Citizenship, Connected Multitudes and Networked Territories

Last month Reyes Gallegos (@rellitas) from La Ciudad Viva (@laciudadviva)  have sent me some questions about Citizenship, Participation and Technology. I would like share with you my answers translated to english. You can read the original version in spanish here.

I hope you will appreciate the interview: I will be grateful if you want to leave a comment.

Below the Interview:

Hello Domenico. What is your idea about citizenship? Does this concept have to be broadened in our digital times?

When we talk about citizenship, it is very difficult to find a definition we all agree with. We often refer to a group of people who belong to a particular society which is organised according to legal and political attributes. This definition proves that a citizen needs to participate in order to belong to the society; however, in western societies we have seen how citizens are gradually moving away from this “political” space.

Certainly, part of the responsibility falls on the capitalist/consumer model, which has separated productive/economic processes from local communities and its territories; on the other hand, the governance infrastructures of democratic inspiration have ended transforming the idea of citizenship in an instrumental and “automatic” fact, a type of inheritance or legacy.

This is why I would like to suggest a definition which can strongly and better reflect the historical moment we are living and the new forms of social and political organization to come.
In my opinion, citizenship refers to a multitude which is connected and inhabits a glocal and networked territory.

In order to be clearer, I need to explain what I understand by a connected multitude, the sense in which I use the verb “inhabit” and what do I mean when I talk about glocal and networked territory.

In Spinoza’s opinion, multitude represents a large number which remains as such in the public scene, in joint action, in the management of common issues, without converging in a single issue, without evaporating in a centripetal movement. I believe a connected multitude is a large number which recognises itself and is capable of self-legitimization in order to act according to processes of collective intelligence which transform and improve the territory it inhabits.

Territory is not a resource but an ecosystem of elements and agents in continuous evolution, where technology plays a basic role by promoting interaction and expanding people’s movement and information among different territories. By networked territories I mean the deep influences and relations held by different territories among themselves, just as it happens in a network structure. Furthermore, each micro-territory is connected today with a more global dimension, its own dynamics -like its own inhabitants- move and interrelate constantly with everything that surrounds them, with territories that are closer but also with those which are distant; this makes us talk about glocal territories where the local (or micro) scale establishes continuous dialogue with the macro (or global) scale and vice versa. (we are working on it with Asier Gallastegui and Zaramari in Tweets & Walks workshops)

Finally, by “inhabiting a territory” I do not mean the action of “being” in it, but the ability to create activities, processes and relations which repeat, reinforce or transform a territory beyond the simple use or presence.

To go more deeply into this subject, I recommend reading a small book which I have written together with Igor Calzada (@icalzada) and Adolfo Chautón (@adolfochauton). The title of the book is “Macro. Meso. Micro. Systemic Framework of Territory from Social Innovation” available for free download on website.

What is participation for you? How should citizens exercise it?

The same as with the concept of citizenship, I cannot think of the concept of participation without contextualizing and looking towards the future at the same time. Traditionally, we have associated this word with processes which allow citizens to be directly involved in decision-making; a way of going beyond processes of representation and delegation.

Even though I am aware that this has been accomplished in very few occasions, in this historical times we are living we need to move in a more “daring” direction.

Today participation should not be focused on managing but on experimenting new ways of constructing what is common. The aim is not to involve citizens in managing what is public but to create the necessary space of freedom for new models of citizens to arise.

We need to imagine a new model of governance and therefore new public and common infrastructures. This is the issue we are working on from the 15muebles platform, formed by @basurama @zuloark @acorsin @adolfoestalella and me, with the special participation of @skotperez.

Today, infrastructures based on democratic principles are not able to go along with and accept the processes of new connected and positioned multitudes which organise themselves to create new spaces of collaboration and opportunities. This is why exercising participation nowadays means necessarily to constantly move the line of what is imaginable, obviously without disregarding common sense.

As my friend Maria Laura Del Tento says, reality needs to be imagined first.

In other words, I think citizens can understand participation not only as the necessary involvement in decision-making which affects their own habitat but also as a process of collective thought and action capable of generating structures which are valuable for everybody (commons) and good practice that can be developed by public administration.

In this sense, it is clear that we cannot think of recipes but each territory needs to find out its own way. As Igor Calzada rightly says, place does matter, like never before.

What instruments of participation should public administrations provide/use?

First of all, I think a change of attitude is necessary. Administrators (people) should honestly accept that public administration is very distant from citizens and does not find within its own processes the ability to reduce this distance. Strange as it may seem, I find it clear that we undergo a new transition. Processes of representation do not work as they used to and we, together, need to experiment and imagine new models.

Many citizens are already starting to move and take responsibility for their environment. These are citizens who do not only choose but who create their own reality. Their way of working is far from the partisan logic and, therefore, does not find political or institutional support. Unfortunately, this type of self-organization is often seen by public administrations as a faction with no official representation in institutions and, thus, lacking any interest or even as illegitimate.

From my point of view, the first step is to observe and better understand these phenomena in order to ascertain in which way can local administrations better interact with citizens and develop solutions which reflect proper common sense. An example of this is the Astra building in Gernika, a self-managed cultural centre which is the result of a dialogue between citizens and council: citizens manage the centre independently while the council takes charge of maintenance expenses.

The best forms of interaction between citizens and public institutions can only be established through real trials following the proposals made by citizens themselves. Since this form of innovation can hardly originate in the administration itself, it is better that citizens are allowed to do, without being left alone.

Citizens now have a great capacity to imagine and create new urban infrastructures in a collaborative and inclusive way. Citizens are already moving the line of the imaginable. Now, politicians, local administrations and all institutions belonging to an inherited and declining ecosystem can either strongly oppose or, otherwise, allow this experimentation.

In Campo de Cebada, in Madrid, we seem to find the second alternative: the council has allowed a group of citizens (a connected multitude) to manage an available space right in the centre of the town. This space has turned out to be a real laboratory where opportunities and good and bad practices can be experimented to create a new model of participation. Campo de Cebada is a public space in continuous transformation where a driving group generates the necessary structure for the project to be open. Administrations, from whatever town they may be, should be able to find out about this exceptional case, so that they can discuss it with those who develop similar projects and acquire the basic knowledge required in order to understand where to start and what practices have worked better or worse.

How can new technologies influence these forms of participation?

New technologies are already playing a very important role by increasing communication effectiveness, which is essential for collective intelligence and adhocratic processes. They allow us to distribute huge amounts of information in an independent, fast, transparent and horizontal way.

The same concept of connected multitude refers precisely to our ability to exchange information in a horizontal way, something which is much easier thanks to Internet.

We are situated right at the beginning of an important process of digitalization of tacit knowledge or, in other words, of the cultural landscape that surrounds us. Therefore, we need to experiment and fully understand the potential of the tools operating in this digital dimension.

Social networks have undoubtedly made us feel an increasing interest in our own image but, at the same time, we have started to pay less attention to the sole flow of information of mass communication media, which surrounds us all equally everyday.

We are undergoing the beginning, the first stage, of a process which can go a long way and change many things. Now that almost all of us appear in some social networks, we start realizing what digital identity really is and how important it is. We start to be aware of and to use it in order to develop as citizens.We can consider this a relatively fast process if take into account that social networks are barely 10 years old.

A very illustrative case is that of Social Street, initiated in Italy by a neighbour from “Via Fondazza” in Bologna, who started using Facebook to connect with all his neighbours from the same street and ended up creating an ecosystem of local communication which has enabled residents who did not know each other to exchange and participate in collaborative projects. Another example is that of Cercamia (project I am involved in) which allows residents to connect with their neighbours according to their interests and uses a complementary digital coin that helps to increase the capacity of exchange.

We are witnessing an intensification of the interaction existing between the digital and physical dimensions. We are increasingly using digital communication to connect and do something useful or interesting with the people surrounding us.

Going back to projects of urban innovation, or simply to the needs of processes of participation, new technologies offer us the opportunity to communicate in real time what is happening in any type of process. It is an essential element to add transparency and for any person who cannot be present at a certain event to participate digitally and in a public form.

We are just at the beginning of a great change in our entire form of communicating and establishing relationships with our neighbours, and the public administration, just as it has provided us with physical infrastructures, should start offering digital infrastructures for citizens.

I relieve the next fundamental steps are those which will eventually connect the triangle of universities, local administrations and citizens. We need more transparency, more communication and more interaction within this triangle, and new technologies can greatly help us to achieve it.

We need to know what is being taught at universities just as we need absolute transparency and easy access to all information related to the public administration. Studies, research and all processes of governance need a direct interaction with citizens. And, why not, we also need universities and councils to be fully aware of the activities carried out by the new connected multitudes, we need them to analyse, observe and criticise these activities, the same as they do with any political decision, because this is the only way we can move closer to the new reality we imagine and we deserve.

Today, that intangible part of the town has a new ally, the digital dimension, a new public space where everybody can store information so that it can be freely accessed. This way, information relating to residents, streets, history and businesses in a specific neighbourhood does not remain stagnant but starts to be accessible for much more people than before.

Why do you think participation and direct communication of citizens with the public administration does not work?

The problem is to see citizens as a group of people who communicates with the public administration individually or organised in groups of interest. In this sense, the public administration moves in a legal framework which is rarely flexible and according to the capability of representation of that person or group of interest. The result is a failed participation, which eventually depends on a delicate balance of electoral consensus. This is something which may have been reasonable a few years ago but completely inadequate in the present situation.

To make myself clearer, I need to introduce a concept which I have found revealing and which I have started to reflect on thanks to a very interesting session of Think Commons with Mayo Fuster: the multiple belonging.

The democratic system is organised according to the idea of exclusive belonging, which is why we have designed laws and infrastructures that understood citizens organised in homogenous large groups who need to discuss and organise themselves in order to live together. The result is a society which is organised according large packages, being these professional, economic, social or political.

For the last few years we have been experimenting with processes and technologies that help us remove intermediaries and allow us to organise according to a different logic, where each citizen belongs to different groups with different ideas depending on the particular issue.

The connected multitude, who does not organise itself according to an organic group of interest but according to their wish to directly transform something in their own habitat, is actually structured in an adhocratic way, i.e. it is not based on the interaction between existing groups of interest (or political groups) but it is structured as it goes along building their protocols in a horizontal way which is completely independent from every other process. In this sense, we experiment multiple belonging precisely because anyone can collaborate with people who, in other contexts or issues, may have a totally different opinion.

As the connected multitude is not structured according to pre-existing groups, it moves away from the burden or influence which other processes may have inherited. An homogeneous group organised according to a stable structure ends up being much more determined by its own history and internal balance.

Now, if the administration still views this multitude from the perspective of their capacity of representation, our discussions will continue falling on deaf ears. Obviously, we still do not know how to organise ourselves according to this much more spread logic, but it is clear that the representative democratic system is no more the finishing line but the starting point.

Administrations need to communicate with citizens in the legitimate way provided by the democratic infrastructures but open to new models which are closer to the adhocratic logic this connected multitude tends to follow.

picture by @numeroteca

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