Start-up brings citizens and cities closer together

Summary

With a convenient online platform, CitizenLab wants to make it easier for people to have a say in how their towns and cities are run

Tune in

Brussels start-up CitizenLab wants to make it easier for people to have a say in how their towns and cities are run. Beginning with places such as Hasselt, Ostend and Vilvoorde, the company now works with almost 20 towns and cities across Belgium and has plans to expand abroad.

The idea for CitizenLab came from the young founders’ personal experience of modern life in Brussels. “As millennials, we felt frustrated that there was, and still is, this communication gap between citizens and the government,” says Wietse Van Ransbeeck, the company’s chief executive.

In the internet age, he continues, it shouldn’t be this way. “It takes so many steps and so much time to get in touch with your government and communicate your frustrations, your ideas and how you want to improve the city.”

Van Ransbeeck and co-founder Aline Muylaert got a positive response when they approached municipal authorities, who were aware that traditional methods of involving people, such as neighbourhood meetings, were not getting through to all sections of the community.

Two-way communication

“They wanted to increase their audience, to get more feedback, more data and information for making better decisions for the municipality,” says Van Ransbeeck.

The pair, who were both studying at the Solvay Business School in Brussels at the time, thought this looked like a good business opportunity. Together with web developer Koen Gremmelprez, they set up the company in 2015 and started to build a product to do the job.

CitizenLab allows councils to present their constituents with plans, canvas their reactions and give feedback on subsequent developments. It also offers a way of receiving spontaneous suggestions for improving city life.

One of the strengths of our product is that it follows the processes that the municipalities already use. They don’t need to change

- Wietse Van Ransbeeck of CitizenLab

Meanwhile, municipal authorities can crunch the data gathered and use it to inform future developments. Different stakeholders can be identified and their opinions mapped – by age group, for instance, or by neighbourhood.

Developing the software was relatively simple, at least compared to finding out how the municipalities worked. “We had to collaborate with local governments to better understand how they work internally, what their processes and organisational structures look like and who would use the product,” Van Ransbeeck explains. “We did quite a lot of research on that, and one of the strengths of our product is that it follows the processes that the municipalities already use. They don’t need to change.”

The next hurdle was finding an adventurous city to try the system out. This was Hasselt, which last summer used CitizenLab to canvas opinion on plans to renovate the large Kapermolenpark.

Trial run

“In the beginning, citizens could submit any idea and be very creative,” says Van Ransbeeck, “and then the city gave feedback on these ideas, encouraged the citizens to elaborate on them collectively, and then picked several to be integrated into the plan for the park.”

These include wi-fi in the park, a longer running track and better integration of the nearby river. Work on the park begins this year. “We had a very tangible, direct impact there.”

Ideally, he adds, the system should be used across the full range of a council’s activities so that people are continually engaged. “That is one of the biggest lessons we have learned: Projects shouldn’t be too narrow or specific, because then the engagement will decrease drastically.”

Every month Vilvoorde’s city council picks out three of the best proposals made by citizens and gives feedback on them

- Wietse Van Ransbeeck

This is how CitizenLab is being used by Ostend and Vilvoorde, for example, with people able to comment on all ongoing projects or share ideas out of the blue. “In Vilvoorde, every month the city council picks out three of the best proposals made by citizens and gives feedback on them,” Van Ransbeeck says. “And that feedback is crucial in determining whether people come back to the platform and get some satisfaction from sharing their thoughts.”

So far CitizenLab has not seen any of the disruptive behaviour that blights some social media sites. “Of course, you sometimes have a substantial discussion about things, but that’s just freedom of speech,” says Van Ransbeeck. “It’s good to have some opposition and that people sometimes challenge decisions that have been made.”

Future plans for the product include making deeper connections with council business so that information on decision-making can be fed back to the public. And the company also has plans to expand, building on the 20 or so clients it already has in Flanders and Wallonia.

“The next steps for us are to go into France and the Netherlands,” Van Ransbeeck says. “We have our first Dutch customer, Schiedam, and we are also going to do a project in Denmark.”

And what about Brussels? “We are talking to the region, but also reaching out to the municipalities. We would love to have one of the Brussels municipalities,” he adds.

Luckily, there is a lot of choice. “The complexity of the Belgian system, with so many different levels of government, is very interesting commercially. We have so many potential customers.”

Photo courtesy CitizenLab