Decide Madrid: The Case Study

#participativetech #opensource #democracy

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 744957

Table of content

What is Decide Madrid How this page is organised Timeline of Decide Madrid (Pre-2011 to 2011) The origins of Decide Madrid (Pause) The intellectual origins of Decide: Citizen participation and open source (2011 to 2015) LaboDemo: The ideas behind Decide are moulded (2015) Decide Madrid is implemented (2017) The roller-coaster of participation (2017-2019) Bringing Decide to the city

What is Decide Madrid

In particular, I study Decide Madrid, a Free and open source software on direct participative democracy. It is one of the most ambitious participative projects taken up by governments in recent times and so it's worth talking and reading about it.

Here are a few points why you should care about Decide Madrid:

  1. If you are interested in open source information systems for social innovation;
  2. If you are interested in future models of democracy that will likely become a staple of societies in the decades to come;
  3. If you're a public official implementing participative technologies in City Halls or government institutions.

You will find resources here talking about each of the above points, resources that I have found interesting in my years studying Decide Madrid. You will find, for example, an overview of some of the initiatives that particularly marked Decide Madrid and why they mattered most than others. There are many online resources that pay testimony to the complexity and ambitions of Decide Madrid, but these are often disparate. I try to tie them some together here. If you think there's something that should be in here, drop me a line.

By going through this page, my hope is that you can have a quick idea of the extremely ambitious objectives behind Decide Madrid, what problems they had to solve, and how they tried to solve it.

How this page is organised

A quick word about organisation. I'm really tired of multi-page, deep depth webpages, so this webpage is it. It's a summary of resources, so it will help me control the content creep that might take place.

Navigate through the table of content at the top of the page and the links at the beginning and end of each section to go back up to the table of content.


Timeline of Decide Madrid

I go through some of the most important moments of Decide Madrid.

(Pre-2011 to 2011) The origins of Decide Madrid

If you ask people when Decide Madrid was created, they will probably say in September 2015, which is the date the web site was launched.

* This is a good summary of many elements that went into the thinking when designing Decide Madrid. There are two other parts that continue to look at Decide Madrid's inception.But Decide Madrid wasn't born in a vacuum, the idea comes from somewhere, specifically the 15M.* The 15M was a testing ground for some of the participative technology that was being created at the time and became in the minds of some participants a key (if not the only) way to effect the democratic change they sought. Beyond urgent social demands, many participants thought that the cause of the problem was a lack of democratic implication on key political and societal questions. The reason for a lack of participation was historic: without information systems, it is difficult to scale recurrent citizen participation. This was not the case any more and indeed, many systems were developed to facilitate coordination and collaboration between the different assemblies. The 15M, thus, was the realisation that procedures could help right Spain's situation and prevent future such situations.

Decide Madrid is infused by another imaginary: that of open source. Some of its most prominent members were highly visible hackers before the creating Decide Madrid. Some had spent time in student groups disussing issues concerning open source. Others, had used open source technologies (e.g. Ruby language). Pablo Soto, one of the main proponents, had been taken to court by music majors for developing a p2p software programme. Between individual experience, through work, or within the 15M, many had felt and experienced the fruitful intersection between open source and society beyond its intellectual promise.

* I realise that (1) this trend may not be linear (e.g. past and current privacy violations that may encourage the exact opposite trend with rampant co-optation); (2) but I still think that, at least for the two last decades, open government principles have made some headway into the institutions are governed; (3) there is still a (much) long(er) way we can go in opening up organisations and institutions; (4) the participation of 'open' as an organisational vector propelled by fablabs and makerspaces during COVID-19 is a good recent example of its growing importance and capacity to participate.It is no coincidence that after the 15M, an important initiative grouped many Free Software and open source hackers with political theorists and sociologists. The purpose was to think about governance systems in an age where open principles are increasingly espoused.* This project, sponsored by Ecuador's plan of Good Living, had the suggestive name of Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK) society. In Spanish, the project had an even more suggestive name: the “Good Knowing”. They organised and met to study how such a future society based on notions of commons and open knowledge (with open software) would look like. Suffice to say, for our purposes, that 'open' was more than just values (i.e. a preference for certain behaviours), it had a vision, processes to implement, and resources to create.

(Pause) The intellectual origins of Decide: Citizen participation and open source

Certain aspects of Decide, its political design of self-emergence or auto-gestión (self-government), are implicitly deeply rooted in Spanish associative movements, especially those active found during Spain's democratic turn in the previous century. These associations reflected on forms of organisation, social justice, and equity (Villasante 1999, Villasante 2014). How best to influence institutional agenda? How to make politics more democratic? What way of organising is just? How can we form collectives of equals, of peers? Principally, the ambition is not constrained to voting on ideas or proposals, but to shape what kind of questions to vote on. Paraphrasing Frank Herbert's Dune, who controls the questions controls the answers.

Let me give you an example. In one of the hackathons I followed, one of the discussions was about how to encourage proposals from citizens without leading them on unnecessarily (as you can probably foretell, inciting participation is going to play a key role):

In the case of libraries, it already sets the standard on what the library is. It would be necessary to open it, what is the library? Even the very term of the library is still marked by the term. If you open the library as the problem, maybe you don't need a library. What you still need, is a much smaller place that is a book loan hanger, which the call redefines the problem. Get away not only from the project, but rethink it.

To treat citizens as peers is the key to change democracy. Lefebvre, one of the most original thinkers of the urban in the past century banked quite a lot on the idea of the value of use (Purcell, 2013). In 1967, Lefebvre argued for citizens to have a 'right to the city'. This 'right' questioned and challenged the way cities had been built historically by technical experts. These experts defined the requirements of the cities: where residential and business zones should be, the amplitude of streets to accommodate traffic, and so one. For Lefebvre, this was a 'transactional view' of the city where citizens are shuffled along the city from their homes to their place of work and back. What matters is the city's capacity to respond to economic surpluses: Where is labour? How to employ that labour? How to create growth? For example, Paris' famous boulevards were a source of employment for a growing supply of unemployed people. Greatly increasing the width of the streets also allowed the army to manoeuvrer into the city centre to quell rebellions if it needed to. This view has little space for other considerations such as leisure, greenery, and so forth. It is the domain of certain technical experts who apply their skills according to how their profession understand the city (e.g., economic flows, military tactics, and so on).

Underscoring Lefebvre's proposal of the right to the city is the idea that the people who use the city are best placed to know about its needs. In software engineering speak, we would talk about requirements. Urban studies and open source intersect here with some long-standing problems in software engineering. The entire participative design branch of computer science and information systems revolved about how to get user input in a way that mattered. One of the pioneers, Enid Mumford, created an entire methodology (aptly called ETHICS) that focused on creating ethical systems that catered to the needs of employees and users (Mumford 1983). She reasoned that systems should foster change that increase democracy, flatten hierarchies, and implicated people (especially employees) in the design and use of systems. To do this, their worldview needs to be accounted methodologically by themselves. Accounting for all stakeholder views by giving them power over the design would also benefit organisational leaders since it would increase their commitment and productivity. This is because they possess expert local knowledge. [A later work of hers ponders whether such an incremental change is at all possible, wondering if a socio-technical revolution is not needed (Stahl, 2007).]

Open source doesn't come from the participative design school of thought, but it shares common vibes nonetheless. For example, requirements come from the personal experience of developers who create functionalities to cover their needs. (Howison and Crowston, 2014). Idealistically, even, open source could derive its functionality from non-technical users, but this is not necessarily the case (Nuvolari, 2009). Notwithstanding this caveat, development of systems in open source often originates from use scenarios, which echoes Lefebvre's suggestion to move away from development based on transactional values.

Open source have also a very specific added-value which shares some common ground with emergent organisation and auto-organisation. Open source is often organised around flatter hierarchies, based on meritocracy (with the discussable consequence of social inclusion: the best ideas are implemented regardless of their origin). There are also values of reciprocity which guide methodologies and principles of participation. The open source world is replete with example that started from scratch and organised bottom-up by individuals around which communities form: Linux came from a Finnish student, LaTeX was a pet project from a computer scientist, and so on.

Open source has both methodological values (the best ideas win, grassroot organising) and emancipative values (freedom to remix and improve on others' work, transparency of systems), that cater well to operationalise Lefebvre's conception of another kind of city. It's not surprising, then, that Decide's development was spearheaded by people who were convinced of the important role of open source in opening a city and in changing its development from one of transaction to one of use. For citizens to become some form of peers, a community growth model inspired by open source was a safe bet to make.

(2011—2015) LaboDemo: The ideas behind Decide are moulded

The Spanish Occupy movement provided a fertile soil to test ideas of direct democracy and voting on proposals. These ideas were then taken up and further elaborated in a laboratory lead by three people who would have a major voice in how Decide would be shaped in the future: Pablo Soto, Miguel Arana, and Yago Bermejo. This lab called LaboDemo (short for Laboratorio Democratico in Spanish, or Democratic Laboratory) would play a central role in developing citizen participation within a growing political party that had made public its desire to improve democracy and political transparency.

Despite the initial openness of the newly formed party to more direct democracy mechanisms, the people from LaboDemo who had been asked to help, soon found that it was the political system is mistrustful of participation. In an interview by Marco Deseriis, Arana showed how difficult it is to play party politics and be open to the party base:

In the beginning Podemos liked to use this kind of tools, but very suddenly the leaders of Podemos feared that if they really opened decision channels from the bottom up they would lose control of the party and that was not gonna let the party win the elections and produce changes. They were really afraid of this kind of new mechanism. [original emphasis] Deseriis (2018)

There is a strong tension between party politics and how representative politics work, and politics which account for and knows how to work with citizens. This is a tension that will remain visible in Decide throughout its implementation. The tension will take various skins: debates about offline/online democracy, the marketisation of politics, and the individualism of citizen democracy. Some of these tensions, such as the latter, are so deeply embedded to the way our society works that proponents will suggest that participatory tools have to become normalised into the culture for them to work. How to make such cultural change is the name of the game.

(2015) Decide Madrid is implemented

When Ahora Madrid wins the local Madrid elections on a civic movement ticket of participative democracy, the doors are opened to another large-scale experiment on democracy and the transformational force of open source. This time, the experiment is within (and against) the way institutions are currently imagined. The shared feeling that there are deep, inset flaws in Spanish democracy and the experiments conducted in the 15M will shape Decide and how it is thought and evolved in meaningful ways.

Decide becomes implemented in just about six weeks with a minimum viable product launching in September. The initial uptake is massive with more than 700000 votes are submitted in the first few months ( The ambition of Decide to open source the city is seemingly being realised. In the words of one who is close to the project:

A society’s operating system would therefore be a series of common practices and human relationships, not just a set of online platforms. Gutiérrez (2016)

The city becomes something people can interact with and transform through collective practices. The individual must recede back to allow for the city to be shared again and understood collectively. In other words, the city can only be truly open if such collective relations and common practices exist. This will become the crux of the difficulty of Decide Madrid in the future. In particular, one way to evaluate such city is based on the concept of participation, and in particular, full participation. In Purcell's (2013) words:

Through this kind of participation, inhabitants experience an awakening. They come into consciousness of themselves as inhabitants, as embedded in a web of social connections, as dependent on and stewards of “the urban.” As they become conscious in this way, they recognize the need to struggle against the industrial capitalist city and for the urban. They come to see participation not as speaking at a public hearing or serving on a citizens’ panel, but as the living struggle for a city that is controlled by its inhabitants. Purcell (2014)

Proponents of open sourcing the city voice a similar wish based on “full participation” (though without the marxist undertones). Full participation is a recurring topic in participation studies and political science. For Jason Hibbets (2013), for example, “full participation” is about being “embedded in a web of social connection”, but also about “full participation in government decision-making”, which involves relations between city administrations, organisations, and citizens may hold an equal footing, changing the roles of each and bringing us close to Lefebvre's vision of open cities. If such a re-shaping is possible, then citizens can become an organisational force.

The concept of open cities is not an abstract concept. It will be deployed as a way to evaluate whether Decide will be successful. for Decide to be sustainable, it must thus not only be sustainable in the code, but also in the objective it was (is) supposed to accomplish: it must create different social relations, a different politics, and a different city.

(2017) The roller-coaster of participation

When Decide is implemented, there is a rush of participation. In the first months, more than 700000 votes will be cast on proposals. Staunching a vacuum, the platform clearly responds to a felt need. As time goes by, however, participation dwindles. February 2017 will mark a particularly bittersweet moment. It will be both historical: two citizen proposals from the platform are accepted by the citizenry through voting. The downside is that a large part of that voting came from traditional paper ballots sent to citizens by post for a cost of more than one million euros (including publicity of the event). Though the platform has successfully passed two proposals, the platform is not yet seen by the citizenry as the go-to-way to vote. Social relations within the city, then, are likely to take much more time to alter.

(2017-2019) Bringing Decide to the city

The bitter-sweet February event will launch a number of initiatives specially focused on evaluating the sustainability of participation of the platform. That is, when the tool does not sustain by virtue of its code its democratic ambitions, it's to the city that the digital activists go back to, the very same one that launched this project in the first place.

It's on this aspect that the research has focused and you can find in lessons learned the findings that build on the incredible history of this platform. You can also find resources for further study. I will try to keep that up-to-date.