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Digital democracy: Antwerp's vision on community engagement

  • Wednesday, May 31, 2023

  • Welcome to our conversation with Roel Camps, a pioneer in digital community engagement from the city of Antwerp. With his rich experience, ranging from leading Antwerp's European Youth Capital initiatives in 2010 to driving cutting-edge digital tools for democratic dialogue, Roel has been at the forefront of blending technology with civic engagement. As he continues to innovate within the complex structure of Antwerp's governance, Roel fosters a unique model of citizen participation that is both top-down and bottom-up. Get ready to delve into his insights on the city's ambitious vision, the successes and challenges they've faced, and the future of digital community engagement.

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    Fluicity: Welcome, Mr. Camps. We're excited to have you here today to discuss the city of Antwerp's vision for digital community engagement. Can you tell us how the city of Antwerp envisions these platforms?

    Roel Camps: Thank you for having me. The city of Antwerp has its own participation platform, which was not available in the market when we started. Antwerp has a complicated structure, on city level that is spread geographical over 9 districts there is a council with a mayor, vice mayors. And each district has its own district council with its district mayor and vice mayor. Local decision-making authority lies primarily at the district level, allowing them to make decisions independently. We like to be pioneers in the field of citizen participation. Antwerp is a very youthful city, with around 500,000 residents, one-third of whom are young people, we recognize the need to adapt and change. We initially built our participation tool in 2011 and renewed it in 2016 and in 2022. Our approach combines top-down and bottom-up participation. Due to our profound decentralization, we see the development of these tools to make employees within the city districts more self-reliant in terms of citizen participation and increasing or stimulating the participation reflex. Fluicity: That's impressive. When did the city of Antwerp first start using digital tools for democratic dialogue? Roel Camps: Our journey into digital tools for democratic dialogue began in 2010 when Antwerp was the European Youth Capital. In 2012, we launched our first digital tool specifically for youth participation. The following year, in 2013, an official law on participation was enacted, based on our youth policy, solidifying our commitment to engaging young people in the decision-making process.

    Fluicity: Was the decision to adopt digital tools primarily political or operational?

    Roel Camps: It was a combination. operationally, I was tasked with developing a contemporary framework for voice-in, policy participation and advisory councils with an implementation plan. From there, after my research, I decided that it was necessary to embed digital tools to involve citizens in the policy of the city and the 9 districts in an open, accessible, transparent and continuous way. This eventually resulted in a new policy.

    Fluicity: Could you shed some light on the types of digital dialogues you have implemented? Do you use tools such as participatory budgeting, call for ideas, or e-voting?

    Roel Camps: We've created a unique methodology to identify suitable dialogue mechanisms for diverse situations, safeguarding genuine participation. For the majority of concrete issues (95% of projects), we advocate gathering individuals' life experiences as project input. For abstract issues, we emphasize youth exchanges between stakeholders, utilizing a blend of physical and digital tools to facilitate interaction. Since 2009, we've prioritized bottom-up participation to bridge the gap between youth and policymakers, which was partly digitally mediated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, we continue to utilize both physical and digital methods to gather youth insights and empower them to take action.

    Fluicity: How do you evaluate the benefits of digital community engagement platforms for the city? Are there improvements in terms of time, efficiency, or spending?

    Roel Camps: Our top achievement in digital democracy has been the development of our own tool. It allows people to express their thoughts without feeling pressured and provides us with valuable insights. All employees in the city have the opportunity to participate, evaluate, and contribute their insights through the tool. We provide free training courses on using the platform. Previously, analyzing data took four weeks using Excel, but now we can do it in just one day. In 2016, we even considered the potential of incorporating AI into our platform to enhance human understanding of what people are saying. However, our city experienced a cyber attack and we are still facing challenges since then so we need more time to start innovating again.

    Fluicity: That's unfortunate to hear about the cyber attack. In your experience, what aspects could be improved in digital community engagement?

    Roel Camps: I dream of a bottom-up tool that can truly improve citizens' lives by addressing their complaints and ideas more effectively. We would ideally need fewer intermediaries when working with people's concerns, and we should find ways to facilitate quicker changes based on their ideas. While we didn't implement a feature for immediate response to citizen reports, as it may create the perception of instant changes, we understand the need to allocate resources efficiently. Currently, we use a report/questions app, but it doesn't allow for the generation of ideas. This is where AI could be very beneficial in providing timely and accurate responses to citizens. AI has the potential to help people in the city achieve better results within a short amount of time (see Democracy Technologies article on this topic)

    AI has the potential to help people in the city achieve better results within a short amount of time.

    Fluicity: Finally, what legal framework do you think could be implemented to reinforce your work in trying to better engage citizens?

    Roel Camps: That's a difficult question. We have internal resolutions with conditions to enforce decisions. If Belgium or the European Union can do anything, it would be to explain the uses and benefits of participation. For me, participation is not about winning debates, as we have elections for that purpose. It's important to enlighten more people, both citizens and politicians, about the value of participation. Politicians are often afraid to use participation as insights and inspiration for policy design. The ideas and experiences of civilians should be used as inspiration. "Inspraak" in Dutch means having a voice in, it doesn't necessarily mean having a decision-making role. We see it as a way of using the daily life-experiences as an inspiration in developing a humanfriendly city, in balance with the democratic systems of election. We need to educate people more and continue building a body of literature on the topic. I look forward to the next decade when more people will participate because they see the benefits it brings.

    We see it as a way of using the daily life-experiences as an inspiration in developing a humanfriendly city, in balance with the democratic systems of election.

    Fluicity: Thank you, Roel, for sharing your insights and experiences with us. It has been a pleasure speaking with you today.