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How Combining Participatory Democracy and Foresight Practices Can Foster Political Innovation

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Giovanna Guiffrè & Valentina Malcotti

May 4, 2023

A journey in participatory democracy through challenges (and opportunities) of future-thinking approaches.

What if people from all walks of life were given space to envision the democracy they would choose for themselves? What if political representation went beyond voting rights, encouraging experience-sharing and storytelling to come up with solutions for a better future? This is where the power of foresight comes in handy.

The belief in foresight’s flexibility, reaching beyond its narrow, business-driven trajectory, is a major component of EUARENAS, a Horizon 2020-funded project investigating cities in 4 European countries (Poland, Italy, Hungary, and Estonia) as arenas for strengthening engagement and participation in democracy whilst creating momentum for political change through more inclusive and participatory forms of governance. The project stretches foresight techniques beyond their official settings to involve various actors active within cities, including local politicians, civil servants, NGOs, activists, grassroots communities, citizen power advocacy groups for underrepresented citizens and citizens themselves, with particular attention to marginalized groups.


Hayley Trowbridge is the CEO at People’s Voice Media, the UK-based civil society charity leading the foresight work package in the EUARENAS project. In her words, “EUARENAS stretched and ‘innovated’ foresight techniques and future thinking tools to blend them with participatory and collaborative research methods.”


The overarching goal of this approach is to bring citizens and decision-makers together to identify problems (and solutions) concerning shared futures. Foresight approaches can support this aim, nurturing active citizenship in defining social agendas and shaping political life. Foresight can become both a tool for understanding emerging democratic innovations and for engaging citizens and other actors in such innovations.


EUARENAS’ foresight ‘blend’

EUARENAS’ employment of foresight follows three main methodological streams: media discourse analysis (considering traditional media); Community Reporting from scenarios of lived experience (peer-to-peer storytelling), and exploration of signals coming from social media. Results collected from these three methodologies contribute to ‘sense-making’ on the subject.


Firstly, the project team looked at how media discourse analysis can be used within future thinking frameworks by scanning relevant national and pan-European traditional media (TV, radio or print) products and identifying, within them, the discourses of change happening in society regarding democracy. Items (articles or broadcasts) gathered were shared in a series of local participatory workshops, organized with citizen groups that have the least voice in democracy, to support the identification of the discourses and ‘make sense’ of signals of change in society about democracy: “What made this go beyond the ‘standard’ horizon scanning techniques or discourse analysis in the traditional sense”, considered Trowbridge, “was that it was framed around involving marginalized citizen groups within sense-making efforts.”[1]


Subsequently, the EUARENAS team tested the lived experience of citizens in thinking about the future via guided peer-to-peer storytelling about their engagement in democracy and decision-making within the cities of Gdansk, Voru and Reggio Emilia. The storytelling set the basis for mapping seeds of change into possible horizons that stimulated conversations about the future[2] using the Three Horizons framework.


The project’s third foresight angle, perhaps the most innovative one, looked at social media as a window into current debates, social issues, and trending community topics. Social media accounts, particularly those associated with civil society and social movements showcase what issues and debates matter to people the most and offer a glimpse of emerging trends in the social sphere mediated by collective intelligence. Such content can help to hypothesise about our future, combining signals from social media with future-thinking activities by engaging experts from across policy, practice, research and academia in co-analysing conversations about the future.


The approach[3] was initially devised to examine the topic of ‘the future of democracy’, but it can easily be adapted to support future-thinking activities on a range of topics, using social media as the core source material.


Challenges and opportunities facing EUARENAS

One of the trickiest challenges identified by Trowbridge is the difficulty in recruiting people, allowing for equitable participation by overcoming barriers preventing people from physically ‘taking part’, such as work constraints, childcare needs, language barriers, technology competence, etc. Although EUARENAS put in place strategies to overcome these obstacles in its workshops, Trowbridge saves the story of the problematic role of financial participation incentives for another day.


Another big challenge to involving citizens is that dreaming about the future can sound like a privilege to people who are living a bleak present: “When you're not comfortable and don’t have a ‘good’ place within society, the ability to dream and hope for better is hard without it being linked to tangible change,” Trowbridge says.


Foresight can become a space in which ‘dreaming’ is not a privilege of think tanks and researchers. Geoff Mulgan (2020) defined ‘social immagination’ as, a space in which “communities can, once again, become heroes of their own history”[4]. In this sense, Trowbridge believes foresight has a role to play in achieving social, epistemic and economic justice, also by “enabling people to go beyond ‘democracy equals electoral representation’ and thrive in true democratic engagement.”

Fast-forwarding democracy: weak signals and desiderata

When asked to reach for her crystal ball, Trowbridge has a clear picture in mind: “It’s clear that the ‘business as usual’ attitude won’t suffice to face matters such as climate change and planetary health. However, we are reassured by some weak signals for change we have observed from our research in and beyond this project.” Above all, people are acknowledging the complex and uncertain times we are living in and there is a shift to increased involvement in civic life.


“To embrace and address this uncertainty” - Trowbridge observes – “we need our services, institutions and policies to be suitable for that adaptable and uncertain environment; this means promoting a more nuanced approach to politics and deliberation…Coming to terms with the shades of grey within consensus building that allow for multiple perspectives in understanding the way(s) forward.”


We couldn’t leave Trowbridge without asking her our 1-million-dollar foresight question: If things go well, how do you expect democracy and citizen engagement to develop in the next 20 years?


“I would expect us to move away from our current rigid, hierarchical system to a more networked democracy that devolves and disperses decision-making so that decision-making happens closer to whom that decision affects.”



[1] EUARENAS’ Media Discourse Foresight Guide is available here [2] EUARENAS’ Lived Experience Foresight Guide is available here [3] EUARENAS’ Social Media Foresight Guide is available here [4] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/steapp/sites/steapp/files/2020_04_geoff_mulgan_swp.pdf


This is an article from the Horizon Futures Watch Newsletter (Issue I, May 2023) presented by Foresight on Demand

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