Strandeiland is part of a series of newly acclaimed islands in the River IJ in Amsterdam. Supported by the city’s alderman of New Democracy and the alderman of Sustainability and Spatial Development, inhabitants of an adjacent neighbourhood initiated a project to develop a co-creative and inclusive participatory trajectory for Strandeiland’s development process. A participation team was set up, consisting of three inhabitants and three civil servants who collaboratively developed ‘HalloStrandeiland.nl,’ a platform for innovative and participatory city-making. Through this platform a number of initiatives to engage local residents but also the wider Amsterdam population, and hence potential future residents, were undertaken. At the time of writing the community had over 300 members.
The Strandeiland case was initiated by inhabitants of IJburg, who demanded a larger say in the development process of this new island than the current governmental urban design process allowed for. The local government supported their plea to be invited to the planning and decision-making table as equal stakeholders in the process. However, the organizational structure that was eventually drawn up in the formal Participation Plan (Amsterdam 2019) described a traditional client-contractor agreement between the government and the citizens that took a seat in the ‘participation team’. This traditionally structured agreement caused havoc during the first operational year of this team, because it did not provide the motivated citizens with the opportunity for actual meaningful participation: the topics in which citizen’s involvement was asked, were prescribed by the municipality’s project officials and not subject of debate. Hence, the topics of participation did not always relate directly to the everyday concerns and needs of the residents. ‘HalloStrandeiland.nl’ was launched by the participation team with the intention to provide a platform for future residents to connect with each other and to support the participatory decision-making process for Strandeiland, and in particular to reach out to ‘non-usual suspects’ in order to allow for a more inclusive urban development process. Within the first year of being in operation, the participation team reached, through their local connections and networks, mainly ‘usual suspects,’ active citizens who were already involved in local city-making projects. However, attempts were made to invite a more diverse audience than in traditional public participation processes. One event was for instance held in SET, a large communal living group of 180 people, where refugees live together with Dutch young adults. Both groups are, generally, difficult to engage in city-making processes but at this event they engaged in sharing their thoughts and concerns regarding the current and future quality of public space. Secondly the platform provided a place where formal documents and reports with regard to this development could be collected and shared. Although the platform was initiated and developed by local citizens, web content that the municipal Strandeiland project leader considered relevant for HalloStrandeiland.nl, had to be approved by authorized civil servants, which marks signs of engagement and transparency but signaled a sense of control and a lack of openness and trust at the same time.
The digital platform ‘HalloStrandeiland’ was developed with the intention to support the participatory decision-making process for Strandeiland. The close collaboration between citizens, civil servants and knowledge institutions was a novel way for the municipality of Amsterdam to experiment with deliberative forms of democracy in order to support citizens’ ability to act and their decision-making power within the process of city-making. Although these intentions can be considered laudable, the reality after the first year of working with the participation team was that the decision-making power, ownership and control among citizens within the collaboration process were minimal. The civil servants acted upon their prescribed role as client and became dominant in the decision-making process, in particular in deciding upon the topics and themes that were deemed suitable for asking a wider public’s opinion about. Besides that, bringing in local ideas and initiatives based upon the collected stories at the platform lost its priority over the course of the year due to the stringent municipality’s project planning process that dictated the content and the pace of the topics dealt with within the participation team, which included the citizens’ input in policy documents but ignored the incorporation of local urgencies, such as the lack of quality of open spaces due to a lack of green and abundance of wind. Although the citizen participants worked closely with the civil servants in the team, their ability to act was controlled and therefore limited. The platform was initiated, built and maintained by IJburg citizens meaning they did have agency over both the infrastructure, the data and most of the content.
The main objective of ‘HalloStrandeiland.nl’ was to grow a community of future residents to form collective alternatives or (sustainable and social) additions to the municipality’s plans to create forms of ownership and enhance inclusiveness of the development process. The platform therefore aimed to contribute towards the emancipation of its future citizens. Although citizens were represented in these formal municipal decision-making processes through a seat on the participation team, they could only have a say on certain details within predetermined topics and not provide alternative scenarios, which means they were not fully empowered. They were recognised and valued for their contribution towards these precooked topics by both the project team and local citizens, opportunities to create space for recognition for potential additional futures and hence deepening and widening the debate on city-making were not given. Citizens could for instance suggest ideas for facilities or activities on the beach but not on a potential alternative for the beach itself. Despite the fact that the citizens did receive a reimbursement for their contribution to establish greater equality and equal availability amongst the team members, a true collaborative process in which decision-making power was equally distributed within the team did not occur: the client-customer relationship contributed towards the hierarchical attitude of the municipality, which hindered the emancipation of the engaged citizens.
Between January and March 2020, residents, local entrepreneurs, artists, social workers, designers, researchers and government officials took part in a series of three design-driven workshops. They co-creatively developed and tested low-fi prototypes of products and services to explore how to generate local and sustainable value and business models in the field of last mile logistics. They introduced ‘Homies,’ an idea for a match-making platform via which youth with a distance to the labour market could execute delivery services for local entrepreneurs; offer local shopping and transport services to residents; and provide last mile logistics support to (online) shops and home delivery providers in general. Supported by youth workers, these couriers would gain experience and labour market qualifications.
The researchers (initiators of the project) considered the relatively deprived area of Rotterdam Zuid as a place where developments concerning last mile logistics would have significant economic and social impact. Hence, they considered it essential to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to be actively involved in developing alternatives. In collaboration with a neighbourhood cooperation, they recruited a diverse group of relevant participants to a co-creative project: four residents, two local entrepreneurs, two civil servants (Digital Innovation; Mobility), four community and youth workers and two designers. With the designers, the researchers developed a process through which participants were supported to identify issues, voice their concerns, define shared values and to imagine and develop alternative futures. The facilitator laid out the ground rules of collaborative working — such as equal say, equal right of participation, trust and respect — at the beginning of the first event, enabling each at the table to voice their objectives and concerns.
During the first session, participants worked in small groups and translated their ideas and ideals regarding local last mile logistics services into low-tech conversation starters. Subsequently, these groups went out into the streets — to shops, community centers and elderly homes — to discuss their propositions — for example regarding the idea to create local, social parcel-hubs — in order to test their assumptions and to engage a larger and more diverse audience in the process as well. On the basis of collected insights, the group expressed dedication to develop sustainable alternatives of current delivery systems and to test them in a real-life context. A prototype of ‘Homies,’ a digital platform that matches a delivery service with employment opportunities for youth with a distance to the labour market, was further developed and tested at the local market and proved a potentially feasible concept for sustainable local last-mile delivery among potential stakeholders.
The multi-stakeholder and design-driven process was carefully crafted to support participants to take incremental steps to develop an ability to act concerning a specific smart city development. In a series of lectures the researchers, civil servants and entrepreneurs provided knowledge on issues of datafication, last mile logistics, and sustainability to the relatively uninformed participants. Throughout the project, they were provided with coaching by design experts. The latter could be considered as empowering intermediaries. Through this process, participants realized and experienced how they, their neighbours and their neighbourhood were affected by developments concerning last mile logistics. At the same time, the design process invited and challenged them to collectively imagine, develop and test (low-fi prototypes of) local and sustainable alternatives based on their values and concerns, which appeared to be: supporting local entrepreneurs and youth and securing a liveable neighbourhood. Participants drafted schemes in which data and value streams of the ‘Homies’-platform were plotted, which helped them to come up with ideas for how the neighbourhood cooperation and its community of youth workers could function as a trusted party to own and store the data generated by the platform; to curate which data would be collected, to whom it would be made available, and under what conditions; and to distribute the value generated by the platform based on criteria that would be agreed upon by the community. Although participants figured that ‘Homies’ could not compete with global delivery companies on price, they concluded that it constituted an imaginary of how a small-scale cooperative logistics platform could generate local value and could contribute to shifting power relations. However, despite the fact that they participated as proposers, co-creators, decision-makers, and leaders in this workshop-context, this does not necessarily equals meaningful empowerment in further stages of developing local sustainable last mile logistics services.
The researchers and members of the neighbourhood cooperation actively reached out to specific people in their networks in order to have a diverse and relevant group of stakeholders that represented the various voices of those that are actually affected by smart city developments at the table: shop owners who experience that neighbours increasingly buy goods and services from web shops; neighbours that experience vacant shops in their streets; social workers that are confronted with youth with an increasing distance to the labour market; government officials tasked to make last mile logistics emission free by 2025. We constructed the process in such a way — amongst other things through professional guidance of a facilitator — that equal say, equal right of participation, trust and respect were safeguarded: an atmosphere was created in which all participants could contribute in their own capacity and in ways they found relevant and in which their contributions were valued. Participants were provided with a financial compensation to free up their time for this project, which could be considered a form of redistribution and which contributed towards the feeling of being an equal and valued member of the group (interview citizen participant).
In line with the ‘Right to the Smart City’s aim to include individuals and groups that are, through traditional processes, largely left out of participation in urban development processes, the ‘Homies’ platform was designed to challenge dominant power structures: youth with a distance to the labour market would not only receive a wage, but would also gain work experience, skills and certificates (Open Badges) while being closely guided by a job coach as a local alternative to the seemingly inevitable and daunting gig economy. Again: although this process was designed as an emancipatory process, it is no guarantee that it would overcome power imbalances in further, more concrete stages of local and sustainable last mile logistics services.
In April 2020, informed by a report of a consultancy agency (KPMG, 220a), the municipality of Rotterdam invited two Rotterdam-based digital design agencies to develop a prototype of a data-driven retail platform to invite and support retailers to join forces to come up with local and sustainable propositions to face the challenges of both the emerging platform economy and the present COVID-crisis. An alderman challenged the team of three CEO’s, two project managers, two UX-designers, three developers, two communications specialists, one consultant, four civil servants and two researchers to present a first version of a platform within 6 weeks.
According to KPMG’s and the municipality’s analyses, a local data-driven platform would be essential to support retailers struggling with decreasing revenues due to increases in online shopping. Although research by the municipality indicates that 60% of the retailers in Rotterdam are hardly using any digital means of communicating, organizing and marketing, this part of the target audience was hardly involved in the development process. Due to decisions concerning time and budget allocation, efforts to engage the stakeholder population in the process were limited to a small series of interviews with retailers (10) and government officials (2) in the networks of the designers and the researchers, and additional online research to determine what type of interactive platform would suit retailers’ and their customers’ current and future needs. Strikingly, the potential stakeholders that were approached would not necessarily consider a platform as the most effective means to address their most pressing needs and concerns, such as increasing revenue and maintaining a safe and pleasant shopping environment. Besides that, most of the retailers interviewed did not express a strong motivation or willingness to be involved in a digital platform and the design thereof, because, based on previous campaigns of the municipality, most of them did not expect to benefit from them. Nonetheless, members of the project team (designers, developers and researchers) engaged in a design sprint, i.e., they followed a strict - not necessarily open - programme of predetermined activities to co-creatively set the parameters and to actually prototype and test a first version of the platform within 1 week. The sprint resulted in “rotterdamdigitaal.net.” On this website retailers could share and learn from each other’s experiences, questions, concerns and ideas, and they could team up, pool resources and apply for funding to develop meaningful, innovative (digital and data-driven) solutions and fruitful business cases regarding the challenges they face. Since the strict format and short timeframe had left little room for open deliberation and contemplation among the experts involved, nor for structural involvement of the target audience in this process, the basic idea behind this platform was mainly based on the municipality’s, consultant’s, designers’, developers’ and researchers’, and not on its potential users’ assumptions, objectives, values and concerns.
Although a design sprint is meant to create equal partnership between the participants, the designers and researchers (as autonomous empowering intermediaries) decided upon the contents of the platform, and the civil servant who represented the municipality of Rotterdam (and the client who ordered the platform), rather than members of the actual target audience, had final decision-making power concerning the direction the design of the platform would take. In the philosophy of the consultancy, the government officials and the CEOs of the design agencies, activity on the platform would be boosted as the first projects on the platform would be initiated by these very design agencies themselves, or by their affiliated communication agency and the members of their networks who signed a ‘Letter of Support.’ However, in the first year since it was launched, no initiative was posted at rotterdamdigitaal.net. Probably this is because the potential users of the platform were not engaged in, nor felt entitled to any decision-making power in the development of Rotterdam Digitaal. Hence it does not contribute to their empowerment with regard to the platform economy.
The municipality explicitly considers itself ultimately as the facilitator rather than the owner of the platform. Its ambition for ‘Rotterdam Digitaal’ is that it becomes an autonomous, self-sustaining entity, governed by stakeholders, which sustains itself in the coming years. This means that Rotterdam imagines that it will have a seat in the steering committee, but with no more decision-making power than any other member of that committee. The question is how its intended withdrawal would make room for citizens and local entrepreneurs — and especially the non-usual suspects — to have actual decision-making power, ownership and control regarding the platform and hence regarding practices of digitization and datafication in Rotterdam.
In its ‘Action Agenda’ (Rotterdam 2020), the Rotterdam council emphasizes its concern for inclusiveness. It states that ‘Rotterdam Digitaal’ should be the result of a co-creative process including citizens, entrepreneurs, civic society, knowledge institutions and other partners, aiming to provide entrepreneurs with the opportunities to develop innovations, while, at the same time, “the rights and interests of the people of Rotterdam are protected, so that everyone can benefit, and no one is left behind.” However, the promise of the government officials to present the alderman with concrete results within limited time outweighed solid and inclusive, co-creative research. Although we, as researchers, considered this ‘under-representation’ a serious flaw in the process of granting citizens an equal and meaningful engagement and decision-making power in the development and governance of (the economic opportunities in) their city, the consultancy, the government officials and the CEO’s of the design agencies held the position that, once the platform was built, and once an affiliated communication agency would have ‘loaded’ it with content, other Rotterdammers would gradually find their ways to the platform and benefit from it (KPMG 2020b, p. 8). By then, these experts claimed, gradually, the transition towards a decentralization of the platform’s governance should be planned. Only the future can tell if and how that will turn out. For now, we must conclude that, despite the rhetoric of openness and inclusiveness, the involvement of stakeholders, and the valuation of their input in the development process was (deliberately) quite limited, and that by considering themselves as curators, those who started the project structurally violated the principles of radical inclusiveness and redistribution of resources and power. Based on the ‘Letter of Support that the developers of the platform composed, we can conclude that they consider digitization and datafication as an objective, a-political, solutionist means and an opportunity to improve the entrepreneurial and living climate of the Rotterdammers in general, rather than leaving room for democratic deliberation and for inclusion of the voices of the minorities and the disenfranchised per default. By deliberately taking this approach and this position, the initiators, governors and executors of this project might contribute to the increase of power imbalances, rather than actively trying to overcome them.