“The cities are taking over as defenders of democracy today”

Interview with Joan Subirats, Culture Commissioner of the City of Barcelona

The Culture Commissioner of the City of Barcelona, Joan Subirats, is a renowned expert in innovation in public policies and open government. On 6 of November he will take part in a discussion group with the spokesperson of the City of Madrid and the general secretary to the Union of Ibero American Capitals, Rita Maestre dedicated to the “Challenges of the democratic innovation in the urban context”. This act is the part of the series of debates “La Agenda 2030: From Speech to Politics” and will take place within the 2nd World Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Peaceful Coexistence. In this interview Subirats explains some of the key points of the role the cities have as promoters of new, more participatory democracy connected to the everyday life of the citizens.

What are the challenges the cities face today as far as the democratic innovation is concerned?

The cities today are starting to play a major international role as places for innovation and creativity. The fact that you can access all information from wherever you are seemingly makes the urban, semi-urban and rural spaces the same, but at the same time the globalization creates spaces where the concentration of people, density of interaction and the existence of many different activities creates more opportunities for innovation. The research on this subject emphasize that with the homogeneity of the technological specialists of the Silicon Valley, the cities combine many different types of major roles. It is serendipity, an occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. In spaces where there is more density and where the interaction processes happen simultaneously, there is much more probability for a chance that a meeting between a visual artists and a person from the industry business would result in an opportunity that nobody was counting on.

When we talk about the traditional democratic institutions, do the cities have the capacity to oppose a new democratic model?

I think that what we have is a feeling of vulnerability. The democracy loses its legitimacy because it has less power to protect a society from the uncertainties and the risks when the future of the society is threatened because it does not know what the work in the future will be like, if the family and social structures will stay the same… We feel that our retirements are threatened, we don’t know what will happen to us, if our children will live better or worse. This uncertainty generates a feeling of vulnerability and in a way the nation states are less capable than before to respond to these demands for protection, because they are weakened by the globalization process. The cities have an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is the proximity: they can be more responsible for the everyday elements of the citizens’ wellbeing, from transportation to housing, public spaces, noise, friendliness of the streets, etc. – those are the elements that create protection from up close. But the disadvantage is that its competencies compared to the State’s competencies are much lower. The cities have more and more responsibilities, but they don’t have the competencies and that generates a sort of a paradox: the cities appear in the debates on what is happening in the lives of the people much more than before, but they don’t have the means to respond. In Barcelona there is a lot of pressure of tourism and the public building stock is very low – 1.5% compared to 30%, 40%, 50% that the capital cities like Copenhagen, Berlin or Amsterdam have. But of course, it is not a local competency; it has been a State or Regional Government competency that has not been implemented.  It is a visible tension and the cities are taking a very big role in defending this everyday democracy that is important.

Don’t you think that there is a risk that if we make certain policies local, that we would lose a little bit of the global vision, more imaginative solutions from a wider scope?

We should see what are we talking about when we say wider scope, what is the scale where this kind of innovation processes are given in a more comfortable, more regular way. Is it a national, regional or European? The European innovation processes generate interactions between innovation and investigation produced locally – they generate connectivity in a research group that is working on new spaces of a library in Denmark with the ones working in Italy, for example. It is a connection of innovation that is produced locally, but it interacts globally. In my opinion, the appropriate scale of innovation is not national nor European, in any case it is the one of the metropolitan scope.

How can you achieve implication and participation of the people from the cities when the connection between the citizens seems weaker every day?

Generating processes where the people feel they play an important role, not just as spectators with a symbolic participation, but without effect: in the coproduction of policies the people participate in the definition of the problems, they don’t simply look for the ratification of the symbolic processes when the problem has already been defined and the solution is already known.  Evidently, it is more complicated, but it is what guarantees that these processes can give results.  Another element is to look for prototypes, experiment solutions that can have a particular local support and that later, if they work, can be reproduced in other areas. It is where the citizens play a very important role, not a generic role, but a role focused on a problem, a territory, a community. We should give value to what is already happening, because there are some very interesting events happening in Hortaleza, in Gràcia or Sants that can later be reproduced in other places.

The innovation is very closely related to the new technologies. You have stood up for “politicizing the technological transformation”. What do you mean by that?

The technology is not neutral, it generates winners and losers, there are people who are left behind, there are risks that were unexpected. The technology interferes with our lives, extracts data from our activity without us being able to control what is done with that data, it watches over our everyday activities, it threatens our workspace, constructs seemingly technical algorithms, although that construction is full of prejudices and values. It is evident that, as always, the technology is not neutral but that it produces winners and losers, costs and profits. To politicize it means to discuss all that.

When we talk about the traditional concept of the vote as the central element of the democracy, you defend that democracy is “primarily deliberation”. Can the new technologies make deliberation processes better – to come to agreements, to strike up constructive conversations? Have you had experiences like this in Barcelona?

There is “Decidim”, in open code, that is being transferred from the municipal level to other fields (institutions, associations, etc.). It is a technological mechanism to generate participation, deliberation and decision processes. In topics that are more deliberative, it is sometimes more complicated, but there are mechanisms to construct documents collectively. For example, during the Thinking Bienniale of Barcelona (Bienal de Pensamiento de Barcelona) there were digital minutes of many of the sessions that were open so that other attendants could contribute and generate spaces for deliberation in the digital world.

From the point of view of the local Governments, how is the relationship between the Government, Administration and the citizens evolving?

What we have seen is that now the institutions have more ability to reinforce the citizens’ capabilities. I believe this is the challenge: we have to make the society less dependent on the institutions, generate more autonomy. Now we use the word: empowerment. If there are public services that can be managed directly by entities, by civic groups, maybe that will result in these people feeling more involved in these services, make them feel like these services are more theirs. But when there is a client relationship with the Administration and the public services, it does not generate implication. It is a tendency that happens when we talk about the community elements, shared elements, as something different from the public administrative and the commercial private elements.