Tarragona is an ancient town on the Mediterranean coast with a 2500 years of history. When Roman General Scipio went on a mission to punish the Carthaginians in the year 211 BC, he used it as a winter camp. Tarraco as the Romans called it, became one the leading cities of the Empire.
Inspired by its past, Tarragona has developed an innovative Smart City approach. Tarragona, like many other smart cities, implements digital technology to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the services it provides to its citizens. Yet there is more to smart cities than efficiency and sustainability alone. Digital technology can be used to make cities more social and inclusive. Mediterranean cities are traditionally open, social and inclusive with citizens who socialize on the street and help each other when in need. How can a digital network engage these citizens and strengthen the social bonds of a community like Tarragona?
In the late nineties and first years of this century, I built fiber networks in cities. Eurofiber, the company I founded with Laurens van Reijen, now owns and operates one of the largest fiber networks in the Netherlands and Belgium. In 2003 I came to Tarragona and started to enjoy its spectacular scenery and Mediterranean lifestyle. Eight years later I accepted the challenge to build a different type of network: a civic media network for smart cities. Programming started that year with a talented team of software engineers; all graduates from the local university (the URV). Our team collaborates with Tarragona Impulsa, the Fundación Tarragona Smart Mediterranean City and with Santiago Castellà and Angel Belzunegui, the Directors of the Smart City and Social Inclusion Chairs at the University Rovira & Virgili.
Civic media is “any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents”, according to the MIT Civic Media Lab. Such forms of communication require a new type of network. It will be the 4th generation of local media after newspapers, radio and tv and will be called a civic media.
When thinking how to build a civic media platform, the existing social networks came to mind. The problem is that they do not easily generate trust. I thought “Why can´t social media be like banks?” A bank you trust with your money and data. It won´t tell the world how much money you have in your account. When online, they don´t interrupt you with irrelevant messages. Another important problem of social media is that they fail to help people focus. With a desire to entertain, they throw all kinds of content at us. This makes us swerve off topic all the time and makes it hard to focus and stay within the context. But the worst thing is that social networks spy on us. They aggregate everything they can around your personal profile to create a full picture of who and with whom you are, what you do and own, where you are, what you like. This data is valuable.
So we created a digital media platform called Messagenes (M+) based on three principles:
- Contextual. Keep content within its context so that people understand it and don´ t get distracted.
- Unbundled. Do not use general profiles. People have roles in society. Each role is a separate profile. Visitors should not be able to see what you do in another role. Linking roles to the content greatly improves the context.
- Ethical. Personal data is not aggregated and is not used for commercial purposes.
Your next questions will undoubtedly be: “great but how can such a network make money?” and “why would people care?” These questions were as fundamental to us as they are to you.
We found that those who fund local, social, cultural and sports activities need feedback but often don’ t get it or receive it too late. At the same time, we learned that local non-profits and charities are looking for ways to improve their relationships with stakeholders and make their activities more visible. Our conclusion was that civil society is an ecosystem with a major problem: sparse information exchange. Nevertheless, corporate and public money as well as volunteering sustains important social, cultural and sports initiatives. These are essential to the communities´well-being. Yet, feedback for those who give and those who care, is deficient. By improving the visibility and feedback to stakeholders, trust grows and the ecosystem becomes stronger. Such feedback, especially directly received from the source, helps benefactors manage their CSR communications and that´s really important to them. They are willing to pay for it. Their contributions fund the civic media network.
A year ago, a first local project called Rossinyol started using the M+ Civic Media Network of Tarragona. Rossinyol is about mentoring and social inclusion. During a year, university students act as mentors of kids in risk of social exclusion. They do fun things together, at least once a week. Before M+, the Rossinyol organization required mentors to create a blog. This didn´ t work as it represented too much work for participants. M+ changed all that by allowing to post feedback instantly on contextual (project) “cards”, directly from their smartphones. The posts of all mentors appeared in the newsfeed of the Rossinyol newsroom. We were amazed by the results: the newsroom had more than 4000 visits within a few months. Not only the volunteers themselves and the kids but also project staff, teachers and family were following the newsroom. It created a bond between them. Next we knew is that they wanted to keep last year´ s newsroom as a memory. So we created the “hibernated” newsroom. True, a newsroom develops into the living memory of a great civic initiative and the contributions of its participants. Now you can keep it, forever.
This success demonstrated the usefulness of a Civic Media Network for charities and non-profits, yet we had not yet implemented the use case for benefactors. The newsrooms like the one of Rossinyol could be integrated in websites but we lacked a solution for multiple newsrooms. So we developed a way to group Newsrooms in a News Center and this became the CSR News Center for benefactors. Now benefactors can easily connect to the Civic Media Network and integrate the feedback streams (newsrooms) of all the projects they fund into their own CSR News Center.
We also used the civic media network for civic engagement. Mrs. Begoña Floria, the City Councillor responsible for the town´s historic patrimony, had a great idea (Tarragona is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Why not use the civic media network to gather ideas and improve the management of its patrimony with an idea map? The traditional way to get people to contribute ideas is to organize a participation event. These events, if people show up, have three important problems: (1) ideas and people compete for attention, (2) there is very limited socialization of ideas as very few people read the final report, and (3) citizens don´ t believe that their ideas matter as usually very little is done with them after the event. By running the participation process during weeks on the civic media network, the ideas were asynchronous and thus did not compete with each other (nor did their owners). They were seen by many stakeholders (more than 2000) and many were (publicly) instantly used to improve the city. Civic Media networks provide a superior way to engage citizens, get their inputs and build idea maps to support local public decision making.
Our experience shows that a civic media network is essential for an inclusive smart city. It strengthens the ecosystem of civil society; makes social, cultural and sports activities visible for all stakeholders, engages citizens and produces a “living” memory of life in the city. The good thing is that the use of a Civic Media Network is already useful for one single organization like a charity. This is important because its success does not depend on getting everyone onboard. Yet, the more local groups start using the Civic Media Network, the more citizens will have the APP and this will open new opportunities of civic engagement.
We are now busy growing and consolidating the civic media network in Tarragona and are happy to assist any other smart city that could benefit from our experience.
Armand Bogaarts is President of the Civic Media Foundation (CMF-www.civicfound.org). CMF´s mission is to build inclusive smart cities with civic media networks that fuel strong civic ecosystems. For information about the M+ Feedback Platform: www.messagenes.com.