Digital Engagement

Having your voice heard in an online world: Smart Places series

June 26, 2020 by No Comments | Category Democracy, digital platforms

Blog by our team member Niamh Webster. Originally published  in the Smart Places illustrated blog series of 7 articles featuring thought pieces from a diverse line up of thinkers, practitioners, experts and leaders in this field. Read the other articles in the series and the full programme of events.

With thanks to James Albon for the beautiful illustration for this article. Thanks also to Edinburgh Futures Institute, Edinburgh Living Lab and Data Capital Edinburgh for hosting the Smart Places series and adapting it all for online at last minute.

Digital engagement could help us out of lockdown and into the new future; and where a Smart Places approach and a collaborative effort could make this possible.

Coronavirus and lockdown has left us in a very different world. Overnight, workplaces and friendships moved online. But did our democracy get left behind? Hearing citizens’ voice in times of crisis is more important than ever before. Finding ways for people to have their say in this new world becomes our biggest challenge.

Where we used to have community engagement, workshops and face-to-face events in the community, we now need something new to replace and replicate this online. It will not be the same as creating in-person connections, but it might still give people a meaningful say in shaping the world around them. We need this online version now and most likely, we will need it for our new future.

This is where a Smart Places approach could help. Digital democracy as a fast emerging field is creating new ways for people to be involved in political decision-making using technology. Digital options can make it quick and easy for people to take part. They can also broaden the range of people involved and increase the transparency of government decision making.

A whole range of products have been developed to make this possible — known as civic technology — they are designed specifically with a democratic function in mind. These differ from social media platforms because they promote ideas and considered debate, beyond simple ‘likes’. They’re often moderated by officials to prevent abusive language and ensure the conversation stays on topic. But most importantly, they’re linked to power. It’s an offer from governments for people to influence a policy or decision, with the promise that they will be listened to.

Our team at the Scottish Government led an online public conversation on how to ease lockdown restrictions only a few weeks ago. It received over 4,000 ideas and 18,000 comments from people across the country voicing their ideas and concerns. This public response informed the thinking in government around the route map out of lockdown.

Initiatives like this make brave new use of technology to get public input at crucial times and on complex issues. Similar technology has been used across the globe — local decision-making in Madrid, legislation drafting in Taiwan, funding allocation in Portugal and supporting citizen assemblies in France. These pioneering examples have been replicated time and time again in other countries, reaping the benefits of digital engagement.

When people can’t meet together physically, the Smart Places approach could make use of digital tools designed for civic purposes to hear ideas and concerns from people. But going further, they could be used to share information, evidence, and give people opportunity to discuss key issues in their environments and communities. There is even opportunity to give people a chance to weigh up pros and cons and make informed decisions as a collective. This could be done through the presentation of balanced evidence, available data and making full use of the expertise and information available, all online.

The technology and skills to create these exist; there’s no shortage of tools and platforms for your every wish. The tricky part is figuring out exactly what purpose it has — what’s the incentive for people to get involved and will it make any difference? Once you know what you’re going to do and what you want to achieve, you need to figure out how. Thankfully skills to facilitate and manage a process like this exist already — but they are in different sectors and networks. It will require a collaborative effort, beyond the current structures we have now. In this sense, Smart Places presents a unique opportunity to cut across these boundaries.

Imagining what our new life might be like in the new normal is hard to do. The possibilities sketched out in this blog might be hard to picture too. But what is slowly becoming clear, is digital engagement might be one of our best options. Let’s not let our democracy get left behind.


Illustration by James Albon, commissioned for the article in Smart Places series

Illustrator’s response to Niamh’s article and future vision, by James Albon

In her article, the Scottish Government’s Niamh Webster sets out a vision for the future of engagement between Scotland’s citizens and its government through digital engagement and a “Smart Places” approach, and as an illustrator, I found the article replete with opportunity for visual interpretation. The nature of the subject: political discourse, social engagement and digital technology, are inherently intangible and non-visual concepts. This presents an exciting challenge in creating fresh visual concepts that are clear for the reader, but original enough to avoid any existing clichés in the ever-evolving world of editorial illustration. The illustration must also be broad enough to encompass the breadth of approaches that Webster sets out in her text, but specific enough to refer solely to the text and not become a generic “tech” illustration.

As people are at the heart of government and social engagement, I felt it was important that people were at the heart of the composition. The figures we see aren’t just generic archetypes, but have been developed from my own observational sketchbook drawings of real people in the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Although the Smart Places approach demands the cutting edge of technological networking, the visual approach I took in representing these concepts was inspired by visionaries of the mid-20th century, and the design of concentric circles around which the illustration is based is influenced by the works of M.C. Escher and Frantisek Kupka. After a series of sketched experiments with different designs, compositions and colour schemes, the final illustration shows us the people of Scotland coming together in using technology to make their voices heard.


Niamh Webster

Niamh Webster — bio

Niamh leads on public engagement using digital technology in her role as Digital Engagement manager at the Scottish Government. She joined in 2018 to coordinate the government’s role in the international Open Government Partnership. Previously, as Scotland manager at the non-profit Democratic Society, she worked internationally with governments, the EU, and organisations including UN Development Programme. Her past experience includes communications at the Scottish Parliament supporting elected representatives. She has a degree in Law and Politics from Glasgow University and Uppsala University, Sweden. Spending a number of years with the European Youth Parliament initially sparked her enthusiasm for getting people involved in politics.

Twitter: @niamhwebster LinkedIn: niamhwebster

Interested in discussing this article? Leave a comment below or add to the Twitter discussion about the series using #SmartPlaces.

Find out more about the Smart Places series including other authors and illustrators, or read the other articles in the series.


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