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We wanted to know… can citizens engagement be used to drive whole system innovation?

So we brought together a group of experts on citizens engagement and participation from across Europe. People who don’t just talk about engagement, or think that traditional forms of “stakeholder engagement” will be sufficient in the face of deeply complex and often long standing issues. Rather people who actually do citizens engagement, on the ground, all day everyday. People from councils, municipalities, artists, activists, and even Deputy Mayors.

Why do this? I work at an organisation called EIT Climate-KIC ( and we want to drive systemic innovation for climate action. Whilst climate change is often discussed in a highly intellectual way or from a strongly technological perspective, we know that deep at the heart of this challenge, are people. This is why we wanted to ask some of the best minds in Europe to help us better understand how, where and when they have been engaging with their citizens.

We invited individuals from across Europe to a two day ‘deep dive’ workshop in Bologna, Italy late last month — thank you to our gracious hosts at the Urban Center Bologna (find out more) and to Anthony Zacharzewski for guiding us through the process (find out more). The brief was simple — please share your approaches, insights and lessons. I was delighted and intrigued to hear about — and sometimes see in action (we banned PowerPoint presentations) — what people were doing and what they had learnt. I’m by no means an expert in citizens engagement, nor do I have the history that many of the participants have in this space so I won’t delve deeply into the content of how to effectively do citizens engagement. I will leave this to the experts! (you can see two of them pictured below and more later on).

What I will do instead is write a little more about the areas that I thought were particularly thought-provoking. These insights go deeply into mindset, lessons learnt and gave me the best examples of how citizens engagement can be applied by innovators or to innovation models aiming to change whole systems.

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Two of our participants giving us a real life ‘presentation’ of citizen engagement in action

For many it won’t be surprising to hear that these nuggets of gold surfaced in the ‘in between’ moments. Most commonly embedded in an off-the-cuff comment, example or story. Most often in the places and times between the formalities of the workshop. This in and of itself is lesson worth paying attention to, reflecting on and working to find ways to create the conditions that lead to more of these next time we want to run such a deep dive.

But for now, the insights….

1. Whilst place-based approaches are widely recognised as necessary, there is a second and more critical element — the right people in close proximity

Proximity is about meeting people where they are. Doing the normal things that they might be doing — like having coffee at a cafe, being at events in the neighbourhood and sometimes it might even be meeting people in their homes. I think I best heard people and proximity captured as “we are always doing things in the community, so much so that we are not seen as ‘those people from the municipality’, we are seen as Michele and Teresa”.

We had a huge breadth and depth of rich discussions about different approaches to proximity being conducted across Europe including physical places and spaces such as walk-in centres, labs, cooking schools, etc. Many of these initiatives, or parts of the process were highly innovative. That said, proximity isn’t a new concept, especially for those who have been engaging with citizens for a while. Neither is the notion that the people who are engaging with the community need to be connected and at least at some level, accepted into that community. However the richness of this conversation led to an interesting insight about how this lesson can be applied when thinking about moving from individual place-based to whole-of-systems change — see insight 2 below.

(for more information about proximity from Michele and Teresa click here)

2. The need for people and proximity means scaling can’t always be thought of in a traditional sense

As a driver of innovation, it can be tempting to think that you can run a pilot, prove the concept and then simply scale the idea to the next place, then the next and so on, before, hey presto you’ve solved a huge problem across the whole of Europe, or even globally. However, this traditional view of scaling struggled to hold up in the face of real world examples and stories where people and proximity were absolutely key. When creating scenarios of the future, I best heard this described as “if you want this approach to work somewhere else, you’ll need to find another Marcin on the ground there”.

In fact, I’d go further to say many of the people in the room were not interested in scaling or rolling-out their model to other cities or organisations. They were however, deeply interested in learning from each other. Therefore for me, the big lesson here is when thinking about ‘scaling citizens engagement projects’ it’s more about transferring lessons and insights from one place to another through peer-to-peer exchange, rather than rolling an approach from one place to the next and hoping it will work. This observation is explored further below in insight 3.

(also if you want to know more about Marcin and his work click here and here)

3. Your engagement approach might need to be push, pull, attract, pay or even in some cases… patiently wait. What you need to do depends on what outcome you want

We heard and saw a huge number of different approaches. Two extremes include a six-week commitment made by citizens, and paid for by the council, to enter into an intensive process of information sharing followed by deep deliberation before voting for an outcome that, if 80 percent of people or more agree, was binding on the Mayor. Another described a physical community space where it took six months for a person who sat outside most days to come inside and ‘kick off’ the engagement process. Interestingly, each of the approaches worked well (notably, often through iteration and rework!)

Going a step further, engagement went well beyond simply talking to people about a project about to be rolled out. We heard stories that demonstrated it was critical to take defined ‘next steps’ on terms that are suitable for communities and citizens. An example was given where the key mechanism for driving change was a community cooperation pact where the people who have signed up to the pact (voluntarily of course) feel much more connected to the outcomes because there is a clear sense that the citizen is giving their time and care in return for the municipality giving something.

The lesson here? To achieve genuine impact, it’s critical to think about your approach in a holistic sense around what you want to do and why. And you have to think about this over the longer term. A great kick-off engagement process means nothing without suitable ways for citizens to stay engaged in the implementation.

4. Technology is your friend, but know it’s limitations

Another observation linked to understanding the ‘best’ type of approach, is how to effectively blend technology and human interaction. Every person mentioned the need for technology as critical but almost instantaneously followed that comment with a caveat that technology cannot replace face-to-face. However, ‘an approach’ for achieving the right balance around this topic was still largely unresolved (as it is in many other areas of service delivery, especially government services, and in particular to vulnerable people).

To be fair, a neat and tidy resolution on this huge topic is unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to derive insights that can be useful. For me, in the context of systems wide innovation, it’s about remembering that no matter how enticing it is to think technology is the magic silver bullet, especially when it comes to achieving reach and scale, technology does have limitations.This certainly doesn’t mean technology should not be a core part of an innovation strategy, it just means being clear and understanding what it can do and what it can’t do.

5. Changing perspective is key

Thinking about the future was a key component of our deep dive. It quickly became clear that remaining overly connected to the ‘way we currently do things’ was an idea that simply couldn’t hold water. We had excellent discussions about the appropriateness of traditional KPIs and metrics, all the way through to the use of art to create such substantive disruptions in perception, that municipalities have been moved to act.

Interestingly, the need to change perspective applied well beyond changing methods and approaches and went straight to the heart of entire systems, their structure and institutions. As one participant described it -

This links very nicely to the last insight.

6. A new form of democracy may be emerging. Many of our experts talked about citizen engagement in the context of a changing sense of democracy. Some are even heading up citizens democracy labs inside of large and traditional government departments.

This concept is (at least in part) gaining momentum due to the current growth of democratic distrust, where citizens’ relationships with their governments are tense and brittle. At one level, engaging with citizens and finding ways of being open, of creating spaces for civic participation and engagement with public institutions has potential to change this trend.

On the other hand, citizens may also continue to step back from current institutional structures. But this can be positive. This was described as “social innovation is the new democratic participation. For example, instead of advocating for employers to give employees full freedom on whether to show up for work or not, I can myself start a company that does this. This will solve my own problem instantly, and serve as a proof of concept of my idea, so it can help convince other employers to do the same”.

(for more on this topic, check out this blog from one of our participants, Alberto here)

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Part of our workshop was held at Dynamo — a community space offering services to locals and tourists

Two days in Bologna has left us with a huge task of linking all of the insights and lessons back to the question of system wide innovation. Whilst this will clearly be ongoing, with many ideas, experiments and failures to come, for me the message was clear. There are no shortcuts. If there were, they would have (or have been) done already. There is no one-size-fits-all, and the approach, method or technique you deploy (be it for citizen engagement or innovation more broadly) must be deeply connected to what you want to achieve.

To take this a step further it was clear to me that citizen engagement needs to go well beyond thinking about ‘an approach’ or ‘a set of things that you do’.

This was best expressed in a simple statement made perfectly “it can’t be a format, it has to be a journey that fundamentally changes your DNA”.

(there are also lots of other people thinking about innovation and systems and people — with two other interesting blogs here and here)

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Driven by design, innovation, bringing people together, trying to solve things.

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