I think Amsterdam might be (whisper it) more beautiful than Paris. It’s the canals. And the architecture, particularly the social housing — which has been cutting-edge since about 1910.
Apart from wandering around thinking “I’d really like to live here”, I also met up with two democracy-focused organisations. One that I would call classic civic tech, and one that takes a wider democratic engagement role, but that has helped deliver some interesting digital products. With a general election approaching in March 2017, it’s an exciting time for Dutch civic tech.
I’m back in the UK (is that still a thing?) now — but I have two more EuroTrip stops to blog about.
First, Berlin. As you may know, Berlin is excellent. It also has a bit of a reputation for tech startups. And for doing interesting political things with tech.
It seems a long time ago that there was excitement about ‘Liquid Democracy’ — the German Pirate Party software that was going to revolutionise representative democracy. It allowed constant ‘delegative democracy’: you could choose to delegate your vote to someone on a certain topic, but take it away from them again or choose a different delegate at any time. In addition, your delegate could delegate your vote, and so on. Hence the ‘liquid’ bit — power would flow as voters chose and changed their representatives at will. The software made this practically feasible for the first time. There were some excitable blogs about it. But the revolution never came. I wondered what became of it — my trip to Berlin revealed the answer.
Halfway down the Adenauerallee in Bonn, the city that was home to the West German government from 1949 to 1990, there’s an anonymous modern office building, notable only for some sort of bookshop on the ground floor.
The building is home to a fascinating public body, the kind of which has no equivalent in the UK. It’s called the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. The BpB for short. In English: the Federal Agency for Civic Education. On a rainy Thursday afternoon in July, I met Daniel Kraft, Director of Comms at BpB, who kindly took time out to explain the institution to me.
The French are precious about French. It’s fair enough. Gotta watch that creeping Anglicisation. Courriel, for example, is the officially designated French translation for email.
So I’d imagined that they wouldn’t go in for ‘civic tech’ so much. But they love it! People instantly knew what I was on about — even folks not in the tech or civic sector. Vive la France.
And there’s a lot of civic tech going on. Paris’ civic tech scene is thriving — and represents only some of what is going on across France. Here’s what I learned, between scoffing baguettes and incredibly good fromage, and pottering around the Canal St Martin.
Démocratie Ouverte creates its own projects, such as Parliament & Citizens, described below, but I think what’s exciting is that they’ve gone meta and positioned themselves as an umbrella membership organisation for every civic tech project happening in France.
Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.
Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens.
Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK. Continue reading In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)