Democracy beyond voting

There is a widespread desire among citizens for greater involvement in political decision-making than cast a vote periodically. The participation ladder, developed in 1969 by Sherry Arnstein, is a useful summary of the degree in which government and citizens share power. Below, I jump to the highest rung of the ladder: Local government empowers citizens to make independent decisions, or partial autonomy.

In Italy this process has boomed, and the city of Bologna has become a stronghold of so-called urban commons. Citizens become designers, managers, and performers of selected municipal tasks, such as creating green areas, converting an empty house into affordable units, operating a minibus service, cleaning, and maintaining the city walls, refurbishing parts of the public space, keeping open a swimming-pool and much more. 

The most important instruments are cooperation-pacts. In each pact, city authorities and the parties involved (informal groups, NGOs, schools, entrepreneurs) lay down agreements about their activities, responsibilities, and power. Hundreds of pacts have been signed since the regulation was adopted in 2011. The city provides what the citizens need – money, material, housing, advice – and the citizens make their time, skills, and organizational capacity available. 

The commons-movement will influence urban governance in the longer term. The Italian political scientistChristian Iaione predicts the emergence of a city of commons. Here, many urban tasks are performed by commons and cooperatives. The city then is a network of both, decision-making is decentralized and deconcentrated.

A similar idea The city as a platform has emerged in the US coming from a completely different direction. Instead of simply voting every few years and leaving city administration to elected officials and expert bureaucrats, the networked city sees citizens as co designers, co-producers, and co-learners, according to Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder of GovLab. In the city as a platform residents look individually and collectively for new and better ways to meet their needs and enliven public life. These may be neighborhood-based initiatives, for example the redevelopment of a neighborhood or city-wide initiatives, for example a cooperative of taxi drivers, competing with Uber.

Without saying it in so many words, everyone involved sees both the city of commons and the city as a platform as a long-term opportunity to make citizens the engine of urban development instead of enabling multinational companies taking over that role. For the time being, city administrators can best focus on enabling and supporting citizens’ joint action to make cities more beautiful, liveable, and sustainable.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)


Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies


11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City