The US presidential election results came as a surprise to many of us especially because we hadn’t encountered any testament of sweeping support towards the current president in any of our communication channels. Recent public discussions have highlighted the polarising effect of social media use, apparently so free and open but only towards those that think the same way as we do. This is at least what the running algorithms are working for. To the point that a harsh critique was expressed against Facebook and other social media platforms because of it not taking a clear stance on its role in the political campaigns and spreading fake news.
Aside from elections and referendums, internet and digital communication have had a strong impact on changing the way in which politics works. President Obama was the first “social media president”: the first to have @POTUS on Twitter, the first to go live on Facebook from the Oval Office, the first to answer questions from citizens on YouTube. Furthermore, social media has taken on an increasingly important role in communicating with citizens also at local level. Many mayors around the world have been experimenting with their use not only during election campaigns but especially throughout their office to try and create a meaningful exchange with local residents. Mayor of Seoul Wonsoon Park has been making use of crowd-sourcing maps to collect citizens’ ideas, live streaming in the conference room to see whom the mayor is meeting and installation of a huge ear through which the mayor listens to what inhabitants have to say. In Canada, Mayor Naheed Nenshi has made one of its strongest tool the authentic use of social media to communicate with citizens of Calgary. But also on our old continent, European mayors are increasingly making use of social media to reach people. Mayor Sadiq Khan has launched the campaign #londonisopen to counteract Brexit in the British capital. The Mayor of Bari Antonio Decaro published on his social media accounts some pictures to raise awareness among the city residents against anti-social behaviours such as leaving bulky waste on the streets.
With digital media allowing connections with citizens not only on a one off occasion but in an ongoing process, not only political leaders are exploring its potentialities. City administrations are using a variety of instruments to improve their services. With tools like Fixmystreet, and all its national variations, local administrations can swiftly receive information on street maintenance or waste disposal problems in town, therefore being able to promptly solve them. The City of Amsterdam has crowdsourced citizens’ input to map vacant properties in the city, with the goal of supporting local entrepreneurship and regeneration. By using Twitter, the City of Barcelona has managed to promote not only historical central markets but also more remote ones. In Helsinki the Open Ahjo system made available to citizens a wide set of urban data and geotagged all the City council’s decisions on the map in order to keep them trackable in the different areas of the city. And there are many other tools delivering a service of public interest that have been developed outside of the public administration, under a large spectrum of social and economic interests. This is the case of Crezikit in Palermo, a platform that links existing artisans of the historical city centre with young designers and innovators, aimed at creating a team than can realise new services and products. In Budapest, Uzletetide is a map developed by a bank that collects input and ideas from inhabitants on businesses that are missing in their area, allowing also to identify new market niches that might require a bank loan.
All these applications explore different modalities and gradients of civic involvement. And the bigger decisions are, the more we leave behind technical questions and enter the realm of politics. The more we aim towards co-creation and the higher we climb up Arnstein’s participation ladder. So how can digital tools strengthen democracy in our cities?