Civic engagement 3.0 – Reconsidering the roles of citizens in city-making

Maija Faehnle, Pasi Mäenpää, Jaakko Blomberg & Harry Schulman

In urban regions worldwide, collaborative approaches to city-making flourish. This has traditionally been a top-down exercise but is now increasingly also bottom-up. Through digitalization, citizens are now better empowered than ever to take developments into their own hands. Active citizens adopt new roles and increasingly ‘shape and make’ their cities through new self-organised forms of action, powered by the internet and social media networking. This can, for instance, be seen in the rise of informal urban planning groups, alternative planning, crowdfunded placemaking projects and P2P services renewing the local economy.

As a key characteristic of this urban civic activism (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017a), self-organisation is here understood as a process in which citizens become organised and start acting together on their own initiative. ‘The self-organisation turn’ calls city governments to renew their approach to collaboration in planning and governing the city. At the government level, collaboration with citizens is often conceptualised merely as welcoming limited citizen participation in government-led processes. With the rise of self-organisation however, governments need to step back from their role as main initiator or defining actor if they want to operationalise sustainability goals such as ecological sustainability, sense of community and belonging, liveability and economic success.

Citizen participation in city-making through the governmental processes remains a necessary cornerstone of democracy and of their engagement with the society. An influential approach to collaboration would, however, be one that also maximises people’s willingness and opportunities to use and develop their capacities for their city by means of voluntary direct action.

Using our practical experience and action research with civic activism in the Helsinki metropolitan region, we present a three-phase model for analysing and understanding how the culture and practice of collaboration can evolve over time. We reflect on the model using practical examples from Helsinki and outline some next steps in shifting cities towards sustainable self-made futures.

Three phases of civic engagement

From the government perspective, the approach to collaboration with citizens can be thought of as an evolving one as the conceptions of citizen roles change. We describe the concept of civic engagement from 1.0 to 3.0 as a thinking tool through which the various actors can reflect on the state and development of the government’s approach to collaboration.

Civic engagement 1.0 from government to governance. The first phase of collaboration can be conceived as beginning when the government begins to recognise the need to open up its administrative and political processes to the general public. Representative democracy is found to be insufficient, and organisations start to invite citizens to take part in the processes of planning and decision-making directly. This direct participation is understood as an essential way of enabling civic engagement. The government starts to take its first steps in changing its role from the dominant top-down actor towards one which operates horizontally in networks. This is where the shift from government to governance (Kooiman 2003) occurs and where the communicative or collaborative turn (see Sager 2012) emerge at the organisation level. Citizens are not considered primarily from the point of view of their capacities. Win-win solutions making use of different action potentials are uncommon.

Civic engagement 2.0 abundance of collaborative activities. Through experience, public sector actors learn more about collaboration with citizens, including the benefits that successful collaboration can bring. Involving citizens in governance becomes more common. This change can in turn be related to the adoption of the ideas of New Public Management, whereby citizens’ views are seen as ’necessary customer feedback’. A collaborative approach is applied in various planning processes, more or less driven by the idea that the more that people participate, the better. Public planning and management practices do not yet, however, support widely synergising civic action potentials with those of the public and private sectors. Over time, organising participation takes more and more resources and leads to fatigue due to the weight of formal procedures required combined with a lack of people to undertake them.

Civic engagement 3.0 rethought collaboration: citizens as city-makers. By increasing recognition of the problems faced in the phase 2.0, the need for interaction between citizens and the government is rethought. The goals and means of interaction and collaboration are discussed critically. It is now recognised that for many, ‘doing good’ for the community can be an important part of making one’s life meaningful (Martela 2015), and that many are willing to engage themselves in the society by doing good for others through voluntary action (Pessi & Oravasaari 2010). While citizens and their effective ways of engagement are understood to be highly diverse, interest develops around the question of how civic engagement can be about citizens’ self-chosen and self-organised actions which, intentionally or not, contribute to developing the city in a sustainable direction.

At the government level, attention turns from increasing citizens’ participation in government-led processes to increasing the quality and efficiency of government actions in relation to the civil society at large. The way in which public organisations approach citizens in phase 3.0. can be termed ‘the 3.0. way of thinking’. As such, four previously less evident ideas gain attention: 1) Multiplicity of citizens’ roles and action potentials, essentially including potentials related to self-organised action, and appreciating them as societal resources, 2) citizens’ own voluntary approaches to doing good for the community become important in terms of their civic engagement, including engagement through self-organised action and also economic activity, 3) hybridising governance as a whole, meaning that governing is developed to include a repertoire of approaches that balance civic and governmental action optimally in each specific case (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017b), and 4) strategic continuous improvement of this governance based on practices of reflection and learning.

Self-organised city-making in Helsinki

Helsinki can be studied as a case exemplifying how the shift from civic engagement phase 2.0 to 3.0 can emerge. In our research we identified a number of self-organised activisms, each of which can be characterised by at least one of the following five themes: P2P/sharing economy services, community activism, space-related activism, digital activism or activism support (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017a). The multiplicity of citizens roles and forms of action is seen for example in cases of urban planning activism, civic food buying networks, crowd-funded place-making, urban events, new neighbourhood movements, and initiatives for making the city more colourful.

Some activisms explicitly aim to promote long-term change at the city level or more widely in the system. In the Facebook group ‘More City to Helsinki’, activists envision Helsinki as a dense city with a large high-rise downtown full of urban amenities. With over 15 000 members in September 2017, the group has become a remarkable forum in which both official and self-made planning suggestions can be discussed and co-designed. The plans made by activists include an alternative Master plan for the city, with a map-based survey as a participation opportunity. Urban planning is one of the fields benefiting from the work of civic hackers who produce, use and improve datasets of the open data service Helsinki Region Infoshare.

Civic food buying networks such as food circles represent civic welfare infrastructure and an alternative to mass retailing. They exemplify the potential of civic action to shake markets and the local economy, and also work for a more responsible, sustainable and fair form of consumption. In one form of such networks, REKO circles, there are over 250 000 members in 170 groups nationwide. In REKO circles consumers order products from their local REKO Facebook group and pick them up personally at local delivery events from the producers themselves.

Another example of citizens as P2P service organisers is the case of Jänö, a crowdfunded vegan kiosk located in the Töölö district of Helsinki. Crowdfunding platforms, such as and in Finland, enable almost anyone to campaign for funding a self-initiated project. With a background in discussions on the need for better vegan services in Helsinki in the Facebook group ‘Sipsikaljavegaanit’, the successful crowdfunding project by activists (including one of the current authors) made it possible to realise the dream of setting up such a kiosk. Besides improving local service provision, the project has also revitalised the previously less lively place and given birth to a start-up that is actually profitable.

One of the trailblazers of new events organised by citizens is Cleaning Day where anyone can use the public space provided to set up a flea market. It was started with volunteer work without any funding. Marketing was done through Facebook and ready-made posters which anyone could print and distribute themselves. At the actual event, people can take part as either sellers or buyers, but some people have also got active locally to promote and organise the event. Next, the core group behind Cleaning Day invented another event where Pohjoisesplanadi park street is closed for 1 000 people to eat together. Again, it was made possible for people to participate in this way simply by setting up a huge table and letting people join in with food and plates.

A pioneer of local movements was founded in Kallio district in 2011. The biggest of their events is the ‘Kallio Block Party’, an annual, voluntarily organised street festival that succeeds in attracting thousands of people to reclaim the streets and to have fun together. The group of volunteers involved is a very diverse mix and so are their roles: some people work for months, some drop by just for one day to help. The roles can easily be changed and there is no official hierarchy in the movement.

The Kallio-movement soon attracted followers in different parts of the city creating a wave of local citizen activism focused on improving their neighbourhoods through collective action rather than nimbyism. In the Konepaja movement the aim is to re-develop a former industrial area in Helsinki. The movement grew rapidly at the end of 2016, when the plans to fill the space with a huge Bauhaus store were revealed. Because of the strong civic opposition, the politicians halted the process. The work on creating a better future for the area continues.

In 2015 a project called More Street Art in Helsinki was set up to promote this art form. In early 2017 a new association called Helsinki Urban Art was established. Its main project has been the Pasila Street Art District, which is filling the infamously grey concrete area of East Pasila with street art with a view to attracting tourists among others. The local residents had been longing for art for years, but the government tended to neglect the area. In a few years, street art, especially murals, have grown into something of a phenomenon in urban Finland.

Since the Finnish summer is short, a number of events have emerged which also use private spaces. The biggest such event is Helsinki Sauna Day, started in 2016. The idea here is that people, organisations and companies open up their saunas to everyone for free.

Governmental responses – shifts towards civic engagement 3.0

The examples above tell us how citizens care about their community and resource it in ways that public organisations and companies do not. Civic action seems to be changing towards short-term, project-type activities that often do not end up in formal NGOs but instead remain at the informal level, in the fourth sector (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017a). Such action does not easily meet with governmental practices rooted in the tradition that recognises civil society as manifest primarily through the work of NGOs. A change is nevertheless coming in this regard.

In our action research, we have met numerous officials who already seem to view citizens as resource and who have a strong commitment to making city government work well. Most of them are already in line with 3.0 thinking. In Helsinki, this line of thinking now also has a remarkable level of official support. The recently launched citizen participation model for the city includes a strategic, binding obligation for officials to support civic activism and make use of citizen knowledge and skills. The application of the models includes the development of new ways of evaluating the government’s actions in support of civic engagement, pointing to the consideration of the fourth idea of 3.0 thinking, namely, strategic continuous self-correction and improvement.

As an example of developments in the smaller cities, Kerava has approached the situation strategically by establishing a team to encourage civic activism in the city. It  is also considering using hybrid governance to balance civic and governmental action optimally, the third characteristic of the 3.0 approach. In hybrid governance, governance is adapted to civic self-organisation with the help of a repertoire of approaches ranging from minimal interaction to the deep integration of governmental and civic activities (Mäenpää & Faehnle 2017b). In relation to urban planning in Helsinki, the move towards hybrid governance is viewed in collaboration with the ‘More city to Helsinki’ group and by the intention to establish a case area for developing good practices with alternative planning.

3.0 thinking as a tool for city-makers

The rise of digitally boosted civic self-organisation makes it necessary for cities to rework the ideas of governance and the roles of citizens and the government in it. This work requires a root and branch rethinking of civic engagement and it is here that simplified concepts such as of civic engagement from 1.0 to 3.0 can be helpful.  We opened the discussion on testing the concept as a tool for analysing the situation in Helsinki. The concept is however by no means equally applicable everywhere and thus a level of caution should be applied. However, it can be a useful source of ideas for analysing and developing governance in cities facing similar kinds of challenges in respect of civic engagement and sustainability.

For city makers, both voluntary and salaried, the concept of civic engagement from 1.0 to 3.0 provides a tool for discussing and understanding the environment they are operating in. For example, in developing a common strategy for the city it can be asked: Which of the three phases is most characteristic for the different units of the city government? Would it be useful in our case to approach city making with 3.0 thinking? And, how could different organisations, groups and networks contribute to a governance regime that makes it possible for citizens to act for the good of the urban community?


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