“I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
This is how David Bowie described the internet in an interview with the BBC in 1999. For Bowie, the ability to instantly communicate and share content with people around the world would transform the way music is distributed. “It’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about,” he said.
Bowie turned out to be correct about the music industry. But, by contrast, the ways government institutions interact with citizens, communicate policy changes and consult the people, are only slowly transitioning to the internet era.
So what can government learn from the world of arts and culture about how to engage people in the digital space? The key could lie in successful strategies rolled out in museums and galleries across Europe.
For Abhay Adhikari, founder and director of Digital Identities, an organisation which helps cities and institutions adapt the way they work to fit the digital era, communicating through the internet requires more than just access to a Twitter account.
“If you just tell people: ‘there’s Twitter, go and use it,’ then they will just do what they’ve already done,” he said. “What people need is the awareness — ‘who am I surrounded by, how can my words be misconstrued? And what is the context that I give to this conversation that I’m having?’”
Five years ago, Adhikari and his team starting working with museums and galleries across Sweden. Their aim was to reinvent the way these institutions engaged with their audiences, rethinking what a museum should be in an era where people use the internet to communicate.
“What we’ve noticed over the past four years is, increasingly, museums are asking themselves this question: ‘how can we play a more central role in society right now, especially when everything is changing?’” said Adhikari.
In the first year of the program, the Swedish history museum in Stockholm launched a campaign to dig into the histories of women in Sweden. The point wasn’t just to open up a new channel for communication, but encourage real audience participation, and have people suggest ideas for women from Sweden’s history to be celebrated.
Another, the Natural History Museum in Stockholm, used Instagram to get audiences to participate in a campaign examining the effects of climate change on the city. The museum asked followers to share videos of them doing their own urban gardening projects, to help Stockholm go “from grey to green.”
“Our intention [in] using social media… is for storytelling,” said Adhikari. The aim is not to boost engagement metrics, but to discover people who might not usually visit with museums or galleries, and encourage them to participate in exhibitions creatively.
The process is about giving audiences the agency to immerse themselves in the institution, not be passive but to participate in the formation of living exhibitions. Digital technologies make this more straightforward than ever before.
This type of approach is now being backed by the EU in a new campaign: smARTplaces. Eight cultural institutions from eight different countries will work on digital participation strategies to build audiences over the long term, and reach out to people who might normally have little interest in museums.
From the museum to the city hall
But the city of Aarhus in Denmark shows how these methods of digital engagement can move beyond the cultural sector and be used by political institutions in a city. Through innovative “lab sessions”, a local entrepreneur with a background in the music industry is working with the city to make a planned redevelopment of the city’s South Harbour more equitable and inclusive.
Martin Thim got involved in the redevelopment plans through his role as director of Kulbroen, a redevelopment of the area’s iconic coal bridge. Inspired by New York’s High Line, Thim wanted to turn the former industrial bridge into an urban garden, among other things. It was through this that he became aware of the city’s development plans for the area.
“What would normally happen in a gentrification, is that all [many local people] will be pushed out as soon as prices rise,” he said. “So how do we create a new business model?
“In the end it is your city, what do we actually want to do with it? What do we want to achieve? That’s a cultural question.”
Thim felt the existing plans didn’t engage enough with the existing South Harbour, both its industrial heritage, and its people. Previously, Thim was involved in the city’s music scene, and organised music festivals.
Inspired the city’s underground subcultures, through Kulbroen, he set up lab sessions — structured discussion groups themed around key topics — with local residents, many of them disadvantaged people who’d made a home in the underdeveloped area. The point: to find out what they would want from redevelopment, and how they can shape the area.
There have been sessions on nature and biodiversity and artists’ spaces in the area. Residents are invited to attend in person or can engage through social media channels.
What’s different to a normal consultation is that ideas will be acted upon: following the lab sessions, Thim’s team then test the promising ideas for a limited time on a small scale. It allows them to see how they could work as a permanent part of the new South Harbour.
“We’ve made things like food markets, temporary installations, exhibitions with artists, music festivals and even a football pitch and a brand new building, that is now our office — to try out a lot of these strategies, and get media focus on it, and a lot of people involved.”
Thim’s engagement with the community in the South Harbour has led to the city changing its plans for the redevelopment, creating a new strategy to incorporate the findings and experiments from the community.
Thim’s experience points towards how city governments could better engage with the people who live within them. While cities around the world have rushed to become “smart cities”, with more efficient management systems, high-tech industries and better connectivity, many feel that a connection to people has been lost.
For Mary Ann Schreurs, former alderman and vice mayor for the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the push towards smart cities has taken power away from citizens to direct the way their cities develop. Though they push after better and faster systems for governing, it fails to serve those who governments are meant to serve.
“Why we aren’t listening to these centres that are trying to reimagine themselves as sites for real civic innovation?”
As vice-mayor, she did this by focusing on design, rethinking the way that cities interact with citizens, through the systems it controls to administrate the city and their daily lives. So much comes down to the form a service or consultation takes, she said, and government should remember that its role is not only to be more efficient or convenient, but act for the public good.
“In the end, it is your city, what do we actually want to do with it? What do we want to achieve? And that’s a cultural question.”
Which is why Adhikari believes city governments should turn to those which have been doing it well already for a number of years. Cultural institutions, and the people who work for them, have embraced new forms of engagement — through digital technologies, but also through trialling and testing new ideas on the ground. As Aarhus and Sweden show, they can help pull citizens into cities’ decision-making process.
“This is literally happening right in the heart of cities,” he said. “You have this constant renegotiation happening with the public — for me, it’s very often a provocation asking why we aren’t listening to these centres that are trying to reimagine themselves as sites for real civic innovation?” — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/Robert Anders)