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Madrid As A Democracy Lab

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For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive – is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

During the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid in 2011, the hackers at the core of Madrid’s 15M developed a platform for anyone to make political proposals. Designed in free software, the Propongo platform allowed users to put forward ideas which could then be voted on. The operational arrangement was pretty simple: decentralized proposals, from the bottom up. The State of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), where participatory budgets came to light in 1989, used part of the Propongo code and its philosophy for the Digital Cabinet, its star citizen participation project.

In Spain, the political class turned its back on the Indignados. On the other side of Propongo, no one was there. No local, regional or state government listened to the new music coming out of the squares – and even less to the proposals. Meanwhile, collective intelligence and networking in the squares were developing sophisticated mechanisms for participation and deliberation, both online and face-to-face. The powerful technopolitics made in Spain conquered the hearts of activists all over the world. And the hearts of some foreign academics and politicians too.

In May 2015, the so-called “citizen confluences”, overcoming the traditional political party formats, conquered the governments of the main cities in Spain. And part of the squares technopolitical intelligence was transferred to local governments. Hacktivists, programmers, assembly and participatory process facilitators went on to work for the institutions. Pablo Soto, a historical hacker from the peer-to-peer movement and one of the Puerta del Sol regulars, was one of them. In June 2015, Soto became the head of participation of the Madrid City Council. Ahora MadridBarcelona en ComúZaragoza en Común, among many other political confluences, began to rev up participation in the country’s main cities.

“All roads lead to Spanish cities, where they are experimenting with citizen empowerment tools like nowhere else in the world”, noted Geoff Mulgan, head of Nesta in the UK. Two years after taking power in the so-called Cities of Change, participation has become one of the biggest disruptions. And hacker Soto’s Madrid is the city that has gone further down this road. From the networks to the territory, and vice versa, Madrid is turning the collective dream of the occupied squares of 2011 into public policies.

Democracy from the bottom up

Pablo Soto uses a word that the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language does not recognize (yet): disintermediation. Political disintermediation means removing intermediaries from representative politics. The aim is clear: getting citizens to make their own decisions.

The launch of Decide Madrid, the city participation platform running on the Consul free software, signaled a real revolution. On the one hand, it paved the way for democracy from the bottom up, through direct and binding mechanisms. Unlike other historical participatory budgets, the 100 million Euros devoted to Decide Madrid participatory budgets in 2017 are allocated according to proposals coming from below. The proposals that get the most votes, whenever technically feasible, are approved. The platform also carries a section for “citizen proposals”. If a proposal gets the support of 1% of the registered Madrid citizens over the age of 16 (that is, 27.064 citizens), it gets to the final voting stage. The first such vote on citizen proposals took place on February 13-19 2016, on the Internet and in several physical places in the city. The 100% sustainable Madrid proposal was voted by 188.665 people (89.11% of the voters). The proposal A single ticket for public transport, although it exceeded the City Council’s area of jurisdiction, was supported by 198.905 people (93.94% of the voters) and put pressure on the Madrid Transport Consortium, where the regional government has a major stake.

Picture2_8Image source: Decide Madrid.

Decide Madrid is also being used for binding urban planning consultations, such as the ones on Plaza España, the Gran Vía, and the remodeling of 11 squares in the city’s suburbs. Thanks to the cultural disintermediation of the Napster software, unknown music groups have been organizing concert tours without any help from the record companies. Thanks to the disintermediation of Decide Madrid, a proposal by an individual citizen from the Retiro district has managed to turn the almost abandoned Daoíz y Velarde Theatre into a film library.

“The bottom-up belt which enables people to impose decisions on top-level officials is not a technological tool: it is a popular initiative mechanism. Before, the mechanism consisted of collecting signatures. Now, citizens use technology to collect them, opening up a, an We have done that in Madrid (…) The Propongo philosophy governs most direct democracy platforms implemented in Spain by the councils of the Cities of Change”, says Pablo Soto.

The Decide Madrid platform was not initially well received by the traditional neighbourhood associations, used to face-to-face participation and to mediating between citizens and government. In order to tackle this, a number of face-to-face deliberation spaces are being set up, such as the Local Forums (physical participation spaces in the districts), and also projects such as If you feel like a cat (participation for children and teenagers), or processes such as G1000, which aims at promoting collective deliberation and fostering proposals from below on the basis of a representative sample of the population, so that the participants’ diversity and plurality is guaranteed.

Most projects are being carried out with the support of the new Laboratories of Citizen Innovation of the prestigious Medialab-Prado. The Participa LAB(Collective Intelligence for Democracy), the DataLab (open data) and the InciLab (Citizen Innovation Lab) are joint public/common initiatives, acting as a bridge between local government and citizens. The Participa LAB, which is the one working more closely on participation, is collaborating with Decide Madridin a number of projects (Codat Madrid hackathons, If you feel like a cat, community lines, gamification, G1000, narrative groups…) and coordinates the Collective Intelligence for Democracy international call. InciLab has launched, among many other initiatives, the Madrid Listens project, to connect City Hall officials with citizens on concrete projects, blending disintermediation and the citizen lab philosophy.

More than 300.000 users strong, Decide Madrid is consolidating itself as the hegemonic space for participation in the city. It activates a variety of processes, debates, proposals, and projects. Its free software means that any city can adapt Consul to its needs, without any substantial investment, and set up a platform. From Barcelona to A Coruña, from Rome to Paris and Buenos Aires, dozens of institutions around the world have replicated the initial Decide Madrid core, thus setting up what Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, calls a “liquid federation of cities”. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, praising the cooperative network of participation cities says: “It is very interesting that in Barcelona we have been able to carry out our first experience of digital participation, Decidim Barcelona, adapting Madrid’s base code. Once we have had a first proposal, we have shared it with many municipalities throughout Catalonia”.

Distributed democracy

The brain as a metaphor. A map of Hamburg (Germany) as a symbol of the networked, decentralized city. Neurons and neighbourhoods connected by flows, inevitably synchronized. Both images are to be found in Emergency, Steven Johnson’s classic book on collective intelligence processes. The city as a brain, as a whole made of decentralized nodes. The city as an open network, where any neighbourhood-node can connect with any other. Caio Vassão’s concept of a distributed city rounds the edges of the city with no centre, “networked, open, fluid, flexible, adaptable, reconfigurable”. A city where the neighbourhoods in the suburbs dialogue and relate to each other without the mediation of a historical center.

oi_0Left: Diagram of the human brain. Image source: Mittermeier. Right: Map of Hamburg, circa 1850. Image source: Princeton Architectural Press.

Madrid has kick-started a forceful decentralization policy. Distributed democracy in Madrid can be seen in how budgets are allocated, how city districts have multiplied their resources and partly manage cultural festivals (like the Summers in the City) and cultural projects (Madrid District).

At the same time, the launching of the Local Forums is a clear move to decentralize power and participation in the city. Through projects such as Experiment District (travelling citizen laboratories), Imagine Madrid (rethinking 10 territories) or the M.A.R.E.S project, Spain’s capital city is redrawing its neighbourhood fabric, its economic relations, and citizen involvement in decision making. The successful Medialab-Prado’s Experiment District project, which has already visited Villaverde, Moratalaz and Fuencarral, is in full expansion. It is about to even launch a global call, as dozens of cities around the world want to replicate it. Medialab-Prado, one of the city innovation centres, defines Experiment District as a set of “citizen labs for experimenting and collaborative learning in which anyone can participate”. Citizen (neighbourhood) labs based on the prototyping culture, an open and collaborative way of developing projects. Citizen (neighbourhood) labs for learning and teaching, where the result is not a perfect product, but a process that can be improved in real time through the collaboration of citizens from the Madrid neighbourhoods.

Democracy of the commons

The exuberant ecosystem of citizen practices and self-managed spaces has turned Madrid into an international reference of the urban commons. How do the commons in the city relate to local political power? Many expectations were generated when Ahora Madrid came to power, since Patio Maravillas, a well-known occupation in the city, was part of the candidacy that won the local elections. During the first year in government, the City Council carried out a policy of handing over spaces in collaboration with the Network of Citizen Spaces (REC), which groups most of Madrid’s self-managed spaces. Expectations were dampened, though, for Patio Maravillas became a cultural tug-of-war with the Right and finally did not get a space in the city centre which the Council was ready to hand over. In many districts, however, the City Council has begun to transfer spaces to citizens, fueling the autonomy of the commons. The Self-Managed Social Centre PlayaGata (in Fuencarral) and the Social Space La Salamandra (in Moratalaz), both of them spaces handed over to citizens, have been key points for nurturing the Experiment District project. Madrid has also transferred to civil society different areas of the city, such as the Sueca Palace, the Almendro 3 plot, the Fruit and Vegetable Market (assigned to the neighbourhood of Arganzuela) and La Gasoli. In addition, the city has handed over several plots where citizens were farming illegal urban gardens, thus strengthening the Urban Gardens Network in Madrid.

The recent occupation of La Ingobernable, a “Metropolitan Social Centre for the construction of the urban commons” located in a building which is a City Council property, a few meters from the Prado Museum, shows that Madrid’s civil society wants more. That it is not settling for the established institutional frameworks. That social centres are citizen labs, vital pieces of democracy, co-creation spaces of a living city. That the commons are tension and conflict too, not just co-management. Madrid’s democracy lab feeds on citizen autonomy and at the same time on an institutional side which tries to overcome, sometimes at too slow a pace, the classic logics of representative democracy. The ironic poster hanging on a wall in a room at La Ingobernable sends this message from self-management, the commons, the citizens, to the institution: «Make Madrid great again».

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