Politics Opinion

Citizen assemblies could lead the way to better democracies

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Extinction Rebellion took action outside the Consulat General Honoraire de France à Melbourne to stand in solidarity with the French Citizens Assembly on Climate (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Citizen assemblies play an integral role in smart city development, allowing the people to be more involved in decision-making processes, writes Paul Budde.

OVER THE YEARS, I have regularly mentioned my involvement in smart cities. I have been involved in this for over a decade. It was obviously my background in the application of technology that had drawn me to this concept. And indeed, it was technology companies such as IBM and Cisco who were key players in this market at that time.

Of course, developments such as broadband, the internet of things (IoT), smart grids, telehealth and tele-education would all come together in the concept of smart cities.

However, what I very quickly learned from cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, two key pioneers of the smart city concept, was that this was not the way to develop smart cities.

In my smart city consultancy work with over a dozen cities in Australia, I promoted the concept of “smart people”. Yes, you need the leadership from the cities and you need technology as an enabler, but in the end, it is all about the benefits to the citizens. In order to provide those benefits, you need to know what these people want, so I promoted the involvement of citizen groups – who had a vested interest in the outcomes – around certain problems or opportunities within the cities.

Now I have to admit that I was not very successful with this approach. In promoting citizen participation, in general, I received the enthusiastic support of the councils. However, it failed at the follow-up as it was not strategically connected to the decision-making process of the city.

Several years later and reflecting on it, I see this problem as a reflection of some of the failures that we see in our society as a result of the failings of our representative democracy; the system fails to allow for the proper participation of the people.

We have highly professional political systems, more focused on the short-term survival of the party than on what is good for the people in the longer term. Furthermore, we see a highly professional bureaucracy where rules and regulations are more important than the people they have to serve.

The distance between these “elites” and the people has significantly grown over the last 40 years, hence alienation. As a society, we can’t just outsource decisions on critical society issues to short-term party politicians and impenetrable bureaucracies protected by lots of red tape.

We the citizens need to show our responsibility, retake the political arena and the public debate and not just leave that to the politicians in their ivory towers.

One of my interests is philosophy and one of my favourite philosophers is German/American Hannah Arendt, who can be classified as an action-oriented political thinker. She argued – already in 1970 – that our current system of democracy is not functioning properly, for the reasons I mentioned above.

She argued that democracy needs to be extended by deliberative democracy. This is closely related to consultative democracy, in which public consultation with citizens is central to democratic processes. Communication between people is essential for a well-functioning society.

What we see happening in many democratic countries now is that they are experimenting with “citizen assemblies”, bringing people from all walks of life together (not just the elite). Here, proper communication between diverse people can take place. If we can execute along those ways, we finally start to talk about “smart” in a proper way.

In order for this to work these assemblies need to be:

  • a structural part of the decision-making process;
  • properly installed and supported by governments (federal, state, local);
  • an upfront commitment to follow up on the outcomes of the assemblies;
  • a group of participating citizens, to be chosen at random (drawing of lots as per the Athenian system from 2,500 years ago) but then based on a proper reflection of the society (in Athens it was only free men who were allowed to participate);
  • a group that will represent people at the poles as well as people at the centre of the issues that will be deliberated;
  • participating people, properly informed by experts from all sides;
  • a group that meets, for example, on a weekend once a month for a maximum of five or six sessions;
  • a group that presents a report to the relevant government; and
  • followed up by a decision by the political representatives (majority rule) or by referendum.

The best-known citizen assembly is the one that Ireland used for its debate on abortion and gay marriage. This process has been so successful that citizen assemblies are now sprouting up across the country. France launched a similar concept to discuss climate change issues, following the Yellow Vests revolts, but it is struggling with a proper follow-up. One of the first citizen assemblies was established in the German-speaking part of Belgium.

Back to smart cities, in 2016, a new local government in Barcelona launched the process of citizen assemblies as it was unhappy with the technocratic approach of its smart city policy. This has resulted in significant changes to its smart city policy, which is now people-centric rather than technology-centric. It also addresses issues well beyond technology — public housing was one of the first issues the assembly addressed.

Citizen assemblies work particularly well in local government settings.

An interesting phenomenon in these “pluriform” assemblies is that initially, the people at the poles of the issue are the more vocal ones but the majority of the people tend to end up more at the centre.

We need to improve our democratic systems and citizen assemblies will have to become an integral part of our political decision-making process if we want to ensure that democracy will keep delivering the national-good outcomes for all. Voting just once every four years is clearly not delivering the democracy we need to tackle the complex problems that we, as a society, are facing.

Despite the current negative notion of social media – if they are properly set up and used – they could also be a potential additional tool to increase public participation. Video streaming of the citizen assembly meetings adds to more transparency and public buy-in.

Hannah Arendt warned (in 1970) against two-party systems as they can become so entrenched – as we see in the USA – that because of polarisation, the Government is unable to address the complex problems it is facing. Democracy bogs down and consequent polarisation creates a serious democracy crisis.

While I have tried to engage citizens in my smart city projects, I now realise that much more serious work is needed to do this properly. We do need structurally supported citizen assemblies. We need to ensure that our democracies get extended with deliberative democracy, where citizens are involved in the decision-making processes and we need to ensure that proper processes are in place to follow up on the outcomes.

As far as I know, the concept doesn’t yet exist in any significant format in Australia. We can learn from the various projects that are underway in Europe. Hannah Arendt would argue It is up to us – and our responsibility as citizens – to take action to make this happen.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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