Planning from the base: Circular participatory projects

Mankind’s success has crucially depended upon the ability to cooperate for a common goal and to create communities. This is how we moved from caves to megacities. The value of cooperation relies in the community: a group sufficiently small to deal with daily based decisions, and big enough, to understand the relevance of external dynamics. Participation represents, at the local level, a strategy often more successful than representative politics which could be constrained by local interests (in Italy, only 20% of citizens trust local politicians; Demos, 2014).

WS Angolazioni, 2013, Venezia, progetto partecipato per il riuso degli spazi sottostanti i numerosi cavalcavia di Mestre


The first participative projects, at the community level, were organized in England in the 70’. Several problems rose. The main ones related the lack of dialogue within the community and the unwillingness to delegate power to citizens. In practice, pre-defined forms of engagement were preferred to more elaborated and participative approaches. Citizens’ participation was limited and choices could be easily driven by the architect interest. Transparency and engagement were limited. A mediator was in charge of planning and implementing strategies to favour the public debate to finalize a shared decision. The participative planning was an idea to empower people but it was organized upon the needs of the policymakers.

Then something happened. A new technology, the internet, redesigned the concept of participation solving some crucial problems. Now, it is possible to participate without being physically present, enlarging the target of participation and allowing an unprecedented level of transparency. Identity became irrelevant. Everybody could express her opinion on everything. Finally, Internet allowed combining an infinite number of information, the biggest dataset ever collected.

Such combination of elements defines Internet as the most useful tool to implement participative projects, and finally, we start doing so. In the last fifteen years, the relevance of local participative projects has constantly risen. The key-words “participatory design” was 600% more common in 2014 than in 2000. In 2013, Island has been the first country to design a Constitution through crowdsourcing. Ushadidi, a crowdsourcing app aimed signalling emergences, has drastically reduced the intervention time of local authorities in Equatorial Africa. The pyramid of decision making is slowly moving, switching from a system where few specialized agents take decisions from an opposite scenario where the bottom of the pyramid holds the power. Institutions got the message as they are more and more likely to favour participative projects (the OECD recently advised the diffusion of participative planning to foster citizens’ trust). However, this operating system is still based on key agents who define the object of the participation. What would it happen eliminating such intermediate players? What would it happen delegating all the power to the bottom?

Salisburgo 2010, azione spontanea di riuso temporaneo di uno spazio urbano, ad opera delle comunità di quartiere.

Such cases are called “circular” participative projects: citizens who cooperate to solve community’s problems to solve different sets of welfare, urban and governmental issues. The first input comes from citizens who then build personalized, bottom-based, solutions. The current challenge relates the creation of web-platforms able to guarantee such participative projects, “digital squares” created to host public debates. Raymond Lorenzo di ABCittà explains that “the participative planning is an educative process”, as “such interactions, among citizens, guarantee reciprocal knowledge and feelings of belonging towards the local community”. Internet is not a shortcut but a method to allow shared decision making in the 21st century cities, an ally to the standard methods of participative planning.

CivicWise’s goal is to generate a platform which allows interactions within and between communities, identifies problems and define suitable solutions, following their implementation. No intermediate players, no compromise. Only citizens united to work together for a shared goal.

Vittorio Netti


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