there will be no democracy, health or education without the active participation of citizens in these aspects.

Available data tell us that while the first digital divide is getting smaller and smaller, the second (skills) is increasingly important (especially in relative and qualitative terms: there are no more people, but they do see themselves as more digital illiterates) and, consequently, it contributes to enlarge the third one, that in many cases ends up with a flat rejection to everything that has to do with digital technology.

The so-called digital refuseniks are a group generally neglected when it comes to addressing social inclusion policies, with the probable outcome that they will be the great excluded of a society that, today, is building heavily on digital participation.

In an age of participation, engagement, co-building, it is to expect that there will be no greater active exercise of citizenship without greater and better use of the Internet; and there will be no greater and better use of the Internet if the problem of effective use of the Net is not addressed beyond physical access to infrastructures and beyond digital literacy.

As it has been stated above, there are three areas — health, learning and democracy — that are today the three most important areas (besides economic, often determined by the three previous ones) where social inclusion will be determined especially by the respective degree of e-inclusion of a given person… or an institution.

The recent achievements that have come from social innovation, open innovation and open social innovation are virtually inexplicable without that desire for an emancipated citizenship enabled by ICTs.

Selected readings

Digital divide
Van Deursen, A. & van Dijk, J. (2013). “The digital divide shifts to differences in usage”. In New Media & Society, 16 (3), 507-526. London: SAGE Publications.
Political participation
Cantijoch, M. (2014). La desigualdad digital, ¿una nueva fuente de desigualdad política?. ZOOM Político/2014/23. Madrid: Fundación Alternativas.
Peña-López, I. (2015b). “Política, tecnopolítica y desarrollo digital”. In Cristianisme i Justícia (Ed.), ¿Qué nos jugamos? Reflexiones para un año electoral, 12-14. Colección Virtual nº10. Barcelona: Cristianisme i Justícia.
Robles Morales, J.M., Molina Molina, Ó. & De Marco, S. (2012). “Participación política digital y brecha digital política en España. Un estudio de las desigualdades digitales”. In Arbor. Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura, 188 (756), 795-810. Berkeley: Berkeley Electronic Press.
Tarbal, A. (2015). “TIC y salud, un binomio saludable para todos”. In Roca, G. (Coord.), Las nuevas tecnologías en niños y adolescentes. Guía para educar saludablemente en una sociedad digital, Capítulo 1, 21-37. Barcelona: Hospital Sant Joan de Déu.
Peña-López, I. (2010). “From laptops to competences: bridging the digital divide in higher education”. In Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), Monograph: Framing the Digital Divide in Higher Education, 7 (1). Barcelona: UOC.
Peña-López, I. (2015a). “El doble filo de la tecnología: una oportunidad de inclusión y un peligro de exclusión”. In Roca, G. (Coord.), Las nuevas tecnologías en niños y adolescentes. Guía para educar saludablemente en una sociedad digital, Capítulo 9, 123-133. Barcelona: Hospital Sant Joan de Déu.