CitizenLab: The Start-up for Civic Engagement in Urban Areas

E-democracy has an unexplored potential to involve citizens in shaping their habitats. While an overwhelming number of apps and software programs are at our disposal for various purposes, we can’t help noting the lack of tools to enhance local decision-making processes. CitizenLab, a Belgian start-up that is now in use in 50 European cities and municipalities, is designed to allow citizens to co-create their cities and ensures a linkage between authorities and citizens. Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CEO and co-founder, tells us about Belgium's 'Student Startup of the Year' in 2017.

Both top-down and bottom-up participation for reliable e-democracy

CitizenLab has the merit of addressing both authorities and citizens. “Our civic engagement software allows cities to reconnect to their citizens”, explains Wietse Van Ransbeeck. The top-down approach is to be seen in projects initiated by cities about which citizens can make comments, while the bottom-up aim is to encourage citizens to come up with own proposals.

For the second possibility, the start-up works in 3 steps for citizens: citizens create and start their own proposals ; citizens collaborate and co-create other proposals; and, finally, citizens express preferences by voting for or against proposals. “It is a horizontal platform where citizens can co-create proposals. They can enhance their initiatives and also merge proposals into bigger priorities”, comments the 24-year-old CEO.

Since it was launched in 2015, CitizenLab has hosted proposals on mobility, construction of bike lanes or parks, as well as climate change-related initiatives. The start-up is currently at work in 50 cities across Europe, mainly in Belgium and The Netherlands, including big cities such as Brussels, The Hague, and Liège.

iPad mockup

“You can shout on social media and still remain unheard”

With hindsight, Wietse Van Ransbeeck remembers, “The sense of frustration we had in Brussels when wanting to participate in local decision-making”. The various meetings at the town hall were frequently unsuccessful as either the civil servants were not willing to spend too much time or would listen those proposals “whenever it suited them”.

Citizenlab – mockup

This also highlights the capability–expectations gap as “not all persons have time to go to town hall meetings, although everybody has a smartphone and can use the devices that are meant to connect people. This allows people to be locally involved and have their voices heard”, emphasizes Wietse Van Ransbeeck.  

Since CitizenLab’s creation and thanks to a constant effort to improve the platform, valuable key lessons have been learned, and golden rules have been established. First of all, in order to engage people, a platform needs to be open to any topic in which citizens are interested. Secondly, more transparency from the cities is a godsend. Therefore, it is of great importance that cities show how they take decisions. “On our platform, we have a timeline which indicates what are the next steps. If the citizen doesn’t see the next step, he would ask: ‘What are you going to do with my contribution?’”, explains Van Ransbeeck. Finally, the importance of feedback is crucial as cities are providing comments on citizens’ proposals. In this sense, every idea on the platform has a status, and it changes from time to time, which means that the city must provide feedback on the initiative in question.

Wietse Van Ransbeeck declares himself as an engaged millenial who transforms his passion for civic tech into practice. His resolutions for 2018 include plans to expand CitizenLab to around 150 cities and to increase civic participation. New cities in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are about to be added to the list. In terms of civic engagement, CitizenLab intends to increase the participation averages by reaching 10% of the population in each city.

Photos: CitizenLab

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