Trends in Digital Participation
Year of production: 2024
Digital participation can be defined as the utilization of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to facilitate engagement and involvement in government and governance processes in addition to decision-making processes. It is an evolving field and its dynamics are shaped by a complex interplay of developing approaches, emerging trends, and cutting-edge technologies. The discussion of digital participation encompasses a spectrum of approaches, procedures, and methodologies, all geared toward a common goal – to enhance civic engagement and disseminate ideas through the expansive realm of digital tools and platforms. As we navigate this context, it becomes evident that new trends are on the horizon, and technological advancements hold the potential to stimulate innovative participatory approaches. However, this transformative journey is not without its challenges, and addressing them will be fundamental to realizing the full potential of digital engagement in shaping the future.
Digital participation between online activism and e-participation platforms
Online activism and e-participation platforms represent diverse means of digital participation that, although from different perspectives, enable citizens to engage in discussions, contribute ideas, and participate in various online activities.
Online activism and Social Media
According to the Global Digital Report 2023, the global count of active social media users has reached a staggering 8.7 billion individuals, constituting approximately 59.4% of the total world population—a notable 3% increase from previous years. This escalating figure underscores the potential inherent in social media for online activism and digital participation. Social media platforms are profoundly shaping civic participation and have transformed into crucial hubs for supporting social and political causes, and organizing protests to influence political and public agendas. They are able to facilitate information exchange and emotional content and in the meantime they have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to quickly mobilize large crowds. The Black Lives Matter movement stands as a paradigmatic example of this shift, seamlessly integrating with social media to create a network of grassroots activism. The enduring influence of the hashtag is remarkably clear. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, there were over 44 million #BlackLivesMatter tweets posted by nearly 10 million distinct users on Twitter from July 2013 through March 2023, with more than half – 24.5 million – being posted between the beginning of May and the end of September 2020.
Similarly, the MeToo movement gained global recognition by leveraging the collective power of social media, offering victims a platform to share their stories, challenge established power structures, and foster a global sense of solidarity.
The multifaceted impact of such movements on democratic processes extends beyond mere online discourse, shaping public opinion, influencing policy agendas, and holding institutions accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the participatory nature of online activism has democratically opened up public discourse, providing individuals traditionally marginalized or excluded from mainstream conversations with a potent platform to share their experiences and perspectives
E-participation can be defined as “a participatory process that is made possible by modern information and communication technologies and that allows stakeholders to actively participate in public decision-making processes through active information exchange and thus promotes fair and representative policy-making”. Enhancing the influence and participation of citizens in policy-making is not intended to replace the system of rules and principles itself, but rather to respond to citizens’ demands for more openness and transparency. The imperative to promote digital participation becomes evident when considering the findings of the 2018 Democracy Perception Index (DPI), which revealed that the majority of people worldwide feel they have no voice in politics (51%). E-participation platforms are currently being used by municipalities and government bodies worldwide and it could serve diverse purposes, enabling activities such as proposing new projects, deliberating on shared decisions, planning the use of public spaces, voting on different topics, prioritizing options, and drafting policies. An example is the Decide Madrid platform, established to facilitate direct individual online citizen participation in the city’s public affairs. Citizens can propose projects through an online, user-friendly website, and proposals receiving at least 1% of the city’s registered population’s votes are discussed, amended, and transferred to the City Council for examination. Out of Madrid’s 2.7 million citizens over the age of 16, 464.654 were registered on the platform in 2020, providing direct input on city matters.
Similar e-participation platforms have been implemented in Leuven at local level and in Croatia at governmental level. These platforms are also used for participatory budgeting, which is a process to let residents decide how to spend part of a public budget. The concept has its origins in Brazil, and a growing number of cities around the world offer it, including New York City, Paris, Helsinki, and Barcelona.
New trends in digital participation
While online activism through social media and e-participation represents broad approaches in the field of digital participation, new trends are emerging that further promote modern forms of engagement. Notable among these include hackathons and crowdsourcing, along with other methods such as online petitions on platforms like openPetition and digital volunteering activities.
Hackathons are events where individuals, often from diverse backgrounds, collaborate within a short and defined timeframe to address challenges or develop technological solutions for pressing problems. These gatherings bring together innovators, researchers and citizens to create shareable solutions. Hackathons have been implemented at EU level, such as the DigiEduHack initiative, a series of 24-hour grassroots local hackathons held annually, where participants come together to create solutions to diverse digital education-related challenges. It was held for the first time in 2019 and in the first three editions it gathered more than 6.700 participants from Europe and beyond. Other examples are The Climathon, run by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology’s (EIT) Climate-KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community) to engage cities and citizens in climate action, and The Digital Education Hackathon focusing on education in the digital age.
Crowdsourcing can be considered an approach for solving problems and generating new ideas by connecting online with individuals who might otherwise be inaccessible. It provides citizens with the opportunity to learn from others, collaborate, and participate in decision-making. Examples of crowdsourcing platforms include those developed by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), such as the ECAS Citizenship Awards, which aim to gather solutions to foster the political participation of EU citizens in the European Parliament elections. Another example is the crowdsourcing platform developed in the framework of the PopAI project, which has been used to gather the point of view of citizens on the topic of Artificial Intelligence. Crowdsourcing positively influences civic participation, as it encourages citizens to voice their opinions on issues directly affecting them, thereby increasing their democratic participation in political life and overall engagement.
Emerging technological tools and digital participation
The processes of digital participation can also benefit from the emergence of technological tools that need to be evaluated further. Artificial intelligence could have a potentially disruptive impact on participation due to its versatility and ability to analyze a large amount of data, while participatory processes in the field of urban planning can benefit from the implementation of Augmented and Virtual Reality tools. Finally, blockchain technology could transversally impact various forms of digital participation, enhancing transparency and accountability.
Augmented Reality (AR) is a transformative technology that overlays computer-generated sensory information, encompassing images, sounds, or data, onto the real-world environment. Utilized through devices such as smartphones, tablets, AR glasses, or heads-up displays, AR seamlessly blends digital elements with the physical surroundings, enriching the user’s perception of reality. This innovative tool serves to make abstract ideas and concepts tangible for citizens, thereby facilitating a deeper understanding and engagement with proposed changes.
AR finds significant applicability within participatory approaches, particularly in the realm of urban planning. A noteworthy example is its successful integration into the planning process for a portion of Oslo’s project involving the planting of 100,000 trees between 2020 and 2021. This initiative engaged five distinct groups of youth participants hailing from eight different districts of Oslo. Case studies conducted in cities like Vienna and Lucerne further illustrate the positive impact of AR, showcasing its ability to not only boost inhabitants’ motivation to participate in planning processes but also to elevate the overall quality of participation.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that creates a simulated, interactive 3D environment and it can play a role in augmenting citizen engagement and participation, especially within the realm of participatory design for public projects. Unlike traditional participatory design techniques that often rely on digitally produced still images, VR immerses individuals in a computer-generated environment, providing a more comprehensive understanding of urban issues. It significantly enhances spatial comprehension, allowing citizens to grasp the implications of different design decisions more effectively. In a participatory process conducted for an urban design project in Santiago (Chile), VR demonstrated its ability to facilitate the generation of precise, relevant, and valuable comments from citizens. This immersive technology goes beyond the constraints of static images, enabling participants to experience proposed changes more vividly and comprehend the potential impact on their surroundings.
In the contemporary landscape of democratic governance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) stands out as a transformative force with the potential to revolutionize citizen participation and engagement in the near future. The integration of AI-driven tools offers governments the opportunity to enhance information accessibility, streamline communication channels, and personalize civic experiences for citizens. AI can be employed in applications like chatbots, enabling them to analyze user input, understand context, and provide more personalized and contextually relevant responses, thereby enhancing the user experience in virtual interactions. Additionally, it can be utilized in sentiment analysis tools designed to analyze and determine the sentiment expressed in political texts, including news articles, social media posts, speeches, and public opinions, thereby offering policymakers real-time insights and proactive issue resolution, with the formulation or adjustment of policies based on citizen preferences.
AI is not merely a tool for analysis; it serves as an active partner in shaping governance by leveraging data-driven insights to inform decision-making. It is utilized in the Polis participation platform, a real-time system designed for gathering, analyzing, and understanding the unfiltered opinions of large groups of people, empowered by advanced statistics and machine learning. This approach has been applied in various contexts, such as in the vTaiwan project, a collaboration of citizens and government to deliberate and ‘co-create’ legislation related to the digital sphere, showcasing the potential of AI-driven participatory processes in shaping the future of democratic governance.
However, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in democratic governance, while promising transformative benefits, also introduces potential risks. The reliance on AI-driven tools raises concerns about privacy, as the analysis of vast amounts of personal data for sentiment analysis and decision-making may compromise individuals’ private information. Moreover, there is a risk of algorithmic bias, where the AI systems may inadvertently perpetuate or amplify existing societal inequalities, reflecting the biases present in the data on which they were trained. Vigilant oversight, ethical guidelines, and continuous scrutiny are essential components in harnessing the potential benefits of AI while minimizing its associated risks.
Blockchain technology offers a shared and unalterable distributed digital ledger capable of storing diverse forms of data. It ensures the integrity of the stored information by making records immutable. The ledger is replicated in decentralized, identical databases, allowing anyone the possibility to verify and validate records within the blockchain network. This technology can serve various purposes. It can be the foundation for secure and transparent voting systems, achieved by recording each vote as a transaction on the blockchain. This ensures a secure and decentralized method for verifying participants’ identities, enhancing the overall integrity of the voting process. Additionally, blockchain could provide transparency in tracking the utilization of funds within participatory budgeting processes. Beyond its technical functionalities, blockchain has the potential to transform the relationship between institutions, citizens, and civil society. By instilling enhanced confidence in citizens through increased transparency and security, blockchain can strengthen their participation and contribute to the improved performance of public policies.
The Impact of Societal Changes and the role of EU
Contemporary technology has become not simply an additional tool but a fundamental aspect of our existence, influencing preferences, behaviors, and expectations. There is a growing awareness among EU citizens that digital technologies play an important role in their daily lives and the young generations, compared to the previous one, seem to be more active in the digital field. According to an Eurostat survey conducted in 2022, 96% of people in the EU aged between 16 and 29 made daily use of the Internet, compared with 84% for the whole population, while 99% of respondents aged 15-24 had a personal mobile phone. In general terms, new generations are more poised to embrace and favor digital participation tools in the future, setting the stage for increased adoption and effectiveness of digital tools in shaping the future of civic involvement.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge the potential disparities in digital participation. Concerns arise regarding the accessibility of digital technologies to certain segments of the population. Issues related to the digital divide, including the availability of IT infrastructure and differential digital literacy and skills, need careful consideration. Authorities must address these concerns to ensure that the benefits of digital participation are accessible to all, fostering a truly inclusive and participatory democratic experience.
To address this challenge the European Union has recognized that promoting digital competences and skills is essential and is addressing these issues through its flagship policy initiative in this domain, the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027). There are also measures in the Digital Europe Programme that are focused specifically on boosting advanced digital skills. In the framework of the Erasmus+ several projects aimed at promoting digital competence and literacy have been developed, such as the DIGIBLEND project or the DISC project while in the framework of the European Solidarity Corps volunteer opportunities in the field of digital participation-related issues are made available.
In conclusion, the landscape of digital participation is undergoing a profound transformation, shaped by the confluence of activism, diverse approaches to participation, technological advancements, and societal shifts. The surge in online activism, driven by the widespread influence of social media platforms, has revolutionized the dynamics of civic engagement. Notable movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo illustrate the potency of networked social movements in rallying global audiences, reshaping public discourse, and holding institutions accountable.
The emergence of new forms of digital participation and the potential contribution that the integration of technological innovations can bring represent a paradigmatic shift in how citizens interact and participate. However, there are still critical elements to be considered and addressed amid these transformative trends in the near future. Such criticalities include the widespread dissemination of fake news and misinformation on social media, the risks associated with the implementation of artificial intelligence in participation processes, and structural problems such as persistent differences in digital literacy and accessibility. These issues demand attention to ensure that the dividends of digital participation extend to all segments of the population.
Envisioning a more inclusive, transparent, and responsive democratic landscape in the near future requires policymakers to address existing disparities diligently. Fostering an environment where the potential of digital engagement is realized for the benefit of all citizens becomes imperative. The aim is to create a seamless integration of digital tools, enabling citizens to actively contribute to shaping public affairs, though to contribute actively to this vision individuals must remain informed and engaged. Explore the various digital participation initiatives, actively participate in relevant projects, and advocate for the importance of digital participation in the local community. Stay informed about emerging trends and technologies that can further enhance civic engagement. In this era of digital transformation, each individual possesses the potential to be a catalyst for positive change.