The digital revolution has no doubt disrupted politics. But has it enhanced democracy? In recent years there’s been a growing disconnect between the pace of digital development and the way political and government processes work. The internet has fundamentally changed the way we go about our social and economic lives. However, the way we participate in institutional government processes, like elections and public consultations, is not significantly different from the non-internet age.
As researchers Jamie Bartlett and Heather Grabbe point out, “the speed and ease of online business can make political processes look frustratingly slow and inaccessible to many voters”. “The digital revolution has enabled people to speak their minds far more easily, get more involved in creating information, and interacting with each other” but “the overwhelming majority of this sort of online activity is ignored by political processes”. The danger here is that voters can become disillusioned with politics and focus their energies on other life aspects where they feel that their actions can have a quicker and more measurable impact. However, through a productive use of digital technology, citizens’ appetite for online participation can become a catalyst for better democratic governance.
Europe is home to a vibrant community of young entrepreneurs working on internet-based solutions for improving the interaction between citizens and governments. An outstanding representative of this generation is Aline Muylaert, the Under 30 co-founder of Brussels-based startup Citizenlab. Launched in 2015, the company builds citizen participation platforms, currently used by more than 75 public authorities in seven European countries and Canada. Aline’s vision for Citizenlab is to bridge the gap between governance and technology at the local level: “We’re living in a digital age but are still using pen and paper to communicate with our governments. Citizens are asking for more transparency and want to have their say in the city’s policy”. However, “small- to mid-sized cities don’t have the time, nor the budget to develop in-house online participation solutions”. Citizenlab meets this need by developing a “ready-to-use and affordable way to collect input from their citizens”.
Cities use the platform to organize public consultations or compile citizen solutions around a specific issue. For instance, the Belgian city of Hasselt used Citizenlab to incorporate citizen recommendations in a park reconstruction project. The city of Vancouver, Canada, used the platform to source ideas on how to invest net revenue from their Empty Homes Tax into affordable housing initiatives. But how does Citizenlab compile and make sense of all this data? As Aline explains, the startup uses Natural Language Processing to help cities “cluster their content thematically, geographically or demographically and bring it to the right people inside the organizations.”
An interesting aspect of the Citizenlab journey is that Aline started the project with her co-founder Wietze during their university studies in Brussels. “Being a student entrepreneur helped us build our prototype and find the first clients without having the pressure to immediately make money”, she remembers. Today, Aline is Head of Sales and responsible for meeting the company’s customer acquisition targets in the different markets: “half of my time is spent on the road, meeting cities, the other half is spent in the office on lead generation, follow up and alignment with the team”.
Most startups in the civic tech space have difficulties finding sustainable business models, but Citizenlab seems to have found the right approach. The key to their successful sales strategy is two-fold. First, as Aline emphasizes, “from the beginning we decided to focus on the niche of local governments”. This enabled the company to concentrate its tech development and sales efforts on the needs of one core client category. Second, Citizenlab charges cities for using the platform based on a yearly subscription fee. “We want to have commitment from a local government before launching a citizen engagement platform”, she explains. So, asking local authorities to bear the financial burden of implementing online deliberation mechanisms ensures that they are truly motivated to incorporate citizen input in their decision-making processes.
Cofounder of a socially impactful startup and a Forbes Europe under 30 honoree at 24 years old, Aline is a true role model for driven young individuals aspiring to start an enterprise in civic technology. So, we talked about why there are fewer women in top leadership positions relative to men in this field and what we can do to change this trend. “You need to understand the public sector and combine this understanding with a good sense of entrepreneurship. I think women are often not sure if they are good at both”, Aline explains. However, “women in civic tech have an advantage because we’re perceived as more caring and as social entrepreneurs instead of only doing it for the money.” From her experience, “access to networks and contacts would be a great way to give women the push they need.”
Aline ends our interview with these words of advice for young entrepreneurs working on digital democracy projects: “Be confident and make sure you have a good personal click with the first cities or politicians you work with. This loyalty and trust will help you grow the business.”
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