The very first Democracy Lab was carried out in Trondheim, Norway. 18 persons of various backgrounds and situations in life had signed up with the Incite-DEM researchers to discuss democracy and visions of a future with deep citizen participation together during two full days. We had rented a meeting room in a beautiful café and restaurant next to the fjord, and the researchers’ nerves were tense to see how many would actually show.  After all, you can never be sure…

While sipping our coffees and looking through the exercise materials, we could observe the first participants to arrive, way before 8:30 when we were to start the workshop. While overlooking the sailing boats in the harbor in the morning sunlight and seeing people arriving by bike or on foot the nervousness was gradually replaced by anticipation.

We had planned for mingling during the first 30 minutes and this turned out to be a good choice. People were eager to chat and get acquainted. Some already knew each other too as Trondheim is not a big city.

 

After a presentation round in a circle, we all had a chance to tell a little bit about ourselves and why we had signed up for the DLab. We had natural groups already forming after the initial mingling, and people had placed themselves around the four clustered tables. We decided to only slightly rearrange the groups to make sure that people who knew each other very well were not in the same group, and to ensure that the younger students were evenly distributed amongst the groups. To our delight all participants were talkative and had plenty of experiences they were eager to share around the tables. After each exercise the group shared their thoughts and findings.

We introduced the provotyping exercise in which we had used a local case of plans to build a skiing facility in one of the green lungs of Trondheim.  This was both highly engaging and emotional for a lot of the participants. The participants were encouraged to come up with ideas for how decision-making processes could become more citizen inclusive, and the findings showed that citizens are invited far too late in such processes, and that their involvement – and the process at large – needs to become more structured, transparent, and meaningful. Citizen participation should never be an add-on, but an important formal part of any project involving “sacrificing” essential nature. The day ended with high energy and anticipation to have a full next day to envision a different kind of democracy.

Day 2 of the Democracy Lab was just as much a success as the previous. Everyone from day 1 showed up. Participants commented on how they were looking forward to continuing to talk with the others in the groups.

One participant said:

When I first signed up, I thought that two whole days seemed too long, but now I see that we need two days, really. This is meaningful!

– Female, 50 yrs

With regards to the ideas for a new and improved deep democracy, we could notice that 3 of the 4 groups focused on local solutions, on a neighborhood or “part of the city” level. There was a wish for local citizen participation support centers to be established. These centers should both support citizens in getting involved, and they should also give the citizens a voice regarding actual decision-making processes on municipal level. One group had focused on making corruption visible by establishing a lobbying register:

We think we don’t have corruption in Norway, but we do. We just don’t see it because it is not the kind with mafiosos secretly handing over money to get a building permit.

– Male, 65 yrs

This group had created a vision of the future where they put a stopper to this kind of “invisible nepotism” as they called it.

In essence, day 2 of the Democracy Lab was a day when we harvested the seeds we had planted the day before, and especially the storytelling exercise seemed to bring people together. After presenting, all groups posed for group photos in front of their vision of the future, which was illustrated by polaroid pictures taken by the group to tell their democracy vision story. For the group photos, we used the same polaroid cameras as for the group exercises, and many participants took private photos of their own and other groups vision stories as well as of the group’s polaroid.

The Norwegian Democracy Lab ended with participants insisting that we carry on with this initiative even after the workshop to take the ideas for improving democracy and citizen participation further. The researchers are now following up with emails and we have initiated a joint opinion piece for local media. In this, we make specific suggestions for improvements to the existing decision-making system based on the results of the Democracy Lab.

– Erika, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

INCITE-DEM is Funded by the European Union (GA 101094258). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or European Research Executive Agency (REA). Neither the European Union nor REA can be held responsible for them.

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