Community Engagement Trends

Re-thinking the Idea of Representative Democracy – Technology is Not the Silver Bullet

February 3, 2022
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Local Democracy

This blog post is written by Maarit Kahila, CEO and Co-founder of Maptionnaire.


On January 23, I was sitting on our couch following the vote counting of our very first county elections in Finland. The current reform of health, social, and rescue services will transfer the responsibility from municipalities to new organizational units, i.e. the wellbeing services counties. This reform and elections got me thinking about representative democracy and its sufficiency, and the role of technology in it.

During the past year, I’ve attended discussions that have been out of my comfort zone. My first encounter with this feeling was when I was trying to understand the ongoing discussion in the UK about organizing the integrated health care systems regionally. Someone asked me: What kind of a role could Maptionnaire play in this? I felt silly because I didn’t have an answer ready right away.

The next mind-boggling situation came a bit later on. An organization from the US wanted to build a concept with us. The goal was to provide ideas and solutions for a particular state on how they could get local residents to innovate and actively take part in the upcoming low-carbon projects.

Digital solutions for representative governments?

On Sunday, while listening to the results of the election, I started to think: How can we help citizens to understand the entire decision-making process and the forces behind it better? How can we get people to commit to changes that will have a direct impact on their everyday lives? How can we promote the idea of local democracy and really make people understand they are an integral part of decision-making and important actors in local democracies?

It’s clear that modern societies are facing enormous challenges that pose a challenge for open democracies.

Questions such as how to build low-carbon societies (or even carbon-negative societies), how to answer the challenges of an aging society, or how to plan and execute equal accessibility to health care services, are different. However, they have one common denominator. This denominator is related to the way we are going to come up with major and profoundly needed solutions to these challenges.

The digital era has changed the way we think of working together; and actually, the entire idea of representative democracy. People have found new ways and tools for taking part in the discussion. Digital solutions offer new possibilities to be in contact with people but actual discussions can often seem “distant” for participants (if they even take part in them in the first place).  

When striving for a better functioning society, we should carefully consider the idea of local democracy and the way we can piece together the various elements, digital and non-digital, in this effort.

When I was writing my doctoral thesis some years ago, someone asked me that isn’t it a bit old-fashioned to present various democracy theories in the thesis. Back then and still today I feel that it is ever more in style. Or at least it should be!

Smart Cities vs. Wise Cities

My daughter is the same age as our company, Mapita – they both turned ten last year. The other day she asked me if I know the difference between smart and wise. This question is super important when we are thinking about how to build the link between tech and democracy.

Smart city equals using tools and services that allow us to replace old tools with new ones. Creating a wise city, however, requires us to challenge our old ways and to look for new ideas. Simultaneously, it requires us to think about the ways in which new solutions can support our work.

Let me give you an example.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vantaa (Finland) asked us whether we would be interested in developing new functionalities and elements in Maptionnaire. At first, we thought our ideas were a bit silly and old-fashioned.

Now, after two years, I have to say that Vantaa is a perfect example of brave and ‘outside-the-box thinking’ as they have started to build the idea of local democracy in a new way.

Firstly, in Vantaa, all the departments use the same platform when implementing their outreach and data collection. Secondly, they have re-structured the work extremely well internally, and invested in (internal) communication and learning. Most importantly, they have really thought about how to make it easier for the resident to get to know what is happening in their neighborhood and how they can be part of decision-making.

With the help of Maptionnaire, they have implemented a very simple webpage where they share information about the ongoing activities in the city without emphasizing what department is behind the initiative. This is a good example of their principle of getting rid of siloed thinking within the city organization. Furthermore, they are using Maptionnaire for collecting data in various steps in different kinds of projects.

To start implementing something new requires time. I’ve noticed that the City of Vantaa has built a solid foundation for the future; a future where the city is built together with the residents.

This example from Vantaa shows you that technology is not the silver bullet for building more inclusive cities. It is a process in which tech plays an important role, but in reality, it’s brave, future-oriented thinking and decisions that are the key to local democracy and wiser city-making.

Towards the idea of local democracy

Returning to the question of local democracy – I am convinced that the idea of representative democracy alone is not enough. Instead, we need to piece together the various elements of democracy – whether representative, direct, or deliberative – to make the dialogue stronger and continuous. By building a well-planned, multi-channel, open, and transparent foundation for local democracy, we have better possibilities to get residents to understand changes (and get them to commit to them).

Think about this: We all live somewhere; we all use a great amount of our time in one area; we know which shop we want to go to; we know where our local health center is; we all know how to get around in our neighborhood etc. etc. When “using” their everyday living environment (think of it as a product or a service or rather both), residents usually get and have ideas about improving it (think about it as giving customer feedback).

This information and knowledge people have of their living environment, should be better harnessed and utilized when thinking about how to plan, organize, and develop the areas.

We need technology to increase the number of opportunities (or channels, if you wish) for people to communicate and be part of decision-making. At its simplest, this means that we gather information, we use this information, we evaluate different options, we lay out the proposal, we discuss the proposals, and debate. In essence, we include residents at every step of the way and make the way transparent and agile.

Back to my initial questions: Why isn't representative democracy sufficient? In a representative democracy, participation equals one event – the elections. If we want to there to exist democracy, the connection with citizens needs to be continuous. People need to have a feeling that they are part of the discussion every day – not only under elections. This builds social capacity and, in the end, guarantees that we have places people care for and enjoy.

To tackle the identified challenges and to achieve our goals for local democracy, we need to have an answer to two questions: 1) How to get people more (and better) involved and commit them to the coming changes, and 2) How to restructure the work by getting rid of existing siloes and outdated ways of working.

Even though technology is not the silver bullet for making quick and rapid changes, it’s still an excellent vehicle for transformation and following if goals are achieved. Structural changes happen slowly but they are needed for change and for creating wiser cities for tomorrow. And it is these structural changes that require us to harness technology to support our work.


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