These days, the mediums over which citizens can let their voices be heard are extremely limited. Citizen participation exists only in the form of in-person visits, bureaucratic paper forms that focus on identity (not on content), and perhaps, town meetings. In other words, we’re still using “pen and paper” in a digital era. Citizens want to have 24/7 access, on every possible device, to voice their opinion and to interact with fellow citizens. However, cities and local governments run on a limited budget – it’s expensive to develop an in-house civic engagement platform. They face a “make or buy” decision, with limited options on the buy side. CitizenLab is a civic engagement platform on which citizens co-create their city. The platform facilitates a two-way communication between the city and its citizens. Citizens post ideas, interact on them and upvote the best ideas. On the other hand, the local government uses CitizenLab to let its citizens participate in its decision-making processes through crowdvoting. This SaaS solution is the medium for smart governments to make decision-making more democratic, more transparent and more collaborative through citizensourcing. It’s CitizenLab’s mission to shape citizen participation for the digital age. Governments will be disrupted as well if they don’t adapt to the digital context we’re living in. But it’s also inevitable that the role cities will play in the future will be more and more prominent, as urbanisation is unstoppable. It’s a very good thing to see that a lot of cities make efforts to become “smarter”. CitizenLab wants to help them making their governance more democratic, more transparent and more collaborative. They want to bring a user-friendly product that focuses on simplicity – posting, commenting or upvoting an idea can only be two clicks away. The local government, in turn, can quickly consult the opinion of the citizens and get feedback. This SaaS solution empowers each and every citizen to give their opinion; they focus on content and ideas, not on the identity of the user.
The two founders, Wietse Van Ransbeeck and Aline Muylaert, got to know each other four years ago, when they were both studying Business Engineering in university. Since then, they’ve worked together on several projects, among others on Pitu (with which we won Belgium’s largest student business plan competition). Wietse and Aline both have a business background, but during the last few years they’ve each developed a complimentary skillset. Wietse learnt to program and is now doing the full stack web development in Meteor at CitizenLab. Aline has a great interest in design – she’s focusing on the UX and UI. Both founders are passionate about leveraging technology for decentralization and democratization – they firmly believe that decentralization will be the paradigm of the future. People feel the need more and more for transparency and start to discover how diverse inputs can drive superior results, which explains the rise of crowdsourcing in the recent years. Currently, they’re only two on the team. By the end of the month, they want to have a Meteor developer to join their forces, and CitizenLab is also looking for a designer (with front-end programming skills) and an extraordinary sales guy for Belgium and the Netherlands. The start-up is based in Brussels, Belgium – but it’s being built remotely from Southeast Asia. And thus the two founders are traveling around Southeast Asia while building CitizenLab.
Initially, they want to focus on (Central and North) European cities with a very high internet penetration rate – all of the citizens must have an opportunity to raise their voice. Smart cities, i.e. progressive cities looking for digital innovations, are the first targets; mid-sized cities (having more budgetary restrictions) make another interesting target. There are several companies that try to set up a civic engagement platform as well, but none of them focus on offering two-way communication platform for cities. But it can be expected that the civic tech industry will grow very quickly in the coming years. In terms of competitiors: Scytl is a great crowdvoting solution, the non-profit DemocracyOS (Y Combinator Alumni) is bringing a open-source decision-making solution, but requires development skills to implement and, thus, more focused on federal governments and the biggest cities. Loomio is another collaborative decision-making solution. The most established company is Accela, they offer a wide range of solutions to bring citizens and governments closer together. As stated before, civic tech is still a young industry and so the folks at CitizenLab are happy to have some competition in order to grow this market. CitizenLab offers cities a free one month trial, during which they’ll help you to get your citizens on the platform. If you’d be interested in this limited offer, drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.