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Open Spaces for Citizen Engagement | Lessons from the Basque Country

How do we create more open spaces for citizen engagement? Lessons from the Basque Country

The Basque region has a long and rich history of innovation. From fishing, to food, to maritime exploration, to the biggest cooperative in the world, to strong information and communication technologies, this small region has a remarkable history of pushing new practices, agendas and ways of thinking.

It is perhaps fitting then that San Sebastián was the location for the 4th SIC Summer School, which looked at social innovation in the public sector. The three day event was a combination of inspiring talks and hands on learning experiences, bringing together local and international participants to work closely on solving  locally based challenges. The event developed a strong sense of exchange, connection and learning, as one participant highlighted: ‘For someone like me, who largely works in my local area, at the grassroots level, the great thing about an event like this is that it connects you to a wider international network of individuals’.

The Basque Country is often held up as a shining beacon for innovation, and the Summer School created a space for participants to see concrete examples of what this innovation looks like in practice. Alongside this, the strongest themes that emerged from the three days were  citizen engagement, the sharing of power and the need to create open spaces to encourage this.

This  framework was established by the very first speaker Xabier Barandiaran, who spoke of the relationship, in Gipuzkoa, between citizens and those at the policy decision making, level. Addressing the audience in a candid manner he made clear how power can be distributed more easily from the political level when society has high levels of social initiatives and social capital. Applying this point to the local region he said ‘They [citizens] compel us to share power’. Xabier demonstrated a willingness to listen and be open to the feedback of citizens, in fact he saw this dialogue as crucial to citizen engagement and a thriving society. Based on the experience of the Summer School, open spaces for citizen engagement, experimentation and dialogue are prerequisites for innovation within the public sector.

We saw, at first hand, how this dialogue might play out in practice, with our site visit to Etorkizuna Eraikiz, an open space located in the municipal government building. This lab-cum-workshop gives the opportunity for citizens and public servants, across different departments to come together to discuss challenges in the city, as well as to design initiatives and projects to address these challenges. Not only does the space create somewhere for open dialogue and transparency between the public and decision makers, but it also serves as a persuasive tool for even the most sceptical public servant to come and hear a variety of opinions and learn about how people perceive and use their local services.

Another example of an open space that fosters citizen engagement is Hirikilabs at Tabakalera. This open, free makerspace is located in an old cigarette factory in the heart of the city. After functioning as a factory for 90 years, the building reopened its doors in 2015 as La Tabakalera, following heavy investment from the local government. The building contains a library, makerspace, artist studios and is also home to Impact Hub San Sebastián. We were informed when we visited Hiriklabs that the space is open and free to use for any citizens who want to propose a project. They provide training on all the machines that are in the space (3d printers, sewing machines to name just two), as well as providing the necessary tools for people to let their creativity flourish. During our visit for instance, we saw the first initial steps of a robotic insect that a group had constructed. The library space was relaxed and welcoming; and what was evident was that it was somewhere that was appealing to citizens of different ages; we saw teenagers watching films together, old men playing cards and young parents with their babies, all in the space of about 50 metres of each other. The makerspace and the library at La Tabakalera were astonishing and frankly left me a little jealous. It was a perfect example of an asset and a space that was designed and purpose built for the engagement of the local community.

Through our experience at the San Sebastián Summer School, we found that open spaces are crucial for social innovation in public innovation, as they:

  • Enable trust by increasing transparency and providing accessibility between government and citizens

  • Help to exchange learning between unusual suspects by shifting the participatory mix around the challenge identification and solution making

  • Set a shared space for needs identification

  • Allow experimentation in a particular setting where it is easier to understand, support, finance and trust what is being experimented, as well as understanding what the impact,value and sustainable solution of that experimentation might be

How can we encourage more cities across Europe to adopt such encouraging practices? In the European Commission’s post 2020 plans, there are clear messages about getting closer to citizens. In San Sebastián we saw powerful ways in which this can be done - encouraging dialogue, transparency and collaboration. Shared spaces where this takes place - building trust, identifying challenges and codesigning solutions - have a valuable role to play in this.