by Hillete Warner
Global Innovators is a nine-part series that celebrates the remarkable work of social innovators from outside the English-speaking world. Twice a month, we will be profiling the stories of inspiring community pioneers from across three broad cultural clusters: change enthusiasts from Italy, France and the Spanish-speaking world. The series, inspired by the multilingual editions of the Enabling City toolkit, will focus on a rich variety of themes that explore 'enabling' frameworks for participatory social change.
For over two decades, Rome’s FORUM PA has been experimenting with novel forms of engagement in Italy and beyond. Through its annual Expo, the organization encourages public administrators and citizens alike to discover what community empowerment, the Web 2.0, and sharing have to do with social innovation. The event, once a gathering for ‘policy wonks’ and administrators, now captivates the interest of hundreds in what has become Italy’s leading space to re-imagine governance and rethink collaboration. We spoke with Gianni Dominici, Forum PA’s General Director, about the organization’s mission and his thoughts on the future of participation in cities.
Enabling City: Gianni, your governance experience ranges from the EU-level to the grassroots. Can you tell us a little about yourself and what kindles your interest in participatory processes?
Gianni Dominici: Prior to my involvement with Forum PA, I coordinated national and international projects for major Italian research institutes. As a social scientist, my work was driven by a passion for ICTs and the desire to continually explore the ways they intersect with civic participation. When I arrived at Forum PA, this passion quickly turned into an ongoing commitment to help Italy make the switch from talking about ‘public administration reform’ to embracing open governance. Today, I think this commitment is best exemplified by our work on smart cities. We are working on the development of a framework that makes active citizenship part of the new ‘Italian way.’ It is truly participatory work that relies on the involvement of the public sector, of civil society and of businesses in making public value creation and knowledge-sharing part of the process of institutional redesign.
EC: Forum PA has been at the forefront of the administration-citizen conversation for years, experimenting with new formats and tools that bring people together and disseminate best practices. How did the organization transition from being a policy think tank with a focus on institutional communication to Italy’s leading voice in open governance?
GD: We have been around for over two decades, but it didn’t take us long to realize that the current governance framework isn’t working. The traditional way of doing things – the hierarchical, bureaucratic and controlling “public machine” – is useless in the face of emerging social challenges and complex economic issues. This realization was the impetus for us to conduct research and learn from those who have been prototyping new forms of engagement around the world. We took inspiration from the Governing by Network model developed by Goldsmith and Eggers, as well as President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, to name only a few. These are programs that have rapidly spread to Europe and that, to us, represent complementary visions of a bold new evolution towards open governance. Having said that, we believe that social innovation is no longer just ‘a choice’ – it is something that must be embedded into a whole new way of understanding governance across all levels. The principles and practices of co-design and co-working, when applied to the notion of active citizenship and public value, are indeed the very essence of the (r)evolution we are working towards. We have to move past the mantra of ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ that has traditionally driven public management objectives to a much more holistic understanding of democracy itself. To me, this is where social innovation comes in to bridge the gap between top-down and bottom-up, and where I see Forum PA playing a role.
EC: Italy is a country that has, until now, been largely absent from the social innovation and open governance conversation. Can you tell us more about the national landscape and the opportunities (and obstacles) present there?
GD: The context, both nationally and in Rome, is quite unique indeed. Geographically speaking, we have the good fortune of being located in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, to have witnessed the birth of many a civilization over the course of the centuries. At the same time, we are a fragmented country. The urban landscape is punctured by small-to-mid-sized cities with their own unique problems, making mobility a complex issue and putting pressure on our land use and resource conservation needs. As a country, we have to work harder at making environmental stewardship a part of our daily concerns, and this includes a renewed interest in the commons, the re-discovery of horizontal and non-mediated relationships, and an appreciation for crowdsourcing and co-creation.
That said, many of Italy’s cities, particularly the bigger ones like Rome, are becoming hubs of civic innovation. These are the places where sharing is tested daily, where figuring out how to live together – and live together well – is more important than ever. Today, cities like Rome are home to countless bottom-up, citizen-driven initiatives. A lot of the landscape is made up of micro-communities where the seeds of social change are planted daily. Moms are becoming community catalysts by taking over neglected green spaces and running them so that their children can learn about urban agriculture; school yards are coming to life with the help of kids and parents meeting after school; and volunteers are ‘adopting’ public squares to create lively spaces for community living. These experiences are all based on a new idea of public space, a re-interpretation of urban design that blends a desire for shared living with contagious experiments in social incrementalism. And there is momentum at the mid-level, too. The Hub recently opened its doors in Rome and their presence has been facilitating all kinds of conversations between citizens and institutions. To celebrate this momentum, Forum PA has partnered with The Hub to organize an Active Citizenship Day, which will take place at Forum PA's upcoming Expo on May 30th, 2013.
EC: What are some of Forum PA’s other ways of bringing people together and creating change?
GD: When it comes to civic engagement, I believe we have to target citizens who are willing to be active but somehow cannot, and those who can but are not willing to. Aside from our two big annual events, one of our most recent projects has been the launch of Smart Innovation, a web-magazine that explores exciting developments in social innovation, smart cities and open governance in accessible and dynamic ways.
As I was mentioning, there is a lot of momentum in the country and this calls for a critical awareness of the risks that come with the mainstreaming of participation. We need to ensure that the growing calls for crowdsourcing and collaboration do not turn into a complete devolution of programs and services on “good willing” citizens and neighbourhoods groups. Citizens should not become a substitute for institutions. At Forum PA, we are working on a project to turn Rome into an urban innovation lab where participation is a big driver of change and inclusion, but where institutions are taught how to share their power and rethink their role in more balanced and fair ways.
Lastly, we took inspiration from Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville and are looking into gamification and how it might be applied to cities. Gamification could be a powerful tool to get ‘those who can but won’t’ engaged in community life. Newsome hopes ‘innobucks’ (civic money) could become the Angry Birds of civic democracy, and we think that’s something worth exploring. We are working with community organizations and citizens on a project that we’ll be launching soon, so watch out for that!
To read more about Forum PA, check out their Smart Innovation magazine (in Italian), or follow them on Twitter. Their international Smart Cities Expo will be taking place in Bologna, Italy on October 16-18th, 2013.