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Public and private investments are increasingly being directed towards the development of ICTs for the construction of more inclusive and connected communities. Labelled as Collective Awareness Platforms (CAPs) under the European Seventh Framework Program, these initiatives explore the possibility of tackling societal issues relying on digitally-mediated citizen cooperation. As their diffusion increases, it is important to critically reflect on the extent to which they can effectively trigger forms of engagement and sustainable collaboration within and through digital artefacts. Among the associated risks is the furthering of a technocratic understanding of how collaborative processes work, based on the assumption that the introduction of CAPs would be a sufficient condition for the construction of inclusive and engaged communities. In this respect, this contribution investigates a case in which a digital platform was implemented with the aim of promoting citizens’ deliberation on urban-related issues. This experiment is analyzed by 1) assessing whether the platform functioned as a deliberative space; 2) tracking the negotiation processes of the digital artefacts’ functionalities occurring among initiative’s organizers, platform developers, and participants. The goal of the paper is to understand how different understandings and unexpected usages of the digital platform affected the deliberation process and therefore the initiative’s outcomes.
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Build It and They Will Come: Analysis of an
Online Deliberation Initiative
Alberto Lusoli
Simon Fraser University, Canada
Corresponding author: alusoli@sfu.ca
Stefania Sardo
BI Norwegian Business School, Norway
Public and private investments are increasingly being directed towards the development of
ICTs for the construction of more inclusive and connected communities. Labelled as
Collective Awareness Platforms (CAPs) under the European Seventh Framework Program,
these initiatives explore the possibility of tackling societal issues relying on digitally-mediated
citizen cooperation. As their diffusion increases, it is important to critically reflect on the
extent to which they can effectively trigger forms of engagement and sustainable
collaboration within and through digital artefacts. Among the associated risks is the furthering
of a technocratic understanding of how collaborative processes work, based on the
assumption that the introduction of CAPs would be a sufficient condition for the construction
of inclusive and engaged communities. In this respect, this contribution investigates a case in
which a digital platform was implemented with the aim of promoting citizens deliberation on
urban-related issues. This experiment is analyzed by 1) assessing whether the platform
functioned as a deliberative space; 2) tracking the negotiation processes of the digital
artefacts functionalities occurring among initiatives organizers, platform developers, and
participants. The goal of the paper is to understand how different understandings and
unexpected usages of the digital platform affected the deliberation process and therefore the
initiatives outcomes.
Keywords: Online Deliberation, CAP, Civic Engagement, Smart City, Social Innovation.
Copyright: author(s). Protected under CC BY-NC 4.0. ISSN: 2468-0648.
Please cite as: Lusoli, A. & Sardo, S. (2017). Build It and They Will Come: Analysis of an Online Deliberation
Initiative. plaNext next generation planning. 4: 41-57. DOI: 10.24306/plnxt.2017.04.004.
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Introduction
Over the past twenty years, the commercial Internet has undergone a profound
transformation. From a network through which retrieving and sharing information, potentially
turning every author into a publisher - as Vinton Cerf argued in the forewords of one of the
first Internet manuals ever published (Gilster, 1993) - to a communication infrastructure
fostering participation, interactivity and social networking (Flew & Smith, 2014, p. 21). The
shift to the so-called Web2.0 paradigm in the early 2000s (ibid.) not only brought a
quantitative escalation in the amount of circulating data, but also to a substantial change in
the design and use of technologies. Indeed, this shift was accompanied by the emergence of
new applications, which exploited the network effects of the Web, trying to harness the
crowds collective intelligence (Flew & Smith, 2014, p. 21). From Wikipedia, to ReCaptcha
through to GalaxyZoo and OpenStreetMap, the meaning of participation has been changing
constantly, and so have the contexts in which these supposed participatory technologies
have been employed.
Online civic engagement is one of those contexts which has seen a prolific development of
participatory applications. This loosely defined field is composed of projects, artefacts,
associations and practices that leverage on the collaborative power of the Web for
addressing social challenges (Bria et al., 2014). Such cascade of innovations has so far
generated more than one hundred digital tools and methodologies tested in over four
hundred civic-engagement initiatives worldwide (Fung & Warren, 2011). Examples are urban
experiments such as Participatory Chinatown in Boston20 (Reed, 2014, p. 124), MiMedellin in
Medellin21 (Colombia), TalkVancouver in Vancouver22 (Canada), and large international
projects, such as those promoted by the Icelandic Citizens Foundation23, or the recent
crowdsourcing initiative aimed at drafting the new Mexican constitution.24 From virtual town
hall meetings, to citizens consultation experiments, participatory budgeting and collective
urban planning, these projects have prompted public institutions, private companies, NGOs,
and the civil society organizations to further experiment with new usages of ICTs for the
construction of inclusive, digitally connected and sustainable societies (Bria et al., 2014).
Given the popularity that these initiatives have gained over time (Pacini & Bagnoli, 2016), it
deems necessary a critical and reflexive evaluation of the role ICTs have played in such
projects, the models of participation they promoted, and the ways in which these
technologies have been appropriated by citizens. This evaluation can be helpful to
collectively make sense of what has been developed to date, and of what kind of reactions
these initiatives have raised among the public. As part of this reflexive process, this paper
employs David Lanes (1995) theory of technology adoption and innovation. This perspective
furthers a conception of ICTs as underdetermined objects (Feenberg, 1999, p. 79), whose
meanings are open to multiple, and even contrasting, interpretations emerging from the
interactions that they have made possible (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 2012, p. 34). Therefore,
when defining and evaluating the effectiveness of online civic engagement initiatives, the
complexity of technological appropriation cannot be overlooked, as it is inherently uncertain.
This paper is based on a case study performed in 2014 in the city of Cesena, Italy. During a
one-month project, an online platform was designed to allow citizens to contribute in one of
20 http://www.participatorychinatown.org/
21 http://www.mimedellin.org/
22 https://www.talkvancouver.com/
23 http://www.citizens.is/
24 https://www.constitucion.cdmx.gob.mx/
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the candidate mayors future agendas for the years 2014-2019. Three groups of agents
gravitated around, and projected their expectations towards, the new digital platform: (1)
developers, (2) organizers, (3) participants. Information about the groups attributions
towards the tool, and its actual use by projects participants was gathered by means of
interviews, participants observation, and secondary documents analyses. The aims are to
understand to which extent this initiative was capable to create a deliberative space, and how
the platforms functionalities had been negotiated among groups.
The paper is structured as follows: the ensuing background section combines two theoretical
rationales, online deliberative theories and studies on the emergence of artefacts
functionalities. The former provides an operational definition of deliberative processes,
drawing concepts from theories on democratic conversation and strong democracy. The
latter traces the complexity of interaction processes through which agents come to imagine
new uses of available technologies. The data analysis combines a qualitative analysis of
interviews, participants observations notes, and secondary documents related to the tools
development and implementation, with Social Network Analysis and descriptive statistics,
displaying the participants types of interaction within the platform. By framing data through
the theoretical lenses, the discussion and conclusion part show some of the shortcomings of
technology-mediated engagement initiatives, further defining an agenda for future research.
Theoretical background
This paper is rooted on two theoretical rationales. Deliberation theory, inspired by the writings
of James Fishkin and John Gastil (Fishkin, 2009; Gastil, 2008), provides an operational
definition of deliberation, which is later employed in the analysis section for the evaluation of
the case study. Instead, Lanes approach to innovation and uncertainty (D. A. Lane, 2011,
2016, D. A. Lane & Maxfield, 1995, 2005) is used to make sense of the initiative outcome, by
focusing on the misalignment between the functionalities inscribed by design on the platform
- negotiated between developers and organizers - and the participants actual use of it.
An introduction to Deliberation
Providing a single universally accepted definition of deliberation is challenging, since the
topic has been addressed by several and often incommensurable viewpoints. The Rational
Choice Theory perspective considers deliberation as a process in which a defined group of
agents, endowed with an immutable set of preferences, analyzes a causally independent
number of alternatives for a given issue, with the objective of generating an ordered list of
viable solutions. Such a view stems from a liberal conception of deliberative democracy,
according to which public reason emerges from the aggregation of personal interests within
an institutional framework designed to foster and control these confrontations (Mouffe, 2000;
Rawls, 1993).
Instead, theories of democratic conversation and strong democracy describe the deliberative
process as discursive, open ended, inclusive and free flowing. Deliberation is a discussion
characterized by an informal dialectic, in which talk does not chart distinctions, but rather
creates commonalities amongst participants (Barber, 2003). This approach traces its origins
in Critical Theory, from the writings of Habermas (1985) until the recent studies of Dryzek
(2000). According to the latter, deliberation is a means of achieving an informed decision,
and a process along which participants become aware of the dimensions involved in the
issues at stake (Dryzek, 2000). It is first of all a discovery and learning process, rather than a
method for achieving a rational consensus on universal principles (Mouffe, 2000, p. 73).
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To summarize, while the liberal approach deems deliberation as a tool for aggregating and
streamlining collective decision-making, the critical perspective highlights its capacity to
collectively uncover the latent dimensions of the problems under public scrutiny, which were
not necessarily taken into consideration by single individuals.
In this paper, the term deliberation is used in accordance with the definition provided by John
Gastil (2008). His description, while maintaining a critical perspective, is schematic enough to
allow a clear operationalization of the process for the analysis. A deliberative process begins
with the creation of a knowledge base, i.e. a set of background information on the issue
under investigation that participants are invited to analyze, fostering in this manner a first
shared understanding of the problem. This information base is created by the promoters of
the deliberation, or by an appointed committee, which usually combines professional
expertise with personal experiences (Gastil & Black, 2008). Subsequently, each participant
should identify the values at stake (equivalent to the dimensions aforementioned) and
formulate potential solutions to the problem. In opposition to the liberal conception of
deliberation, values and solutions are not pre-given and composed of a fixed input to which
each participant contributes. Rather, solutions emerge and change throughout the
deliberation process, as a consequence of confrontation. During this phase, participants are
supposed to develop an enlightened understanding of the issues at stake and of their own
perspectives, at the same time empathizing with the hopes, fears and motivations of others
(Gastil, 2008). Through the informed and reflexive comparisons of solutions with values, a
trade-off for each option is identified and evaluated by participants, thereby generating a list
of prioritized solutions. A final decision on which solution to adopt is achieved either by
mutual agreement or through a poll, depending on the context. During elections, for instance,
the final decision is based on participants votes, while in other situations the deliberation
might culminate with the production of a set of recommendations representing the
participants' irreducible viewpoints.
A birds-eye view of this convoluted process would reveal two main components: the opinion
creation and the opinion aggregation stages. The former is the collection and comparison of
participants values and solutions; the latter regards the reconciliation of different ideas into a
single final agreement (Fishkin, 2009). This deliberative scheme can be applied to several
contexts, from small organizations to web-based communities, up to local and national
scales. In an ideal situation, mass participation would allow community members to actively
contribute to the deliberative process, granting political equality through their engagement in
the opinion formation and selection processes. However, the scale of the initiative matters: to
have an enlightened understanding of the potential solutions to a problem, all participants
should explore the others values. This means that the larger the participants number, the
greater the amount of information each of them must evaluate to come up with an informed
opinion. Fishkin (2009), argues that medium and large-scales deliberation (i.e. more than 200
participants) is affected by rational ignorance, i.e. the tendency to avoid a systematic inquiry
of the issue under investigation when the amount of information to be considered outstrips
the individual capacity for elaborating it. To overcome these limits, democratic institutions
often rely on simpler forms of members involvement (e.g. referenda, polls), directly engaging
a community in the decision-making process. However, if in democratic contexts these
solutions may grant political equality, they often fail to stimulate a systematic reflection on the
issue at stake, by removing the opinion formation phase and by considering citizens votes as
an approximation of informed decisions.
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In light of this, the gap between deliberation and participation seems unfillable. However, can
the introduction of new communication means extend the opinion formation stage to larger
groups? Since its inception, Internet has been a place for deliberation, in the prosaic
meaning of the term. E-mail, mailing lists, bulletin boards, online chats, forums, instant
messaging and lastly social networks: the history of Internet is punctuated by the appearance
of digital artefacts that have increasingly enlarged the public involved in online conversations.
Thanks to the development of protocols, interfaces and connections, Internet has prepared
the ground for strong deliberative communities (in the critical acceptation of the term) to
flourish. From the cybernetic utopia of the 1970s (Medina, 2011), to the democratic dreams
promoted through the pages of the Peoples Computer Company (Dean, 2005), to the
emergence of Web2.0 in the early 2000s, there has been a gradual experimentation in the
field of computer-mediated engagement supported by both governments and private
organizations (Fung & Warren, 2011).
Sustein (2001) was among the first scholars to analyse this phenomenon and to warn
against the drawbacks of online communities. Internet stimulated the adoption of deliberative
behaviors, and allowed people to interact, but at the same time it fostered group polarization,
extremisms, and the emergence of an enclave form of deliberation carried on by a group of
close-knit members (ibid.). Through participants self-selection and ideas homogenization,
enclaves may endanger the possibility for users to engage in an enlightened understanding
of different positions and opinions. Sunsteins hope for a deliberative Internet relied on the
possibility that hyperlinking would put these enclaves in communication, easing the migration
of users from one community to another and thus increasing the heterogeneity of ideas.
Today this vision appears to be no longer actual, since the emergence of social media has
redefined the same concepts of online participation and collaboration, less relegated within
rigid enclaves, but rather fluid and extemporaneous as the connections amongst activists
collaborating within a social network (Rheingold, 2010).
However, recent models of participation have often been approximations of the deliberation
funding principles, leveraging on participants gut feelings and boiling down motivations and
ideas into one, single, click. In their simplicity, initiatives like digital petitions and online polling
systems have sometimes achieved wide visibility but, lacking the opinion formation stage,
they have failed to stimulate deliberation in its critical acceptation, and in some cases, they
have led to depoliticized forms of participation (Dean, 2005).
A theory on technology adoption and innovation
To understand the complexity of technological appropriation processes and their
consequences in terms of the emergence of new artefacts functionalities, we rely on the
innovation theory developed by Lane and Maxfield (1995, 2005), further explored by Russo
(2000), Villani et al. (2007) and Read et al. (2008), among others. According to Lane (2016,
p. 2), Innovation processes inextricably entangle the introduction of new artefacts25,
transformations of social organization, and changes in attributions people make about the
identity of agents (i.e. both individuals and organizations) and the functionality of artefacts.
This theory argues that the functionalities of an artefact are not unilaterally and once and for
all determined by its designers. Indeed, they are the outcome of a negotiation process during
which designers materially inscribed attributions of functionality are interpreted by
25 By artefact, Lane and Maxfield mean any object or service around which economic activity is
organized— in particular, those designed, produced, and exchanged by economic agents. ‘“Objects”
are not intended just as cars, movies, and telephones, but also as software systems, architectural
blueprints, and financial instruments’ (Lane & Maxfield, 1997:170).
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participants and then further translated and put into actual uses. These negotiation
processes occur in cascades, since they can cause iterative sequences of changes in
agents identities (what they do and how they do it), artefacts functionalities (their uses, who
uses them and for which purposes) and in the relationships amongst agents and artefacts (D.
A. Lane & Maxfield, 1997, p. 192).
The negotiation process unfolding from the introduction of an artefact can be synthetized as
follows. At the beginning, the new artefact (material/immaterial) is designed to address some
attributions of functionality (including what it should be used for, by whom, and how), which
usually reflect the designers views. When the artefact is introduced in a specific context
(space), this may generate patterns of interactions around its use, not only amongst agents,
but also amongst artefacts (e.g. new complementary technologies or adjustment of existing
ones). These patterns can subsequently modify and alter the meaning(s) of the artefacts
uses, generating new attributions of functionality. All along this cascade of changes, the
recently attributed functionalities may activate different uses of a particular technology,
serving as a basis for the development of artefacts designed to fulfil them (Bonifati, 2010;
Villani et al., 2007). The cycle reiterates when these novel artefacts are again introduced in
the space (D. A. Lane & Maxfield, 2009). The recursive process through which an artefact is
exploited to fulfil functionalities and needs not previously considered as relevant is called
exaptive bootstrapping (D. A. Lane, 2011), and it has an inherently unpredictable nature:
agents cannot foresee which attributions will gain relevance along the unfolding cascades of
consequences resulting from their own and the others actions. An example of this process is
the French telephone system Minitel (Feenberg, 1992). In the early 1980s, the French
government distributed, for free, millions of video terminals to telephone subscribers. Once
connected to the phone line, the Minitel terminal allowed everyone to access information
services. However, one year after its introduction, people realized that it was relatively easy
to hack the system. Therefore, they turned an apparently boring information terminal into a
means of communication. Eventually, the symbol of French modernization became an on-line
chatting system, used to look for amusement, companionship, and sex (Feenberg, 1999, p.
126).
It is important to notice that even acknowledging the possibility for a participant to recognize
the emergence of a new attribution of functionality associated with an artefact (D. Lane,
Pumain, van der Leeuw, & West, 2009, p. 29), the current formulation of this innovation
theory does not explore in details the mechanisms through which a functional novelty is
shared and accepted as relevant by the group of participants involved in the interaction
patterns around an artefact (i.e. how users negotiate and influence others attributions of
functionalities, and how attributions diffuse and are enacted through use). To widen the
scope of the theory, this research studies the processes of negotiation and emergence of
functionalities in a context such as an online deliberative platform that is both a shared
artefact and an interaction space. Differently from previously analyzed cases of bootstrapping
dynamics, digital artefacts allow users attributions of functionalities and actions to be self-
evident and intelligible in the same moment they interact within the digital space.
Empirical study
Case study: an online deliberation project
In February 2014, the city of Cesena, a mid-size city located in Italy with approximately
95.000 inhabitants, launched an initiative aimed at engaging citizens in the co-construction of
the political agenda of the then-mayor who was running for re-election. Citizens were asked
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to collectively substantiate the seven lines of actions, chosen by the mayor and his staff.
These lines were aimed at constructing a more secure, transparent, fair and cohesive city. In
detail:
Public services: This area was open to ideas on how to improve or change the essential
urban public services, to make it more respondent to citizens needs. Some of the citizens
proposals concerned public health services, social housing and public schools.
Technology and innovation: How to improve the citys life quality by means of technological
interventions. Some of the ideas discussed suggested the extension of the public Wi-Fi
network to the peripheries, the extension of the door-to-door garbage collection to the entire
city, and the digitalization of basic services (e.g. register office).
Security: This debate was aimed at collecting ideas on how to improve the citys security.
The discussion led to the proposal of new bike lanes and the improvement of existing ones,
to reduce car traffic and some of the associated dangers. Citizens also asked for an
increased level of police surveillance in the peripheries.
Participation: This line regarded civic participation and citizens involvement in the city
administration. Participants asked for the creation of new district-based civic committees,
the publication of interim results concerning the new administrations initiatives and the
digitalization of the call for tenders.
Local identity: This area focused on small, local, interventions aimed at reinforcing the
connections within and among neighbourhoods. Participants asked for the institution of
walking school buses, for the development of new bus routes connecting the peripheries,
and for the preservation of the rural areas surrounding the city.
Labor and employment: This discussion was aimed at collecting proposals on how to
reinforce the local economy. Participants asked for easier access to credit, for the
development of new initiatives connecting the local university with industry, and the relaunch
of agriculture through the reorganization and modernization of farming practices.
Regional identity: In this discussion, citizens were invited to suggest how to improve or
rethink the connections between the city and the larger region of Emilia Romagna. People
asked for improved integration between the regions public health service providers and the
development of new, conjoint, cultural activities (e.g. synergies between museums).
The whole initiative encompassed a series of events held across the city and the installation
of a web-based platform designed to collect citizens ideas and to stimulate public dialogue.
Specifically, the Mayors communication committee relied on Deebase, an already existing
Content Management System (CMS) aimed at supporting online communities with enhanced
forum functionalities. However, the original CMS was not used as it was, but it was adapted
to the necessities of the committee. Even if their purpose was to construct a deliberative
online space, at the same time they wanted to prevent the initiative turning into a political
backlash in the hands of the opposition. Therefore, the platforms functionalities were
negotiated between the committee and the Deebase IT team: for instance, the former asked
to maintain control over the seven areas of debate, thus inhibiting users from creating new
discussions autonomously.
Once the platform was ready to be launched, a public meeting was organized by the
communication committee to explain the citizens (mainly those belonging to the candidates
political party) the initiatives aim and the platforms functionalities. Throughout the one-
month experiment, participants were invited to substantiate the topics with their ideas, to
extend and discuss those of their fellow citizens, or to simply cast their votes for their favorite
ones. Each debate was substantiated by opinions, which in turn were developed into
motivations. Users had the option to add and rank both opinions and motivations, allowing
each debated issue to be separated into many facets, and then to rank them for relevance.
Despite the emphasis posed by the organizers on the platforms deliberative aspect, citizens
limited their actions to the submission of their personal views, or to the support of those
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submitted by someone else. Very little or no interest was shown in debating others ideas.
However, at the end of the initiative, most of the content emerged from the platform was
translated into goals in the mayors electoral programme.
Methodology
The evaluation of whether this tool was able to provide a deliberative space requires two
parallel analyses. On one side, an investigation on the different understandings of
deliberation, as negotiated between the initiatives developers and organizers. This analysis
should reveal how these different interpretations were inscribed into the digital artefact
throughout its design and implementation. On the other side, the information generated by
the CMS helps to understand how the platforms inscribed functionalities were further
negotiated by participants through its use, and which consequences this negotiation had on
the deliberative experiment.
The platform design process had been closely monitored through weekly meetings with one
of the three platform developers. This respondent was chosen because of his role in the
project, as he was the main interface between the developers and the mayors
communication committee. Additional written material on the design process (email
exchanges and meeting notes) was made available by the developers team. Besides these
interactions, researchers attended the public event where the platform was publicly
presented and formally launched by the mayor and the developers. This occasion was
informative to understand how the initiative was communicated, especially which importance
was given to the online tool and to the whole deliberative experiment. Informal meetings
transcripts, field notes and secondary documents were analyzed using a content analysis
software (Nvivo 10), highlighting the attributions of functionality expressed by different agents
in time towards the initiative and the platform. The deliberation process was instead analyzed
through the public Log File released at the end of the initiative for public use. The Log File
recorded all the interactions taking place within the platform, thus allowing a reconstruction of
their unfolding over time. In detail, the CMS log file kept track of:
1. Logins and logouts;
2. New opinions submitted;
3. Opinion votes; change of opinions;
4. Submission of a new comment as explanation/motivation for the chosen opinion;
5. Submission of a reaction, i.e. commenting on others comments.
This information was mapped using a Social Network Analysis (SNA) software (Pajek). While
SNA alone cannot prove the degree of deliberativeness of the initiative, it nevertheless
provides a good qualitative representation of actions and reactions chains that took place
within the platform. It shows how the different discussions branched out and which functions
of the platform where mostly used. Combining these data with the content produced by
participants within the platform and with the feedback information collected by developers at
the end of the initiative (who independently conducted a simple users survey on the
experience), was crucial to reconstruct participants attributions of functionality, despite the
lack of unrestricted access to the users base. All data were anonymized by removing
usernames, which were replaced with a unique identifier, thereby preserving the
confidentiality, but not the full anonymity, of the research.
The case study method has been employed because it is one of the most appropriate
research designs for conducting idiographic studies (Babbie & Benaquisto, 2014; Eisenhardt,
1989). This methodology is recognized as having several advantages, for example that of
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providing opportunities for identifying complex interaction effects, and of being useful both for
testing hypotheses, conceptual refining, and thus for theory development (George & Bennett,
2005; Yin, 2009). A clear limitation of the analysis relates to the clustering of participants in
three groups. Indeed, the inherent danger in the use of such broad categorizations is social
groups reification, which might neglect to account for all the ways different people interpreted
the initiative, the platform, and others participants' moves.
Analysis and discussion
Rooted on the aforementioned theoretical frame, the analysis assesses whether the digital
platform employed by the municipality functioned as a deliberative space where citizens
could actively discuss and deliberate on city-related issues. Moreover, it tracks the
negotiation processes occurring among the three major actors groups (initiatives organizers,
platform developers, participants) around the digital artefacts functionalities.
Assessing the deliberation process
According to Gastil (2008), a deliberation process is composed of two phases. At the
beginning, participants are invited to express their opinions on the topics, and to compare
their own values and solutions with those of others. This comparison may lead to a change of
values and opinions, and to the emergence of new ones. If a negotiation is possible, in the
subsequent phase opinions are aggregated and included in an agreed-upon statement. By
applying these concepts to the case study, an online debate can be considered as
deliberative if participants, in a discussion topic:
a) Insert a new opinion or vote on an already submitted opinion;
Figure 1. Adding new opinions to the debate
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b) Add a comment for the chosen opinion or vote for an already submitted comment;
Figure 2. Adding a new comment
c) Add a reaction to someone elses comment.
Figure 3. Adding a reaction
In conjunction, actions a, b and c represent both the opinion formation and the opinion
aggregation stages. Their co-occurrence at the level of a single participant can be
considered as the minimum acceptable level for assuming a glimmer of deliberation, as they
presuppose both the evaluation of different opinions available (opinion creation stage) and
their selection (opinion aggregation stage). In our case, since the unit of observation is the
single discussion, this co-occurrence should be checked for each of the seven topics
presented in the platform, as independent from each other. Below are the results of this first
analysis.
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Table 1. Overall data collected on the platform
As can be seen in Table 1, the average number of new opinions per topic is around five,
while the average number of comments is fourteen. The topics Local Identity and
Technology and innovation greatly outperformed other topics in catalyzing participants
attention. The least participated topic was Labour and employment.
Table 2. Number of participated topics by single participant
Table 2 shows how many participants had been contributing in one or more topics (the total
number of participants was 139). None had been following all of them, and the majority of
participants followed just one topic. Moreover, it should be noted here that 18% of
participants just logged onto the platform, but never performed any actions at all.
Table 3. Number of actions types performed by users
Table 3 clearly indicates that none of the participants performed all the possible actions
available within a single topic. The vast majority of participants performed only two actions,
despite all the possible permutations available; these were:
a+b: Voted or submitted a new opinion and voted or submitted one or more comments
a+c: Voted or submitted a new opinion and added one or more reaction to others comments
Action type
Public
se rvice s
Labor and
employment
Technology and
innovation
Regional
Identity
Security Participation
Total
Opinions 5 4 8 5 3 5 8 38
Comments 5 13 18 11 13 12 23 95
Vote to opinions 4 5 7 9 8 9 8 50
Vote to comments 4 6 7 4 8 5 9 43
Reactions 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1
18 28 40 29 33 31 39 218
# actions types pe rformed 3 2 1
Public services 0 9 0
Labor and employment 0 9 0
Technology and innovation 0 12 3
Regional Identity 0 8 6
Security 0 7 4
Participation 0 12 2
Local Identity 0 14 2
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The b+c combination was not possible in accordance with the platforms rules, since the b
action requires a. In fact, in order to submit a new comment, a user had to first support or
add a new opinion to the debate.
These descriptive statistics already provide a clear indication of the non-deliberativeness of
the debate, as they show how participants did not engage with the ideas submitted by their
fellow-citizen, e.g. using reactions. However, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of
what happened within the digital space, it is necessary to explore the interactions structure.
Figure 4. SNA of the overall topics discussions
Figure. 4 represents the deliberation activity for each topic. Red nodes represent the topics,
yellow the opinions, green the comments, while reactions are blue. The size of each node
reflects: for topics, the number of opinions inserted; for opinions, the number of votes
received and the number of comments inserted; for comments, the number of votes received.
The graph shows to what extent some topics stimulated the submission of several opinions,
which in turn branched-out into multiple motivations (e.g. A7 and A3), while some others
triggered polarized responses with relatively few opinions and various comments (e.g. A1
and A5). What is striking is the near absence of reactions (action c, performed only once, in
Topic A5), i.e. replies to others comments, which proves the lack of interactions among
users supporting different opinions.
Following the operationalized definition provided above, it could be largely concluded that the
initiatives participants only slightly developed discussions in a deliberative fashion, since
supporters of one opinion did not engage with the ideas proposed by others. This lack of the
opinion formation stage can be measured by the absence of reactions (action c), i.e. users
reactions to other comments. This absence stands for the inability of the initiative to foster
discussions between citizens with diverging ideas on the issue being debated.
Negotiation process of the online platforms functionalities
Notwithstanding the fact that the initiative did not produce a sufficient level of discussion
among participants to be considered a deliberation process, it is important to critically reflect
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on what might have been the possible causes. One way of understanding it is by
reconstructing the platforms negotiation processes occurred among the different groups of
agents taking part in the initiative. Specifically, the process of attributions of functionalities
formation and enactment in a digital environment, and the frictions arising among different
attributions towards the platform. What emerges from the collected empirical data is a
substantial discrepancy between the functionalities the platform was designed to fulfil
according to the organizers, and those enacted by participants.
The developers goal was to create an instrument capable of supporting structured online
discussions. Their expressed aim, as emerged from interviews and through the analysis of
the companys promotional material, was to go beyond traditional forum platforms and to
develop an online software capable of fostering complex and articulated opinions
exchanges. In this respect, Deebase embodied a conception of deliberation which resembled
Gastils definition: a process though which people interact and collectively discover hidden
dimensions of the issues at stake. Accordingly, the platform allowed users to explore new
ideas, submit their own proposals and extend those of others. The process culminated with a
democratic vote, which produced an ordered set of ideas, ranked according to their level of
acceptance. This process, as prescribed by the original platform, entailed both the opinion
formation and the opinion selection stages.
Organizers were interested in the opportunity to include citizens in the writing of the
candidates agenda. However, according to the developers, they proved to be not sufficiently
willing to face the consequences of such openness. The fear of not being able to adequately
and promptly control the interactions that could have emerged from the platform, brought
them to negotiate with developers the artefacts characteristics: new features were added,
others were removed. Basically, the organizers limited the allowed interactions to seven pre-
defined topics, and asked developers for advanced content moderation tools to be
implemented. In the developers notes on one of the first meetings with organizers, we can
read the following requests:
The admin roles should be expanded. First of all, each new user should be manually activated
by the administrator, only after having checked her profile. Moreover, it would be useful to have
the possibility to manage each single contribution, in order to remove offensive contents and, in
case, to ban those who do not behave according to the rules (cit. organizers spokesperson).
The developers spokesperson revealed the frustration that they were experiencing while
adapting the technology to the organizers attribution of functionality. In fact, the latter
conceived the platform not just as a deliberative space, but also as a propaganda instrument
for the candidate. A specific episode reveals the misalignment between the two groups. 17
days into the experiment, a user posted an inflammatory comment, unrelated to the
discussion and in open contrast with the candidates program. The developers
spokesperson informed the organizers about the event:
Today we have noticed some frictions within the platform. I noticed that the content was
removed almost immediately. I dont know if you had the chance to contact this user, but I was
wondering if it was more appropriate to publicly post a reaction, explaining why this kind of
contributions are not productive for the discussion, and also advising the user to better articulate
his oppositional stance (cit. developers spokesperson).
The organizers replied confirming the users ban from the platform:
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Before removing the contents, we sent an email to the user, explaining why his comments were
removed. We have invited him to participate only in case he is willing to submit proposals that
truly reflect his perspectives (cit. organizers spokesperson).
This passage is evocative of the different attributions carried by developers and organizers
toward the platform: the former privileged content production over control (which was
instrumental to demonstrate that the platform was working as a deliberation tool, i.e. that it
was collecting contributions from the citizens, even polemical ones), while the latter favored
control over deliberation (as a way to preserve the candidates image and program
coherence). Therefore, it can be argued that the organizers attributions towards what does it
mean to provide a context for public online deliberation configured the degree of freedom
they ended up granting to the platforms future participants (Woolgar, 1990). In envisaging
the participants roles, organizers projected their own identity (i.e. supporters of the
candidate) into the design of the platforms functionality (Bardini & Horvath, 1995).
Finally, participants, when accessing the platform, were carriers of their own personal
attributions towards the initiative, the platform functionality, and what their role was supposed
to be within it. These attributions were mediated by the information received from the
organizers during the live event, through the initiative websites content, and the Graphic
User Interface. Moreover, since in a digital space participants attributions of functionality are
visible to others - as they become self-evident in the same moment their actions take place -
when accessing the platform, they also found the traces left by the actions of those who
preceded them, and that had inscribed their attributions in the form of contents.
The almost exclusive reliance on opinions and comments downplayed the relevance that
reactions had within the platform. However, these were also the only means available to
participants for comparing their ideas with those of others and, hopefully, to discover new
ones. In Gastils conception of deliberation, reactions were an essential component of the
opinion formation stage. The visible attributions towards the platform made by former
participants and the absence of confrontations among participants with different ideas might
have reduced what Lane and Maxfield (1997) describe as the permissions to act, i.e. the
degree of freedom that agents arrogate themselves to create their own attributions of
functionality and to enact them in practice. In the case analysed here, some of these
permissions were formally established by developers and organizers, at the beginning of the
initiative. However, throughout the progressive inscription of attributions made by other
participants, with their actions in the platform, they were informally redefined, thus narrowing
the permissions of subsequent newcomers. In a way, the community itself restricted over
time the range of allowable actions in the platform. This reduction does not necessarily
coincide with a convergence of possibilities: at any point in time, the attributions inscribed in
the platform could have been reinterpreted by participants, thus fostering the exploration of
new functionalities (even those previously discarded). The result is not an inexorable process
of closure (Bijker et al., 2012, p. 39), but rather a complex interplay of attributions, which may
sometimes push towards a common understanding of the technology, and other times
towards a clash of different attributions, unable to generate new meaningful and shared
interpretations of available technologies.
In the analysed cases study, this dynamic converged towards a functionality different from
those envisaged by developers and organizers. Despite the information provided by the
organizers, and the values inscribed within the artefact through the Graphic Users Interface
and the interaction rules, participants adopted a rather passive role. This behavior,
observable since the very beginning, was reinforced by new users when, joining the platform,
they conformed to the behaviors of those preceding them, i.e. they limited their contributions
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within the boundaries of their own opinions, without exploring and contributing to competing
ideas. This led to a self-reinforcing dynamic that determined the failure of the deliberative
initiative, as envisaged by developers and organizers.
Conclusions
Collective awareness has been gaining momentum over the past years. The pervasiveness
of Internet connections and the accessibility of digital devices in the Global North have
created the opportunity for experimenting with civic engagement on a large scale. This
unprecedented opening in some cases revives a rather instrumental approach to technology,
combined with utopian (or dystopian) dreams of hyper connected and smart communities.
This research provides two theoretical insights, helpful to evaluate these kinds of initiatives.
The first is rooted in the critical conception of deliberation provided by Fishkin and Gastil
(Fishkin, 2009; Gastil, 2008), and it can be used to assess the deliberativeness of computer
mediated communications. The second is Lane and Maxfields approach to innovation (D. A.
Lane, 2016; D. A. Lane & Maxfield, 2009, 2005), which provides a grammar to detect the
emergence of unforeseen attributions of functionalities towards deliberations tools and these
initiatives.
In this regard, this study is about a process of construction of an online deliberation space,
and about how its functionalities changed as a consequence of the interactions among the
involved groups of agents. While software developers designed the platform to be a digital
collective deliberative space, it turned out to be a means of political propaganda and a digital
suggestions box. For the initiatives organizers, it was the opportunity to promote their
candidate and engage new segments of voters. For users, it was a place where to post their
ideas, and not where to talk and discuss them with their fellow citizens. The interactions
among the three groups brought to a clash of attributions, which did not generate the
outcomes envisaged by developers and organizers. Ex-post, it is possible to reflect on what
could have been done to align participants, developers and organizers perspectives. A
possible option could have been the introduction of mediators along with the deliberation
process. Their role should not be that of driving participants in the direction envisaged by
organizers and developers - as this would privilege one attribution of functionality over
others. Instead, it should be to detect novel usages of the technology over time, and to
inform organizers and developers of new emerging needs, which may lead to modifications in
the online deliberation space and in the whole initiative (Anzoise & Sardo, 2016).
Indeed, the complexity and uncertainty stemming from the introduction of technologies even
in controlled environments, should remind us of the impossibility to predict every possible
attribution, and therefore any potential functionality, which an artefact can acquire once in
use. In fact, the attributions development and the interactions among agents is also
influenced by cultural and localized aspects, which take the form of existing practices and
networks of users and devices. These uncertainties constitute a threat to one of the pillars of
digital civic engagement initiatives - and of Collective Awareness Platforms more generally -
namely the possibility to leverage on the network effects, and on the collective intelligence
stemming from it, for tackling social issues (Sestini, 2012). The concern here is not to identify
and reduce the sources of uncertainty, but instead to deal with their existence and to learn
how to include them in a continuous process of technological design. This can start, for
example, by recognizing participants not just as mere users, but as agents capable of
changing the rules inscribed in the technological artefacts.
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Innovation cascades inextricably link the introduction of new artefacts, transformations in social organization, and the emergence of new functionalities and new needs. This paper describes a positive feedback dynamic, exaptive bootstrapping, through which these cascades proceed, and the characteristics of the relationships in which the new attributions that drive this dynamic are generated. It concludes by arguing that the exaptive bootstrapping dynamic is the principal driver of our current Innovation Society. © 2016 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.
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Introduction.- Section 1: From biology to society.- Ch 1: Lane, Maxfield, Read and van der Leeuw, From population to organization thinking.- Ch 2: Read, Lane and van der Leeuw, The innovation innovation.- Ch 3: van der Leeuw, Lane and Read, The long-term evolution of social organization.- Ch 4: Ginzburg, Biological metaphors in economics: Natural selection and competition.- Ch 5: White, Innovation in the context of networks, hierarchy and social cohesion.- Section 2: Innovation and urban systems.- Ch 6: Bretagnolle, Pumain, The organization of urban systems.- Ch 7: Bettancourt, Lobo and West, The self similarity of human social organization in cities.- Ch 8: Pumain, Paulus and Vacchiani-Marcuzzo, Innovation cycles and urban dynamics.- Section 3: Innovation and market systems.- Ch 9: Lane and Maxfield, Building a new market system.- Ch 10: Rossi, Bertossi, Gurisatti and Sovieni, Incorporating a new technology into agent-artifact space: The case of control system automation in Europe.- Ch 11: Russo and Rossi, Innovation policies: Levels and levers.- Section 4: Modeling innovation and social change.- Ch 12: Pumain, Sanders, Bretagnolle, Glisse, and Mathian, The future of urban systems: exploratory models.- Ch 13: Serra, Villani and Lane, Modeling innovation.- Ch 14: Ferrari, Read, van der Leeuw, An agent based model of information flows in social dynamics.- Ch 15: Villani, Bonacini, Ferrari and Serra, An agent based model of exaptive processes.- Ch 16: Helbing, Kuhnert, Lammer, Johannsen, Gelsen, Ammoser and West, Power laws in urban supply networks, social systems and dense pedestrian.- Ch 17: Knappett et al., Using statistical physics to understand relational space: A case study from Mediterranean.- Conclusion.- List of contributors
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