Skip to main content

Mass Participation

Cities are evolving to be human-centred and designed by and for its citizens, promoting mass participation by the ecosystem in a collaborative process and following open government policies.

What does my ideal experience in my city look like? How can our city contribute to a brighter global future? How would we like our children to grow up in the city? What would our community want our city to be known for around the world?

These are some of the questions you will be asked in cities where there is open government and mass participation. These are places where citizens, social innovators, civil society organisations, businesses and academia are part of the process of building their cities (in a quintuple helix model1), closing the gaps between local government and the ecosystem.

As the Executive Director of UN-Habitat has stated, if we want to create sustainable and inclusive cities “We cannot draw a plan in the air, on the sixteenth floor of a building, without putting our foot on the ground”. Through mass participation, supported by open data and technology, and with local government acting as a platform, cities can use the citizen as a ‘sensor’ and benefit from greater innovation, better utilisation of resources and an increased sense of ownership. Co-creation through mass participation is a bi or multi-directional human-centred approach, rather than just a bottom-up or traditional top-down approach.

Cities are increasingly innovative in the way they promote participation, both sporadically for specific services and regularly for strategic planning, as it is critical for a healthy democracy. And technology plays a key role in enabling innovation – for instance, mobile applications and reporting websites overcome the need for groups to meet in person to discuss new ideas and collaborate; and digital currency opens the door to gamification strategies (average 44 per cent of 167 cities in a survey admitted to engaging their citizens through some form of gamification)2 and reward systems for good behaviour. For instance, this is what the City Hall of Freetown, Sierra Leone is doing, by issuing impact tokens to reward citizens, corporations and institutions that grow and sustain trees within the city.

But to ensure the three principles of open government are met (participation, collaboration and transparency), it is necessary to have open data platforms and other initiatives. Participatory budgets are a good starting point. Some cities go a step further and provide citizens and the ecosystem with real-time access to information, to keep them informed about changes that affect where they live. For example, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) launched a smart city platform, which it claims to be the world’s first digital administrative system. Based on the view that ’citizens are the mayors’, the platform provides citizens with the same real-time access to information as the mayor on matters such as transportation, disasters and air quality. The platform can be accessed through SMG mobile website and digital information kiosks in metro stations.3 Other examples are ‘Better Reykjavik’ in Iceland, that allows citizens to submit their ideas on almost all city activities, from school schedules to new market areas and parks; London, which created the London Datastore, a free and open data-sharing portal where anyone can access data relating to the city;4 and the city of Lublin, which has an initiative called the Green Citizen’s Budget with allocated funding of EUR 0.44 million to encourage residents to suggest ideas for improving urban greenery.5

Ultimately, cities will progress towards having true platforms for collaboration, fostering co-creation and leading to new governance models (co-governance), where responsibility is shared among the participants and is not just a burden on the local government. From this perspective, a new culture is created, and citizen engagement emerges as critical for ensuring the long-term sustainability of policy initiatives.

“In planning cities we are planning for the people. We don't plan cities for cars, we don't plan cities for buildings, we plan cities for people.”

-Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat

Sense of belonging and identity trigger behaviour change: Mass participation leads to the creation of a new culture and environment which foster a sense of belonging and identity. By feeling part of what is designed and created, citizens and the ecosystem develop strong ties and connection and commitment to the place where they live, resulting ultimately in behaviour change.

Accountability and commitment yield success of solutions and practices: For all aspects of the ecosystem, from communities and citizens’ organisations to corporations and non-governmental organisations, mass participation offers opportunities for representation, exercising political rights and influencing policy decisions. This gives a sense of ownership to citizens and stakeholders, who are responsible for projects and their results. Studies indicate that cities with high levels of participation have stronger communities and more empowered citizens, better service offerings, and are better equipped to achieve their social, environmental and economic goals.6 MIT has stated the importance of creating ‘consensus platforms’ to generate long-term and effective results and even leverage ‘smart contracts’ to ensure that commitment is easily traceable, for instance using a public ledger record, to trigger alarms when a contract is violated.

Smashed silos and open lines of communication for feedback and improvement: Citizens can provide invaluable feedback for the improvement of existing services and developing new ones. For example Seoul, where more than 90 per cent of citizens are smart device users, has a successful online policy suggestion system that enables citizens to contribute their ideas for new policies online and discuss them with city officials.7

Inclusivity experienced in all aspects of the ecosystem: The inclusive nature of co-creation enables citizens, private entities, NGOs, and academic institutions to contribute equally and share their experiences, concerns and visions for the city.

Climate targets can only be achieved through broad participation: Cities are dependent on the actions of their citizens for achieving their sustainability goals, so citizen buy-in is a critical component of success. A resilient ecosystem of partners and suppliers is vital for coping with unexpected, disruptive events. Cities that have advanced the furthest in most Sustainable Development Goals (referred to as sprinter cities) are twice as likely as others to team up with financial institutions and academic and research institutions to work towards the UN’ SDGs.8 60 per cent of cities responding to the ESI Thoughtlab survey say they use a participatory budgeting process for achieving the UN Goals.

Engage the city population at scale and combine physical and virtual interactions whenever possible: Millions of citizens may be affected by certain decisions, and cities should engage and collaborate with as many groups as possible – through both physical gatherings and also virtual environments and touchpoints. For example, Madrid City Council used a Decide Madrid platform to facilitate participatory budget decisions. From 2016 to 2019, citizens have decided how EUR 360 million was spent. Over 400,000 residents have provided input via Decide Madrid on matters affecting the city’s three million residents.9

Follow the digital imperative but create a smart population for smart cities: Smart cities will fail to deliver much value if they are catering to a population that is inadequately equipped to benefit from the opportunities they create.10, 11 It is important to have a diverse group of citizens with backgrounds and specialities to bring new ideas to the table. In addition, citizens need to be willing to take part in new initiatives and be open to learning new technology skills. MIT has mentioned the importance of making data understandable so that everyone can digest it.

Ensure accessibility and inclusiveness for all citizens: Cities like Stockholm, Reykjavik, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have suggestion platforms on their websites and other initiatives for community engagement. Cities worldwide have also developed apps for citizens to provide feedback and updates on infrastructure and environment. These communication tools must be inclusive and non-discriminatory, which means it should not reinforce the digital divide by excluding the ‘non-digitally-savvy’, such as many elderly people.12 To avoid this problem, cities can invest in community centres, digital literacy programmes or partnerships with students to fully engage non-tech citizens and enable their participation.

Establish clear governance processes and transparency to boost trust - an enabler of open governments and collaboration: Clear and easy to understand processes combined with recurring mechanisms allow for culture assimilation and a successful participatory environment. Trust is critical for this model to succeed; transparent approaches and practices are the only way to create co-responsibility and involvement.

Proper alignment of objectives and expectations and clear connections between participation and decisions taken: When asking someone to participate, it is important to explain objectives, provide clear feedback and specify consequences of participation. Citizens and other stakeholders must understand how their inputs have led to decision-making.

Leuven, Belgium

In 2020, the European Commission awarded the city of Leuven in Belgium the title of European Capital of Innovation to commemorate its innovative ideas and frameworks to implement them. The city’s citizens are participants in testing these ideas, in a truly co-creation approach. This award was the culmination of the city’s work in putting its citizens at the core of municipal decision-making, through cooperation, co-creation and celebrating diversity.

One such initiative was ‘Leuven, Maak het Mee’ or ‘Leuven, Co-Create’13 : a project which called for citizens to submit their ideas on how to improve the city’s liveability. By the end of 2019, more than 3,000 people had registered to submit proposals, and a total of more than 2,231 14 ideas were proposed, with over 1,00015 making it into the city’s plans. “Thousands and thousands of ideas came in and were processed, and if they went into the budget, you got an answer and would be kept updated on the realisation of it”, commented Mayor Mohammed Ridouani on how Leuven Co-Create was implemented. Implementation for some ideas has already started, and citizens will be kept updated as part of the process.

Co-creation is also seen in Leuven as a pillar for the development of its sustainability strategy, utilising collaboration to devise the roadmap for its flagship project Leuven 203016 . Leuven 2030 is a mission-driven NGO that was founded to establish Leuven’s climate transition strategy, aiming to transform into a carbon-neutral, resilient city, with a goal to cut carbon emissions by 65 per cent by the end of the decade17 . The roadmap for Leuven 2030 was co-created with 70 experts laying out a path to carbon neutrality and including 13 programmes centred on sustainable buildings, sustainable mobility, green energy, sustainable consumption, green and resilient spaces, and funding.18, 19, 20 Leuven 2030 engages citizens in an innovative model of cooperation. “It is a governance model, it's not just a network”,21 where every layer of society has an equal stake:22 government, the citizens, companies, the city’s knowledge institutions, and semi-public institutions like the public transport companies each have a 20 per cent share of the voting. These parties represent the Leuven ecosystem in a structural and systemic collaboration model, Quadruple Helix.23

Cooperation was also a key factor in Leuven’s policies in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, with projects like ’Leuven Helps’24 an online platform launched during the initial wave of the virus to connect citizens in need with local volunteers. Although Leuven was the first to implement it, this model has been applied in over 300 communities globally, from France to New Zealand.25

Another important feature in the development of Leuven is Leuven MindGate26 ”which brought the city, companies and knowledge institutions together to create one of the world’s top innovation ecosystems. Companies cooperate with the government and knowledge institutions to create a thriving economy and jobs. The government invests in education to create a knowledgeable workforce, and invests in infrastructure to create an ideal entrepreneurial climate. “This is a platform, but also our common economic agenda. Leuven MindGate positions Leuven worldwide as the place where you have top-notch, high-tech health solutions and creativity and the crossover between these things, biotech for example, and in products that are very well shaped and that are ready to use.”27

The city aims to be a Future Lab for Europe, testing and finding solutions to future problems in the city and then scaling to other cities and countries.

Leuven stands out as a city where the mayor’s vision is fully committed to inclusion and participation, seeking to make co-creation the defining ethos of its city building process, and entrusting the city to its residents through collaborative practices. “We have been able as a kind to survive all over these thousands of years, not through survival of the fittest, or the struggle for life: it's because humankind has the ability to collaborate. That's how we overcame natural disaster and diseases.”

Mexico City, Mexico

With the fourth largest population globally, and over half its population under the age of 26, Mexico City faced geographic and social division. Known infamously for corruption and crime, only eight per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) came from the creative industries.

To tackle these challenges and become more agile, a government experimental and creative office was established, Laboratorio para la Ciudad (Lab for the City), as the very first programme of its kind in Latin America, to address the city’s problems through innovative, cross-team participation. It was active from 2013 to 2018.

The Lab became a space for prototyping and testing, in which new ways of approaching relevant city issues were launched. The Lab incubated pilot projects and promoted meetings around civic innovations and urban creativity, in collaboration with government agencies, citizens and the academic sector.

One success of the initiative has been a system for enhancing the city’s microbus network, which is used by about 70 per cent of the population daily. By leveraging open-sourced gamification, almost 3,000 citizens rode every route in the network, a distance of about 1.4 times the circumference of the globe. Peatoñinos was another successful initiative, aiming to close streets for play activities for children with the motto “Liberating the streets for children and play”. It was undertaken in areas of the city with high levels of marginalisation, large child populations, and few open play spaces.28

In a very short time, the Lab made substantial progress in breaking down barriers that have existed for decades. 29, 30, 31 The city now has a Digital Agency for Public Innovation, founded in 2019 and tasked with designing, implementing and monitoring the city’s policies regarding data management, open government, technology governance and interoperability.32

San Diego, California, United States

In 2015, an audit report highlighted several development opportunities for the city to engage with residents needing to report non-emergency issues. It concluded with a recommendation to establish a centralised customer service centre and mobile application to report right-of-way maintenance (ROW) issues such as potholes, illegal dumping and damaged sidewalks. 33 This recommendation was further refined after a 2015 City of San Diego Residents Survey revealed that most residents preferred digital methods (website or mobile app) for reporting issues, rather than phone calls. 34

In 2016, San Diego introduced an app for its citizens called ’Get It Done San Diego’35 for reporting non-emergency issues. Users could report problems and connect directly to the work tracking system. Designed for seamless usability, the app allowed users walking down the street to take a photo of a problem and upload it. Get It Done would then automatically utilise satellite technology to provide a report to city officials the precise location of the problem.

From a small beginning, the app has been scaled up, from “this platform that was affectionately referred to at the outset as the pothole app” to a platform that digitalises other aspects of city management. “We've since grown it to multiple departments beyond just streets and street repair, to include other types of city services that you can request, whether it's doing a passport appointment, whether it's missed collection for your house, your trash wasn't picked up that day”, says Kirby Brady, Chief Innovation Officer of San Diego.

In the future, citizens may expect to have an even more centralised platform, with a larger number of municipal services as the city continues its digitalisation progress.

“There's an opportunity to continue to provide more city services, we’re actually pushing to increase the number of departments that are on this platform because at the end of the day, if you are a resident of the city of San Diego our vision for a smarter city is that you have one point, one source of truth, one access point for all the services for the city and that makes it easy. So my version of a smarter City for San Diego is to make it kind of a stop shop for the customer and as quickly as possible”, says Brady.

Starting in 2016, the app had collected 38,500 reports, and was downloaded 9,500 times in its first six months. 36 As of March 2021 the cumulative total number of downloads was 130,552 across operating systems (including both Web and Mobile submission), with 1,000 reports received per day.

The app is being redesigned with a better user interface, and new reporting features are constantly added to the system to improve the customer reporting experience. Survey integration is being implemented for customer feedback and Online Web Portals are being implemented to improve the document submission process, which in turn will improve the department’s work efficiency.

For emergency issues, San Diego has developed a public reporting application ‘311’ that enables citizens to notify the city of problems in their community, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). With the GIS technology in the app, citizens can view maps of their neighbourhood and see other problems that have been reported nearby. Through the app, citizens feel more empowered to participate in their community since they have a direct opportunity to engage from their mobile phone. The 311SA app received the Smart 50 Award in 2019 for being one of the world’s top fifty transformative smart projects. 37

“Inclusion is about having voice and accountability. It is about citizens taking part in shaping the future of cities, identifying what are priority investments at the neighbourhood level, at the city level, participating to influence the direction that one’s city is taking. It is the ability of citizens to have their voice contributing to better planning and better service delivery.”

-Sameh Wahba, Global Director of Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice at the World Bank

  1. The model describes interactions within the knowledge economy. It includes five subsystems or helices that intersect: education, economy, natural environment, civil society, and the political
  2. ESI ThoughtLab: Smart City solutions in a riskier world. (2021)
  3. Smart Cities World: Seoul's smart city platform based on 'citizens as mayors' philosophy. (2021)
  4. Forbes: Smart Cities Will Need Smart Leaders and Even Smarter Citizens. (2014)
  5. Bee Smart City: How Smart Cities Are Boosting Citizen Engagement. (2020)
  6. ESI ThoughtLab: Smart City solutions in a riskier world. (2021)
  7. Monitor Deloitte: Smart cities... No just the sum of its parts. (2015)
  8. ESI ThoughtLab: Smart City solutions in a riskier world. (2021)
  9. Involve: Decide Madrid
  10. Forbes: Smart Cities Are Built By Smart People, Not Smart Things (2019)
  11. Forbes: Smart Cities Will Need Smart Leaders and Even Smarter Citizens (2014)
  12. World Economic Forum: Smart cities must pay more attention to the people who live in them (2019)
  13. Stad Leuven: Public participation platform of City of Leuven.
  14. CitizenLab: Case Study: over 3,000 citizens contribute to Leuven’s multi-annual plan. (2019)
  15. Stad Leuven: European Commission awards Leuven title of European Capital of Innovation. (2020)
  16. Leuven 2030: Leuven is ready to leap. Are you?
  17. Stad Leuven: Leuven European Green Leaf 2018; Final Report. (2019)
  18. Leuven 2030: Roadmap 2025 - 2035 - 2050. (2020)
  19. European Commission: Leuven is European Capital of Innovation 2020. (2020)
  20. Sustainable Cities Platform: Cocreating a climate-neutral Leuven: Developing and implementing Leuven 2030's Roadmap.
  21. Quotation from the interview for this study
  22. Bloomberg Cities: Why the EU’s ‘innovation capital’ is a model for cities worldwide. (2020)
  23. Ibid.
  24. Impact Days: Leuven Helps. (2020)
  25. The Innovation in Politics Institute: Leuven Helps.
  26. Leuven MindGate: About Leuven MindGate
  27. Quotation from the interview for this study.
  28. Urban Humanities Initiative, UCLA: The Peatoniños of Mexico City: Liberating the streets for kids and for play.
  29. Frame: To foster innovation, this lab uses Mexico City’s best active ingredient: its people (2019)
  30. Towards the Human City: Laboratorio para la Ciudade; Urban laboratory inviting to reimagine the city by creating dialogues between citizens and public institutions. (2018)
  31. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: Creative Cities Network; Mexico City. (2017)
  32. Digital Agency for Public Innovation: Overview. (2021)
  33. Roxanna Moradi, San Jose State University: Smarter CRM from a Customer Service Perspective: A Process Evaluation on the City of San José's My San Jose Smartphone Application for City Services. (2018)
  34. City of San Diego: 2015 City of San Diego Resident Survey; Final Report. (2015)
  35. City of San Diego: Get It Done. (2020)
  36. KPBS: San Diego's 'Get It Done' App Collects 38,500 Issues So Far. (2016)
  37. ESRI: 7 emerging trends in citizen engagement. (2011)

You may access the links to these sources, where available, on page 148 of the Urban Future with a Purpose study.

Video Interviews


Did you find this useful?

Thanks for your feedback

If you would like to help improve further, please complete a 3-minute survey