The shift towards a technopolitical paradigm has brought a new set of actors with a new set of spaces and instruments into the political arena.
In his book The Rise of Nerd Politics, John Postill defines a new breed of citizens that engage in politics neither by joining democratic institutions (political parties, unions, civil society organizations, etc.) nor by hacking these institutions, but by “clamping”, that is, by using a new set of skills consisting on a mix of computer science, law, arts and culture, media and journalism, and formal politics.
These citizens are a global democracy buffer that is not happy with being a “passive victim” of politics gone wrong. The produce public knowledge at the very heart of the civil society operating in the intersection of technology and politics and caring a lot about the fate of democracy. These political nerds usually work in small groups and often partner with non-nerds for their political actions establishing ‘strategic part-NERDships’. Not all of them are libertarians, but anti-authoritarian, an anti-authoritarianism that comes in different kinds and from many different backgrounds. notwithstanding, they are not cyber-utopians, but look for short-term political impact. On the other hand, they are not rooted on cyberspace, but on local communities strongly linked with other movements at the international level. Nerd politics usually operate in four different but connected fields: data activism, digital rights, social protest, and formal politics.
There have been some other authors that have identified new actors, new spaces and new instruments of political engagement. And, for better or for worse, these new actors, spaces and instruments are increasing in number and in influence. And, I would add, in general they are a positive influence: some of them might just seize the power, but most of them genuinely aim for the power to be applied upon them in a fairer way. That is, they want to improve democracy and its quality.
In my theory of change of citizen participation I included a whole section or “program” devoted to these new intermediaries, as I believe that if their contribution is good, society (and especially governments) should promote them and their activities — as they usually do with other institutionalized actors of liberal democracies.
But defining and promoting are two completely different things. To define something (or someone, or someone’s actions) you focus on the how. To promote them, you need to focus on the why, because this is what you are actually promoting: a cause — and, indirectly, its consequences.
So, what is exactly what one would like to promote by fostering new intermediaries in citizen engagement?
In my opinion, what follows is what make new intermediaries interesting and, thus, worth promoting:
They work with informal and non-formal instruments and spaces. That is, they work extra-institutionally, meaning that they are not institutionalized (e.g. a political party) and most of the times they do not work or even circumvent institutions in their activities.
They work for the common good. That is, they pursue the benefit of the whole community, not individual benefit — not to speak about individual profit. Obvious of this may sound, it leaves aside some lobbies that work for a specific collective, which is not the whole society. E.g. working for cleaner air is not the same as working for bike riders, even if the latter still is a non-profit aspiration. So, we are looking for people with the whole society in their minds.
They increase or improve the commons. This is a precision of the former statement. There are many ways to work for the common good, as advocacy, for instance. But in my opinion one of the main strengths — and differences from former political approaches — of technopolitics is that it creates democratic infrastructure. Of course, infrastructure does not necessarily means a new parliament or a new civic equipment. Citizen democratic infraestructures, in a broad sense, can of course be spaces (physical or virtual) but other devices that can be used and appropriated by citizens to engage politically — with institutions or among themselves: digital platforms and software for deliberation and voting, handbooks and guides, toolkits and procedures… but also other knowledge-intensive devices such as facilitation services, open data, training, visibility or public diffusion, conceptual frameworks, de facto standards and protocols, etc.
They work for the improvement of governance. That is, the purpose of these infrastructures is specifically to better rule our collective goals, including a better definition of needs or diagnosis, a better deliberation for an improvement of the political instruments, more inclusive policies by not leaving any actor out, better assessment of impacts and evaluation of outcomes.
Summing up, what we are looking to promote is actors that fly under the radar of institutions (and are, thus, invisible to them), but that pursue they very same goals (the benefit of the whole society), and do it creating things (for the commons) that any citizen can use to improve the way we make collective decisions (governance).
I think this is an operational and functional approach to the new phenomenon of intermediaries and how to publicly contribute to unfold their potential to collectively leverage their work.
Impact of information and communication technologies in agroecological cooperativism in Catalonia
In June 2016 four friends gathered around a table. Ricard was working on his PhD thesis, which I supervised, and summoned the help of a data expert, Toni, and someone knowledgeable on analysing networks of people, Oriol — later on Núria Vega would join the team to improve the whole project and, specifically, bring brains and muscle to the field work.
At that time we believed that ICTs were having an impact on agriculture and people working in agroecology and cooperatives. But we suspected that there was something else. In Catalonia, cooperatives were changing the shape of the agriculture sector in the XIX century. After a long hiatus during the Spanish dictatorship (1939-1978), the agriculture cooperative sector (with quite republican ideas attached) kept on being dormant… until the breakout of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s.
That was more than a coincidence to us, so we decided to analyze it — it was Ricard’s idea: the rest just followed. But soon we saw that there seemed to be much more than just a rebirth of cooperatives: what was being deployed before our eyes was something new. Beyond using ICTs to improve management and/or make sustainable non-mainstream models that can barely compete with the big behemoths of the food industry, what we saw whas that ICTs seem to be configuring a brand new ecosystem of food production and consumption, including new ways to understand food as a public infrastructure.
While we waited for the paper to be published, Oriol left us forever. As we stated in the paper, Oriol, it was fun working with you while you were among us. Now you are gone, but the good work remains. So long, friend. Ricard, Ismael, Núria and Toni.
Article abstract and download
In Catalonia, agroecological cooperativism is part of a set of alternatives that appeared as a response to the current hegemonic food consumption model, controlled by large commercial establishments. It is defined by its promotion of short food supply chains (SFSCs), operates under the values of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) and holds a strong political commitment. This article, on the one hand, studies the setup of agroecological cooperativism understood as the outcome of a network of producers, intermediaries and consumers and, on the other hand, examines the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the development of this consumption model. The data has been obtained through on-site interviews and online research on the 56 consumer groups and cooperatives present in Barcelona. Descriptive statistics and correlation analysis have been used to study them. The results prove the salient role that ICT has as a facilitator in the relational network established between the agents that take part in it, thus becoming a key characteristic element of the new agroecological consumer cooperativism.
The study analyses 50 good practices and 12 case studies to examine the impact of the internet, social media and new technology on youth participation and look at the role of youth work in supporting young people to develop digital skills and new media literacy.
In my opinion, the main result of the study confirms what others have already found and that is increasingly becoming the trend in inclusion and development: top-down approaches only do not work, and bottom-up, grassroots initiatives are necessary for projects to work. In other words, weaving the social tissue has to come first for any kind of community intervention one might want to deploy.
The 10 pages of conclusions can more or less be summarised this way:
Socio-economic status is crucial at the individual level and the knowledge gap has to be addressed immediately before social interventions.
Enabling the social tissue at the micro level contribute to strengthen the community and thus improve the diagnosis and mobilise social capital.
As people act in different communities, weaving networks at the meso level makes sinergies emerge and synchronise multilayer spaces. Skills and training are key at this level.
Once the initiatives have begun to scale up, it is necessary to mainstream and institutionalise them at the macro level, which means fixing them in policies and regulation. Quadruple helix of innovation approaches are most recommended.
The acquisition of digital skills has to be based on digital empowerment, on a sense of purpose.
Digital participation and engagement has to aim at being able to “change the system”, to structural changes, to digital governance.
The now mostly deprecated approach of build it and they will come should leave way to an approach in the line of empower them and find them where they gather. That is, to look for extra-institutional ways that young people participate and engage to design your capacity building and intervention scheme.
The study examines the impact of the internet, social media and new technology on youth participation and looks at the role of youth work in supporting young people to develop digital skills and new media literacy. It is based on an extensive collection of data, summarised in an inventory of 50 good practices and 12 case studies reflecting the diversity of youth work from across the EU. It confirms that youth work has an important role to play, but more has to be done by policy makers at both EU and national level to respond to the challenges and adapt policies in order to foster engagement and active citizenship of young people.
The article compares the emergence of agroconsumption groups and cooperatives in Barcelona since the mid 1990s with the most recent appearance of (presumably) platform cooperativism-based initiatives such as The Food Assembly.
The main conclusions are that while agroconsumption groups and cooperatives are deeply rooted in the social and solidarity economy, and most of the times in the sharing economy, some platform-based initiatives not only do not share this principles but, as it is the case of The Food Assembly, they do not even match in what we understand by platform cooperativism.
The article is in Spanish. An abstract in English follows and then the link for downloading the full paper.
The cooperative tradition around the consumption of agro-food products has a strong historical background in the city of Barcelona. Even if we refer to the first modern consumer cooperatives, we realize that their task has twenty-five years of permanence (Espelt et al, 2015). More recently —in July 2014— appears in the city another initiative of consumption to facilitate direct sales between local producers and communities of consumers, called food assemblies. Although the origins and differences between models are evident, they both share some common aspects in their approaches —willingness to self-manage, disintermediation of production and building a community—, articulated as part of the so-called “Collaborative Economy”. For their part, both types of initiatives, although with a very different approach, have in technology an important backbone for their activity. In this article, we analyze the points of encounter and discrepancy between the two actors as a model, placing the research framework in the city of Barcelona, where —in March 2017— we located some sixty groups and consumer cooperatives (Espelt et al., 2015) And thirteen food assemblies, six in operation and seven under construction. Emphasizing as differential factors, economic, technical, legal aspects, type of governance, values associated with the model or linked to the relationship between people, producers, final product or space.
Open social innovation is defined as “the creative destruction that aims at making up new processes that can be appropriated by the whole of civil society” (Peña-López, 2014).
One common denominator that can be found in successful initiatives that deal about political participation and engagement is that they use ICTs to remove barriers and/or equal the ground of participation (leaping the knowledge gap), create new platforms and projects shared by broad and multi-stakeholder communities (new processes phase) whose outputs and outcomes positively impact on the community and, at the same time, achieve reasonable levels of economical and especially social (self)sustainability (leveraging quadruple helix).
In the figure below we have drawn a scheme that aims to synthesise the common points that we have found in our review of cases and that are also pointed at in the literature. In the following sections we will explain how the initiatives we analyzed address each of the four layers into which we schematized their operational design and why addressing every layer is crucial for the final success of the project.
Government as a platform for open social innovation
The point of departure: socio-economic status and the knowledge gap hypothesis
In 1970, Tichenor et al. showed how mass media consumption did not necessarily had an evenly distributed positive impact on people’s knowledge. On the contrary, the impact depended on the point of departure, being much more significant on more highly educated segments of society. Thus, exposition to information depended on socio-economic status and did not add up to the pre-existing knowledge levels of the population, but had a multiplier effect: educated people will do better, uneducated people will do worse.
This “knowledge gap hypothesis” has proven true not only related to information coming from mass media, but from other knowledge devices such as public libraries (Neuman & Celano, 2006), the Internet in general (Bonfadelli, 2002; Selwyn et al., 2005; Van Deursen & van Dijk, 2013), instructional technology (Warschauer et al., 2004; Warschauer, 2008; Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010; Horrigan, 2016; Patterson & Patterson; 2017) or social media and e-participation platforms (Yang & Zhiyong Lan, 2010; Anduiza et al., 2012; Robles et al, 2012; Schlozman, 2012; Gainous et al., 2013).
Successful participation usually address as a first stance this situation. When addressing inequalities is not their first stance —such as in the case of projects explicitly addressed to employment— most projects include accompanying measures that aim at leveling the ground so that, according to their means, all players can engage in equal conditions.
At this level, which we call the point of departure, it is important that there are instruments that contribute to leap the knowledge gap by providing basic and operational resources that enable objective choice (Welzel et al, 2003).
In general, this stage is especially suitable for policies and programmes that address basic needs of the youth in particular and the citizenry in general. Beyond the obvious fact that individual development and progress is good per se, we want keep on stressing the fact that we have already stated: further measures to empower citizens will only work as desired if there are former leveling initiatives. Thus, formal education initiatives or employment programmes should be thought as a pre-requisite of higher level measures so that these can act as appropriate multipliers.
The micro level: enabling the social tissue
Once individuals are in (more or less) good conditions to be actual and active citizens, what naturally comes is that they coordinate to collectively promote initiatives. The more intertwined these citizens and their respective collectives are, the more resilient, sustainable, scalable and replicable their initiatives are. If basic conditions are a requisite for leveling participation and thus avoiding the unwanted outcomes of the knowledge gap, a tight social tissue increases the possibilities of success of a given social initiative.
Projects that plan ahead in this train of thought, design devices to enable social tissue creation or to strengthen the existing one. Financial resources, facilitators (such as social workers), members of the Administration or researchers that bring in background and context, etc. contribute to this goal.
Not surprisingly, face to face initiatives are more common at this stage, as they are welcome as better weavers of this social tissue. On the other hand, at this stage it is also worth noting that local leaders easily emerge when grassroots movements are fostered.
Being crucial the strengthening of the social tissue, local leaders and grassroots movements, the role of the government has to be stealth: the government thus becomes a platform that provides context, facilitates and fosters interaction while staying in the background. Attempts of the government to move to the forefront are usually perceived as patronizing or intrusive, and thus have a discouraging effect.
At this stage, Internet and social media initiatives should be addressed towards access to information and knowledge management, especially in knowledge-intensive sectors of both the productive economy and the civil society. But not only, digital skills on building digital personae or digital identities are key at this level so that the weaving of the social tissue can go beyond the local arena and, as we will see below, overcome barriers of time and space and enter the field of networking.
The meso level: weaving the networks
Citizens are usually part of different collectives and collectives usually operate at different levels or layers. Networks contribute to the exchange of knowledge between scattered individuals and collectives which would otherwise act as isolated nodes.
But not only networks contribute to the articulation of collectives of collectives, but also contribute to the diversification of the typology of individuals and collectives involved in a given initiative. Networks become useful instruments to articulate multi-stakeholder partnerships —formally or tacitly— and, if well balanced in their nature, these networks can promote interactions and exchanges between governments, higher education and research organizations, the industry and civil society organizations. The Quadruple helix model of innovation posits (European Commission, 2016) that only such kinds of interactions between these four types of actors can really produce innovations that do respond to the needs of the society at large.
We have found that the synchronization of layers is achieved by successful projects by means of networks. And that this synchronization is most of the times achieved by means of online platforms and other digital constructs.
At this point, digital literacy (information literacy and media literacy) become a key aspect for further developments. On the one hand, because networks (either facilitated by digital means or not) have a logic that is much different from industrial hierarchical models. On the other hand, because, when powered by digital platforms, its mere operation does require capacitation in a broad range of digital skills.
Networks, in a knowledge society, heavily rely on the gift economy and the ability to concentrate and distribute information that can be applied locally as knowledge. It is thus worth bearing in mind the complex constellation of literacies and competences that can be labelled as digital skills: technological literacy, informational literacy, media literacy, digital identity or e-awareness are just some of the names and concepts that are part of a set of skills that enable or foster other ones like creativity, teamworking, leadership or critical solving – or, in other words, XXIst-century skills (Ananiadou & Claro, 2006; OECD 2016a, 2016b).
The macro level: mainstreaming and institutionalization
If weaving the social tissue was the way to leverage the potential of now equal and individual citizens, institutionalization is the way to leverage the potential of quadruple helix-like networks.
Many projects aim at raising their goals at the upmost level and seeing them going mainstream. Only institutions, through regulation and policy-making can realize this aspiration.
Of course, most projects do not get to see their designs mainstreamed, especially during their limited time-spans. Thus, their proxy goal to mainstreaming and institutionalization is visibility. Successful projects are strong in advocacy and awareness rising, and they do it in two opposite directions. Firstly, as we just stated, by looking “up” towards the institutions, by showcasing and modelling, by comparing with other related projects. Secondly, by looking “down” to their communities, by assessing and evaluating their impacts, providing feedback to their citizens.
This double aim —mainstreaming by “looking up” and laying strong foundations for social sustainability— are typical of successful projects.
It is interesting to note how this stage is both the end of the process but also the beginning of a virtuous circle.
On the one hand, it aims at creating social infrastructures —policy, regulation, institutions— so that the benefits of the projects can become structural and not temporary, as embedding them in established and stable social structures are the best bet for replication, scalability and sustainability at large.
On the other hand, by establishing a dialogue with the citizens and looking for the individual impact, they address —this time with a top-down approach— the socio-economic layer where the whole process began in the first place.
(note: paper prepared after the fieldwork of Alexandra Theben on the Impact of the Internet and Social Media on Youth Participation and Youth work.)
Ananiadou, K. & Claro, M. (2009). 21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 41. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Governments are especially receptive to new proposals in times of crisis: Wait for a crisis to bring your solution to the government.
Before scaling up, think of scaling down: can it be done more effectively? Can it be done more efficiently? Etc.
Technology is a pain-killer, but it is not the cure.
Adi Eyal, Open Up
Specific technologies require specific methodologies and specific environments.
Same for people: you need to find the right people for any given scenario. Do not choose the technology: choose the technologist.
Edwin Huizing, Hivos, Making All Voices Count;
Projects have not to become too technical or too institutional if we expect people to own them.
Civil society space is shrinking. We need to create space, and this is done by building trust in civil society actions and with citizenry at large.
Judith Herbertson, DFID;
There is an interesting negotiation between civil society organizations, which want to push an issue forward, and governments, which should represent all citizens. This negotiation can be — and should be — a creative effort to achieve consensus around common lines of action.
Let’s stop talking about “failure” and let’s talk instead about what worked, what did not work and what can be done differently.
Joe Powell, OGP Support Unit
Civil servants have to be considered part of civil society, actors that have to be included in projects about governance and democracy. Governments are part of society too. We need a coalition of leadership from civil servants, subnational leaders and civil society organizations.
Opening spaces in governments should bring dividends for politicians, so that they have incentives to do it.
Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)