Bas Baccarne successfully defended his PhD on collaborative and participatory challenges in urban media innovation

(30-09-2019) On Wednesday September 25th, Bas Baccarne, researcher at imec-mict-UGent, successfully defended his PhD on collaborative and participatory challenges in urban media innovation.

This PhD investigates new technologies in the urban environment from two main perspectives: collaborative challenges (how urban actor collaborate to create new urban technologies) and participatory challenges (how these technologies facilitate new modes of interaction between citizens and the local government). The research shows the importance of civic entrepreneurship and technology ownership in such distributed innovation processes, but also criticizes a withdrawing government strategy with a strong focus on empowerment (cf. big society) and free market dynamics (social entrepreneurship). Furthermore, the work also describes a digital participation paradox which implies that new digital modes of citizen participation mainly empower a participation-elite that is already engaged in traditional participation processes.

10 conclusions for policy makers

The work translates the wide variety of studies and insights in 10 conclusions for policy makers which might drive future strategies regarding collaborative and participatory urban media innovation forward.

1) Harness distributed knowledge through open ecosystem architectures

Cities are hubs of knowledge and skills. The dense population and the intense, diverse economic, creative and academic activities make cities a very fertile soil for sustainable cooperative growth. Such ‘distributed knowledge’, embedded in the local tissue (lowering barriers for collaboration), can be best accumulated through open and flexible ecosystem architectures. Certainly, overarching formal partnerships (e.g. between universities, the local government, larger incumbent companies, entrepreneurial networks, etc.) might provide windows and processes for collaboration. The actual knowledge exchange, however, takes place when such windows allow open, fluid membership through which a wide variety of urban actors, attracted to central issues (cf. urban acupuncture), can freely contribute to the collaboration ecosystem, but also move out when they no longer perceive it as valuable. Supporting and managing such ad hoc networks is not easy, but is preferable to formal, long-term collaborations that do not allow such levels of flexibility.


2) Value civic entrepreneurship and watch over ownership

Urban innovation development processes can only survive the explorative prototype stage if there is sufficient ownership. This implies that an urban actor must be adequately committed to drive further development, deployment and maintenance forward. On the one hand, this requires business model aspects to be into account during the explorative stages of urban innovation. On the other hand, this requires a commitment of an urban actor. Sometimes this commitment can come from a citizen entrepreneur. Such entrepreneurial user innovation should be valued and supported as much as possible. This support can have a financial nature, but also comprises the facilitation of collaborations between the civic entrepreneur and the distributed knowledge in the city (including processes to govern these interactions). Nevertheless, such civic entrepreneurship can only be expected for a limited number of application domains. Therefore, governments should also support an internal entrepreneurial mindset, sometimes called intrapreneurship, within the government administration. This makes the government the owner of the urban innovation, but still allows an agile managerial strategy.


3) The government as a platform should go beyond disclosing and sharing resources

It is common for governments to apply platform government strategies as the unlocking and provisioning of resources and infrastructure. This includes, for example, (linked) open data portals or network infrastructure. However, this is not enough to generate value. Value creation requires more governance over less tangible resources and processes. For example, by governing the connective capacity of the local government and by actively brokering between urban actors. Furthermore, the usage of these public resources should be promoted though support programs and innovation development processes, such as urban living lab processes.


4) Beware of digital participation determinism and data determinism

Both digital participation instruments and the growing body of data-driven insights have a potential deterministic nature. This implies the outcomes are often perceived as unnegotiable and undeniably true. Nevertheless, we showed that such innovative interaction models also have biases that require thorough consideration. Hence, while such quantified results could possibly be perceived as ‘objective’ knowledge, they never are and should always be interpreted in a nuanced and negotiated way.


5) Acknowledge the importance of feedback loops and expectation management in participation

Innovative citizen-government interaction models have to be well aware of issues regarding expectation management. Civic hackathon organizers should not expect the outcome to be mature solutions, nor as a way to identify civic entrepreneurship. Issues can occur when expectations regarding the differences between product innovation and civic hackathons are not aligned between organizers and participants. Similarly, instigators of civic crowdsourcing initiatives should also be aware that this strategy will not yield groundbreaking innovative ideas. On the other hand, participants of civic crowdsourcing platforms should understand that the numeric outcome of such a deliberative process cannot always be implemented (immediately). However, this requires two-way communication processes. The importance of feedback loops should not be underestimated. Hence, governments (both the administration and the city council members) should actively use these new interfaces to transform such communication from a one-way (and one-shot) collective citizen claim to a (long-term) technologically-mediated dialogue between citizens and policy makers. This might reconnect citizens and local politics.


6) Be aware of a digital Matthew-effect in participation

Recognize that digital participation instruments mainly empower those who are already participating. Hence, the contributions of a ‘participation elite’ might be further accredited through digital technologies, reinforcing existing power inequalities. Capture contributions from other citizen segments through complementary participation models. However, intertwine these instruments to make sure they fuel each other. For example, let an offline advisory group of experts interact with online contributions, and let the outcomes of this interaction be represented in the digital environment.


7) Acknowledge and stimulate new roles in civic participation

Complementary to traditional participation, new modes of civic participation are emerging. Such new roles include, for example, participating in hackathons, voting on civic crowdsourcing platforms or sharing smartphone data. Value such new modes of participation as regard them as equally important for the notion of citizenship. These allow to participate in other ‘languages’ and broaden the scope of the participatory public, thereby improving the depth and the quality of collaborative participatory policy making processes.


8) Integrate digital participation in a broader urban media environment

Although digital participation instruments increase the reach of participatory initiatives, a large part of the population still remains uninvolved, or is not even aware of their existence. At the same time, other urban media environments such as social media, are highly adopted and have become an important part of the digital repertoire of a wider urban public. Such platforms also facilitate social organization and bottom-up political engagement. Hence, it would be interesting to look for new ways to tap into this potential. By repurposing such technologies (e.g. NLP processing of Twitter data or asking questions in Facebook groups), or even more interesting, to develop new integrations that allow for more control over the nature of such interfaces. For example, this could be achieved by developing civic crowdsourcing widgets and APIs that can be integrated in other platforms such as the city website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, civic crowdsourcing websites such as Citizenlab, digital neighborhood platforms such as Hoplr, mobile participation apps such as, or other innovative urban ICTs.


9) Embrace new organizational models and attract new skills

Understand that both participation and urban data have become increasingly important for almost every policy domain, similar to ICT or innovation. Make these part of urban policy and think about (new) ways to support and coordinate initiatives that tap into this potential across organizational boundaries. This also requires new skills, and (hybrid) collaborations with external actors such as digital agencies, smart city entrepreneurs and academia. At the same time, local governments should be aware of the growing knowledge deficit that results from farfetched outsourcing strategies. Finding a balance between internal knowledge generation (to support policy and intrapreneurship) and flexible integrations of external knowledge (to improve agile state-of-the-art technology development) is key to such an organizational model.


10) Dare to experiment

Experimentation in the urban environment has multiple benefits. Most importantly, it facilitates collective experience-based learning that supports long-term development of urban ICT and urban ICT policy. Furthermore, its tangible nature catalyzes a process of urban acupuncture that acts as centripetal force to attract and activate knowledge, skills and other resources on a certain urban issue. It also establishes an innovative culture (which is valuable in itself, since such city marketing attracts new talent and investments) and supports entrepreneurship in the urban environment. Although the short-term value of the experiments might therefore sometimes be unclear, understand that these experiments should be evaluated in a combined way and at higher levels.


Hungry for more?

Find the PDF version of the PhD here.

Or contact Bas Baccarne