Written by Anja K. Ruess, TUM

On June 19 2020, SCALINGS conducted an open online workshop on co-creation in co-operation with our case study partners in Ulm, Germany, as part of Digital Day. The aim of this workshop was to encourage a broad interactive exchange between citizens, academia and the public sector on how municipalities can and should develop common visions of their digital futures. Here, we focused on the very practical and application-oriented challenges associated with co-creative innovation exercises: Which actors should be involved? What role does representativity play? And which participation formats – digital or analogue – can create dialogue at eye level? 

The interactive day explored the crucial challenges SCALINGS has identified in the context of the City of Ulm’s smart city projects and examples from other SCALINGS partner countries. Approximately 30 participants, a mix of citizens and civil servants, shared their personal experiences with public engagement and discussed how examples of co-creation from other European cities could potentially serve as a role model for the City of Ulm. Not only did this extremely fruitful discussion result in concrete suggestions for improving public engagement formats in Ulm, but also in a range of crucial insights into how citizens perceive and design their own roles in co-creation. 

This is a personal reflection blog from Anja K. Ruess about her experience of being part of Digital Day. 

               Photo: Maximilian Richt                

A day to remember — Digital Day at Ulm

Friday, 19 June 2020, 12:15

I open the door of the Verschwörhaus in Ulm, the innovation laboratory and creative space the City of Ulm has been running since 2016. And indeed, ‘creative’ seems to be the right expression. As part of my SCALINGS fieldwork in Ulm, I have visited the building many times, but the rooms never look the same. Today, the Verschwörhaus has transformed into a semi-professional television studio. With the global pandemic, by now, I should have gotten used to online conferences , but this is a new experience – and one I could certainly get used to, personal IT support at hand!  

It’s Digital Day, a German-wide initiative that promotes digital innovation and hosts a myriad of online events, discussions and workshops related to digitalization. For the City of Ulm, Digital Day is an ideal platform to both showcase and improve their participation strategies. For SCALINGS, this is the perfect opportunity to discuss different practical approaches of co-creation to a broad audience. As an attempt to create synergy between the two, Sabrina Richter (Geschäftsstelle Digitale Agenda der Stadt Ulm) and I had decided to put together a joint workshop to engage various stakeholders in questions such as “How would I like to participate in the design and implementation of digital innovation in my city?” or “Could co-creation exercises from other European cities work in my context as well?”. We had spent two months preparing for the online session, not only thinking about what to focus on when we are talking about co-creation but also, how to create an open discussion.  Today, we are confident that both the content and format of our session is conducive to inclusive stakeholder interactions. As the clock approaches 14:45, we take our seats in front of the camera. We read through our notes one last time. 

Then, we’re on air. 

Approximately 30 participants – citizens and other municipal actors – are in the virtual conference room. Most of them decide to turn their cameras off and it does take me awhile to get used to talking into the ‘empty’ void. But as I move to my first content-slide with a thought-provoking example of how technologies can encapsulate political properties, I get more comfortable. Now, I can almost feel the audience hanging on my lips. Together, we’re off for a marathon: a brief introduction into the topic of stakeholder engagement, in which I carefully try to both break down and logically connect large concepts, including material politics, expertise, co-creation and responsible research and innovation, all within seven minutes! 

Naturally, I could continue talking about co-creation at the conceptual level for hours. But not today. Today, we’re interested in the practical challenges related to stakeholder engagement. With that, Sabrina takes over and introduces the different smart city projects Ulm is engaged in, focusing particularly on the engagement exercises she has conducted before. Sabrina is very open about the challenges  she and her colleagues are encountering. I really like that about her presentation. I add onto Sabrina’s insights from Ulm with approaches from other European cities: #TramTalk Munich (which reaches out to a diverse set of participants), Smart Citizens Lab Amsterdam (which has a different mode of engagement) and Decidim.Barcelona (which has an extensive online participation platform). But what do our participants think? How would they design their own roles in co-creation? 

We kick-off the discussion with questions about participants’ previous experience with co-creation and their expectations of co-creation. We also ask them about the different participation formats introduced previously to get to know our participants. I’m a bit surprised by how similar their perspectives seem at first and for a moment, I wonder how unconsciously selective we have been already through the workshop modalities: Who takes part in a workshop on stakeholder engagement on a Friday afternoon? It would be someone who is interested in / probably in favour of engagement and can afford to spend their Friday afternoon taking part in a seminar. I take note of this. Then, all of a sudden, the debate becomes more passionate and our participants start making concrete suggestions – this is exactly what we had hoped for! 

Here are some highlights from the participants:

Co-creation as a mode of governance? Only as long as co-creation doesn’t turn into reality only an end in itself.

Conquering new spaces of participation? Yes, but not random spaces. The location should always connect to the topic. 

Online participation? Absolutely. But not detached from analogue formats to ensure equal access and to benefit from the unique dynamics of real-life interactions. 

Re-attributing decision-making power from the municipal council to the citizens? Rather not. Instead: Unconditional transparency! 

Copying solutions from other cities? No way. Consider other approaches a source of inspiration, not ‘solutions’. 

Friday, 19 June 2020, 16:15. 

I check the clock and realize how quickly the past 90 minutes must have flown by. I make eye-contact with Sabrina; she nods and we both understand. It’s time to wrap up the session – an easy task given the rich contributions our participants made during the discussion. We take a deep breath as we close the conference room, with both exhaustion and satisfaction written all over our faces. 

Later that evening, I go overmy field notes over a cup of tea. While I’m already convinced that today’s observations will turn out to be meaningful to SCALINGS, I’m yet racking my brains over what it means to take the term ‘participation’ seriously. But perhaps, knowing that there is no definite answer is the best reason to keep on asking the questions…

SCALINGS would like to thank our case study partners from Geschäftsstelle Digitale Agenda der Stadt Ulm, particularly Sabine Meigel, Sabrina Richter, Maximilian Richt and Simone Stahl for the outstanding collaboration in preparing and conducting this online workshop. We’re already excited about following up on how Ulm will react to and incorporate the practical stimuli generated during the event! 

Find out more about our engagement with the City of Ulm or visit our case study partners from Ulm.