Christopher Cabaldon knows all about the fickleness of crowds. The longest serving mayor in the Californian city of West Sacramento’s history, in 2008 he was re-elected for the seventh time. That same year the city’s residents voted with the majority of Californians to outlaw same-sex marriage in the state. Cabaldon had come out as gay two years before.
“In those elections, they voted overwhelmingly to charge me with protecting their safety against floods, crime and fires, and also to preclude me from ever choosing whether I could marry the person that I loved,” Cabaldon said at a panel event in London this April.
Crowds are starting to win a greater say in the way cities are run. Ever more city governments are setting up “crowdsourcing” systems, public forums through which a city’s residents can communicate their concerns and desires to government. It’s a way to open up government and bring people closer to the making of policies that affect their lives. But in doing so, does it risk amplifying the loudest or most angry elements of the crowd?
A popular budget
Advocates see crowdsourcing as a way to reconnect government to the people it serves.
In 2015, for example, Madrid city council launched its own online crowdsourcing platform, Decide Madrid. Citizens can propose legislation via the platform, where people can then vote on it. If one percent of the city’s population approves of a proposal, it is put to a binding public vote, after which the city has to draw up plans for the policy.
The digital platform allows for a rapid, simple and cheap exchange of communication from citizen to government. “It’s zero-cost basically,” said John Rossant, founder and chairman of the New Cities Foundation, an NGO which helps cities around the world be more inclusive. “It allows administrators to very easily take the temperature of the electorate in ways that have never been done before.”
In 2014, Paris started a different kind of crowdsourcing experiment: at that point the world’s largest participatory budgeting project. After a €20 million (US$24 million) trial in which the city invited citizens to vote between 15 selected projects, it expanded the fund and allowed citizens to submit their own proposals. In 2016, over 150,000 Parisians voted on how to divide €100 million (US$120 million): now Paris has pledged €500 million (US$604 million) of its total 2014-2020 budget to the scheme, 5% of its capital fund.
As new digital technologies change the way people live in the city, from how they travel to where they live, power accumulates in the firms that collect the data from people’s interactions with the city. Crowdsourcing allows government to measure the voice of the people as this process occurs, and make sure their interests are accounted for.
“It could be dangerous if this process is not counterbalanced by a more participatory and collaborative urbanism,” said Jean Louis Missika, deputy mayor for urbanism in Paris, “because if you use only data-driven urbanism, it will be the power, not only of the urban planners themselves, but also of the private companies who are producing the data, like Uber, like Airbnb.”
Hearing everyone’s voice
Despite this success, Paris has grappled with how to make sure funding doesn’t simply get sucked into the wealthier and most engaged parts of the city. Studies have shown that participation in such schemes correlates strongly with high income, wealth and education.
“When you organise a consultation, very often it’s only well-educated people who are part of it,” Missika said. “When we launched our first participatory budget, we discovered that the projects were only in the very rich areas of Paris, and there were none in the more populous districts.”
To combat the inevitable bias which results from only the most educated or engaged using the platform, €30 million (US$36 million) of each budget cycle is reserved for working class districts in the city. Alongside the city-wide budget, each of the city’s districts receives its own, to try to engineer an even spread of funding.
Cabaldon’s experiences in West Sacramento have led him to the view that these interactions must serve to make politicians aware of citizens’ concerns and their needs, but not to control what government does. Opening up avenues for people to propose and vote on specific policies puts into question the role of the representative, and whether they should accept any sufficiently popular proposal regardless of its effect.
“I think most of the issue is in the revealing of things that government cannot, or refuses, to see or think about, more than it is a replacement for voting or what have you as a way to make choices,” he said.
For Cabaldon, allowing crowds the power to make decisions would be a mistake: representative democracy still requires public voices to be weighed up and decided upon by government, otherwise the loudest sections of a society direct it to the detriment of others.
West Sacramento uses a sentiment tracking platform to measure the mood of its citizens and their concerns. Rather than conduct public consultations, an artificial intelligence system sifts through posts placed on social networks and the city’s own complaints platform to keep policymakers abreast of what people are talking, and more importantly, complaining about.
This system allows Cabaldon to assess whether or not the voices he hears are representative of the community as a whole, “to not only pay attention to some of the loudest, but also to see when the volume doesn’t necessarily reflect, in the base of the city.” This way, crowdsourcing doesn’t degenerate into mob rule.
Digital technologies, but also the willingness of city governments to experiment, mean that we are likely to see more crowdsourcing experiments in the immediate future. It will be government’s challenge to work out just how much power to give the crowd’s voice, and how to get even the softest-spoken parts of the city to speak.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Olivier Ortelpa)