Decidim: a brief overview

The content of this section is a fragment of Barandiaran, X., Calleja-López, A. & Monterde, A. (2018). Decidim: political and technopolitical networks for participatory democracy. Decidim’s project white paper, pp. 7-26. (You can download an alpha version of the document here)

We have been busy building Decidim, it is now time to explain it. The goal of this white paper[1] is to explain in detail the nature of the Decidim project. The paper comes to fill a long lasting gap and outlines what the project is really about, why it is relevant, and how we (the Metadecidim community) have made it possible and developed it so far. It presents the Decidim platform, its features and design principles, but also other dimensions of the project, from the political to the technical. It also outlines the theoretical and political vision, as well as the practical and organizational work behind the project. This document also situates Decidim in a historical context defined by political struggle. Furthermore, it discusses some of the sociopolitical problems it tries to address and the possibilities it opens up looking forward. Authorship of this document entails not more, not less, than putting together, making explicit and elaborating a set of theoretical and practical principles and guidelines that have been developed by a multitude of participants in our community.

How to read this white paper and make it yours. Readers might be interested on different dimensions of the project and we encourage you to find the chapter or section that best matches your interests. The introduction however is worth reading for any of you. We start with a brief explanation of what is Decidim, a definition of the project, how the platform works, the social contract that binds the project together, a description of the community and ecosystem behind it, the model of democracy that it embodies and the three dimensions of the project: the political, the technopolitical and the technical. We next move into the context in which Decidim has been developed to explain why we thought it was necessary to initiate or join this project, why it is relevant today both in the context of a crisis of democracy as we knew it and the context of an increasing control of social digital infraestructures by a few corporations. The rest of the paper is structured along the three planes or dimensions of the project: the political plane explains the model of democracy that Decidim embodies and makes possible, contrasting it with different limitations and models of contemporary democracy (representative democracy and party politics, technocracy and neoliberal models of governance, etc.) highlighting how Decidim makes possible to strengthen new and old forms of participatory democracy, collective intelligence and multitudinous political identities in public institutions and social organizations alike. The technopolitical plane[2] explains how this is made possible through the platform, its design principles, best configuration practices and the technological articulation of the project’s internal politics through the platform: the Metadecidim community. Finally, we extend into the details of the technical articulation of the project: how the software is produced, its architectural details, organizing protocols, legal licenses, collaborative practices, training programs, etc.

What is Decidim?

Decidim [], from the Catalan "let’s decide" or “we decide”, is a digital platform for participatory democracy. More specifically, Decidim is a web environment (a framework) produced in Ruby on Rails (a programming language) that allows anybody to create and configure a website to be used in the form of a political network for democratic participation. It is built entirely and collaboratively as free software.

The platform allows any organization (local city council, association, university, NGO, neighbourhood or cooperative) to create mass processes for strategic planning, participatory budgeting, public consultation, collaborative design, etc. It also makes possible to connect traditional in-person democratic meetings with the digital world: sending meeting invites, managing registrations, facilitating the publication of minutes, etc. In addition, Decidim enables the structuring of government bodies or assemblies (councils, boards, working groups), the convening of consultations, referendums or channelling citizen or member initiatives to trigger different decision-making processes. Yet, the Decidim project is much more than that.

Definition: Decidim is a public-common’s, free and open, digital infrastructure for participatory democracy.

  • By “participatory democracy” we mean that form of “government of the people, for the people and by the people” in which people take part as equals or peers (from latin pars, part, and capere, to take). By taking part we mean that, under the current political model, people take the part of the sovereign power that belongs to them. And this should be an equal part for each. Moreover, we also mean, under an alternative model, to take part in the autonomy of the social and political life, in the construction of collective potency: the capacity to coordinate and commit to collective action.

  • The term “digital infrastructure” makes reference to a set of tools, resources, data-sets, documents, codes (legal, computer, etc.), interfaces and services that are digitalized or made accessible by digital means. This infrastructure is primarily a software platform for participatory democracy.

    Participants can create proposals, sign and support them, comment, receive notifications, attend public meetings or receive the minutes of the session. Administrators can design participatory processes, define the structure of democratic organs (like councils or committees), configure types of initiatives or set up consultations. The infrastructure also includes documentation, design (icons, images, logos, etc.), legal documents, datasets or training resources, among others. All these make possible to deploy a participatory democratic system in any organization (be it a municipality, a cooperative, an association, a union or a community).
  • By “free and open” we mean that the project’s goods (the assets of the infrastructure) do no fall under the form of private property that excludes others from accessing, using, copying, modifying and re-publishing or reusing these resources but, instead, displays all the legal, technical and social means necessary to share them and open them to collaboration.

  • Finally, the term “public-commons” indicates that the project is mostly financed and made possible by public institutions and is managed and designed by an open community constituted by public-servants, members of different associations, university researchers and students, activists and staff from foundations, workers from different companies or simply volunteers that commit to the principles of the project. For this infrastructure to be a common’s it is important that these partners organize democratically in relation to the project. In this sense, Decidim is a reflexive infrastructure that uses the very infrastructure to democratize itself through the MetaDecidim community.

Platform features and functional architecture. Since the digital platform displays and embodies both the means of project organization and its democratic principles, it is important to explain how the platform works. Users of the platform (participants) interact through participatory mechanisms known as components within different participatory spaces that channel their democratic power to specific results. Participatory spaces are the frameworks that define how participation will be carried out, the channels or means through which citizens or members of an organization can process requests or coordinate proposals and make decisions. Initiatives, Processes, Assemblies and Consultations are all participatory spaces. Specific examples of each of these include: a citizen initiative for directly changing a regulation (Initiative); a general assembly or workers’ council (Assembly); a participatory budgeting, strategic planning, or electoral process (Processes); a referendum or call to vote “Yes” or “No” to change the name of an organization (Consultation). The more notable components that are combined into spaces to deliver participatory mechanisms include in-person meetings, proposals, blogs, debates, static information pages, surveys, results and comments. So, for example, the various phases of a participatory budgeting process (where members of an organization are called to decide how to spend a budget) can combine components in the following way: at an early phase, public meetings can be opened for citizens to analyze different needs classified by districts. In turn these meetings can lead to the design of a survey. The survey results can next be used to define a set of categories for projects to be proposed. The proposal component might then be activated for participants to create and publish their projects as solutions to the identified needs. These proposals can be commented on. After a period of deliberation, the voting component can be activated to select among the projects using a budget-expenditure system. Participants can then be called to a public meeting to evaluate the results and an assessment survey can then be launched for those who could not attend the meeting. Finally, the accountability component can be activated to monitor the degree of execution of the selected projects and people can comment on it. This is but one example of how components are combined in a space, but there are many other combinatorial possibilities. What makes Decidim particularly powerful is this combination of components within spaces, which provides an organization with a complete toolkit to easily design and deploy a democratic system adapted to its needs.

The social contract: All members and partners of the Decidim project must endorse and follow a “[social contract]” that defines a set of guiding principles. The social contract can be summarized as follows: 1. Free software and open content: Decidim will always remain free and open to collaboration, without legal or technical obstacles for the use, copy and modification. To ensure this we use a set of licenses: Affero GPLv3 for the code, CreativeCommons By-SA for the content (text, images, design, etc.) and Open Access Database License for data. This means that Decidim will always remain auditable, collaborable, transparent, appropriable and trustworthy, all of which is fundamental for a democratic infrastructure. 2. Transparency, traceability and integrity: the content of participation will always remain transparent, traceable and integral. This means that all the content must be accessible and downloadable, it should always be known what happens with each proposal, its origin, where it was incorporated or why it was rejected, and the content needs to be displayed without been manipulated, any modification (if required) must be registered and be accessible and auditable. 3. Equal opportunities, democratic quality and inclusiveness: the platform must guarantee the democratic quality, the non-discrimination and equal opportunities for each participant and proposals, including objective indicators. The platform must comply with accessibility standards, its use must favour the integration of online and offline participation and organizations must deploy the means for mediation and training of participants. 4. Privacy with verification: participants must retain privacy of their personal data combined with verification. Personal data should never be displayed, nor sold or transferred to third parties while, at the same time, the unicity and democratic rights of participants must be preserved (meaning there cannot be two verified users corresponding to the same individual with democratic rights and all participants with such rights must be verifiable). 5. Democratic commitment, responsibility and collaboration: institutions using Decidim must commit to respond on time, be accountable for decisions taken through the platform, and to openly collaborate on its improvement.

Instances. The best known and intensively used instance of Decidim, as a digital platform for participatory democracy, is, with (as of December 2018) more than 30,000 registered participants, more than 1.5 million page views, over 300,000 visitors, 35 participatory processes, 1,141 public meetings channelled through the platform and 13,297 proposals, out of which over 9,196 have already become public policies grouped into 5,485 results whose implementation level can be monitored by citizens. The instance that actively explores more functionalities is, the community portal that designs and supports the project. There is also a demo site with the latest version available for exploration and a training instance open to anybody to learn how to configure, administrate and use the platform. There are currently more than 70 instances of Decidim for organizations of different sorts ranging from municipalities such as Helsinki or Pamplona, to regional governments like the Junta de Castilla la Mancha or the Generalitat de Catalunya, national governments like the Belgium Federal State, NGO networks such as Fundaction or QuorumGlobal, cooperatives like Som Energia, or the National Commission for Public Debate (Commission Nationale du Débat Public) in France. We have an online monitoring tool that captures the relevant public data of known Decidim instances around the world.

A sustainable ecosystem. Developed at Barcelona’s Laboratory for Democratic Innovation, Decidim is the result of the joint effort of a network of collaborating entities and multiple participants leaded by Barcelona’s City Council. Apart from the organizations that use the platform and whose participants and administrators report bugs and suggest improvements, there is a network of 17 different collaborating entities, from software companies to institutional consortia, from research institutions to civil associations. The Metadecidim community uses an instance of the Decidim platform to organize the different dimensions of the project. As of August 7th 2018 it has 379 registered participants, it hosts minutes of 126 public meetings, details of eight assemblies or working groups, four participatory processes (welcome process, bug reporting, feature proposals, and training workshop process) together with various initiatives and two consultations aimed at defining the roadmap and software design of the platform, bug reporting, community and project governance, research and development. Official documentation and code are developed on Github where the project hosts more than 20 repositories with over 50 contributors. They all together generate a sustainable ecosystem that governs, produces and provides services over the platform (deployment, adaptation, configuration, training, consultancy, administration, etc.).

Democracy and social empowerment: Decidim was born in an institutional environment (that of Barcelona City Council during Ada Colau’s mandate 2015-2019 and under the impulse of Gala Pin councillor for participatory democracy), directly aiming at improving and enhancing the political and administrative impact of participatory democracy in the state (municipalities, local governments, etc.). But it also aims at empowering social processes as a platform for massive social coordination for collective action independently of public administrations. Anybody can copy, modify and install Decidim for its own needs, so Decidim is by no means reduced to public institutions. There are different ways in which participatory democracy infrastructures can boost social, economic and political self-organization. Decidim is starting to be used for these purposes: for the internal organization of consumer and producer cooperatives for example, it is also helping movements organize and to design strategic planning, and it might soon be used to coordinate massive strikes or other forms of social action. The modular nature of its architecture is also enabling these organizations to develop their own components and improvements (such as crowdfunding, membership management, etc.) and to plug them back into Decidim, expanding its potential. Decidim comes to fill the gap of public and common’s platforms, providing an alternative to the way in which private platforms coordinate social action (mostly with profit-driven, data extraction and market-oriented goals). Ultimately, Decidim aims to present an alternative to the existing model of digital economy sponsored by corporate digital platforms (Amazon, AirBnB, Uber, etc).

The political, the technical and the technopolitical. As we have repeatedly stressed, Decidim is more than a technological platform. It has required to assemble a variety of codes, realities and dimensions that go beyond programming code. We define it as a “technopolitical project” where legal, political, institutional, practical, social, educational, communicative, economic and epistemic codes merge together. Ultimately, Decidim is in itself a sort of crossroad of the various dimensions of networked democracy and society, a detailed practical map of their complexities and conflicts. We distinguish three general planes or dimensions of the project: the political (focused on the democratic model that Decidim promotes and its impact on public policies and organizations), the technopolitical (focused on how the platform is designed, the mechanisms it embodies, and the way in which it is itself democratically designed), and the technical (focused on the conditions of production, operation and success of the project: the digital factory, collaborative mechanisms, licenses, etc.). The political plane is best illustrated by the use of Decidim in a city or organization, the type of democratic processes and decisions that are made through it. In other words, it covers what kind of politics can be done using Decidim: what kind of governance, conflict and power relationships can be channelled through it, thus, the kind of democracy it is capable to produce. Its model instance is, what happens within, how it alters the political space of the city. The second plane, the technopolitical, includes matters concerning the digital architectural design of Decidim: its interfaces, features, design principles, data policies, user experience, etc. It is a primarily a reflexive space of how technologies structure political processes. It is embodied in the Metadecidim platform and the community that surrounds it. Finally, the technical plane encompasses issues concerning primarily the programming and legal codes (information and legal infrastructures), but is also includes issues of education and knowledge (epistemic infrastructures), spatial and working organization. All three dimensions are part of the project.

Table 1. Systematization [3] of various aspects of the Decidim project in the political, technopolitical and technical planes with the city of Barcelona as a reference.
Plane Relation Platform Mode Scale














Why Decidim?

The context that has given birth to Decidim is defined by two interconnected phenomena, each of which displays two poles. On the one hand, the last decades have witnessed a crisis of representative democracy (weakening of the Welfare State, subordination to market forces, inability to deal with global problems such as climate change, etc.) as well as the essay with some alternatives, such as grassroots organizations, new parties and institutional forms. On the other, the rise of cognitive capitalism, a system where the exploitation of information, knowledge, affects, and social relations has become core to the generation of economic value, is opposed by the emergence of free software, knowledge and culture. Both phenomena are deeply intertwined, and Decidim is born right at their very intersection, responding to the challenges and opportunities that they open for democracy. In this section, we briefly analyze these two phenomena, with a special focus on the way they impact contemporary democracy.

The contemporary crisis of democracy and its alternatives

Success and decline of liberal, representative democracies. The basic structures of representative democracy have barely been updated in the last two centuries. The last three decades have seen both their success (with the multiplication of liberal democratic states all over the world) and their decline[4] (as diagnosed in a wide literature ranging from Pharr & Putnam, 1999 to Tormey, 2015). The decline has been expressed in various forms; we will mention two: practically, in the inability of contemporary democracies to deal with problems such as rising inequality (Piketty, 2014) or climate change (Klein, 2015); politically, in the decline of participation and trust in political parties and political representatives, as well as other political institutions (Mair, 2006; Castells, 2017).

Structural limits of representative democracy: the triple challenge of complexity.[5] The structure of modern democracies is based on representation (and, more specifically, electoral representation, Manin 1997, Van Reybrouck 2016), that is, on a series of mechanisms by which a few actors (political and administrative) are elected to manage public issues in the name of the whole of the citizenry, and are in principle accountable to it. Representation had its roots in medieval institutions, as a mechanism for nobles and knights to push their demands in exchange for consenting taxation (Pitkin, 1967). But it has proven its limits in coping with complexity and conflict: the complexity and conflictuality of society, of reality, and of organization.

  1. In social terms, it had to face the growth of the franchise, incorporating an ever more diverse constituency, and, in the last decades of the XXth century, the rise in cultural diversity, consumerism and the ideology of consumer choice in Western democracies (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Sennett, 1977, 1998) that generated an ever-growing variety of desires and perspectives to be listened to and articulated in government action. Furthermore, representation has proven open to systemic practices of nepotism or corruption, usually by powerful economic interests (Buchanan & Tullock, 1962; Peltzmann, 1976). In this context, representative mechanisms have ended up imposing the will of the few over the complex and conflictual wills of the people in public policy.

  2. The second key challenge of complexity had to do with the reality. As the technoscientific transformation of reality accelerated, the responsibility and complexity of the problems facing public policy (f.i.: climate change) has only increased; and yet many of the systems for detecting social problems and mobilizing social knowledge to address them have remained oligarchic. The attack Friedrich Hayek (1944, 1945) launched on socialist planning can be launched against representative democracy too: reality is too complex for a centralized decision-making system.

  3. The third challenge of complexity fed back into the previous two: it is the challenge (or meta-challenge) of communication and organization. Mobilizing and organizing the will, the knowledge, and the collective action of society into public policy faced numerous socio-technological limits: the millions of members composing a given social group could not express their will nor contribute their knowledge and effort to address their matters of concern[6]. Still in the XXth century, the infrastructure required to bring an expression of will or knowledge of people distributed geographically or socioeconomically (f.i.: laborally) into a common problem or decision seemed out of reach. Even if they wanted, people could not gather in assemblies or other political processes: people were too many, lived far from each other, had their work schedules, and no free time at all.

Representative democracy, where the many elect a few every four years, became a raw and oversimplified articulation of the will and knowledge of the many, in terms of the management by the few. So raw and simplified that it couldn’t solve the problems of society and became one of them: the people’s will was not represented or properly constructed but captured, the real problems were not solved by public representatives, but externalized to the market to be solved, and the problems generated by the market too often remained unsolved.

Social limits of representative democracy: the challenge of economic powers and the rise of neoliberalism. The problems of representative democracy today are not of complexity only, though. They have as much to do with issues of social power. Many of the ailments of representative democracy in the last three decades can be rooted in three key shifts of power (DellaPorta, 2013: 23; Offe, 2011: 457): a shift of power from parties and parliaments to executive powers, reducing the meaning of parliamentary and party politics; from State to Market, with processes ranging from externalization and privatization of public services to the introduction of competition logics in public administration ( the process of “emptying out the State”, specially, the Welfare State, Rhodes, 1994), as well as the rise in power of global corporations; and from nation-states to international governmental organizations such as the EU, the IMF or the World Bank, frequently aligned with such corporations, emptying both States and democracies of much of their legitimacy and power (Laval & Dardot, 2017; Crouch, 2011; Sánchez Cuenca, 2014). Political parties have suffered particularly: from the mid XIXth to the mid XXth century, the mass party model was guided by clear programs and rooted in a thick social structure connected to grassroots spaces and organizations, unions, media, and so on. The catch all party model rising in the 80s, however, had pragmatic, variable programs and supported itself primarily in mass media (in particular, tv) and polls. A fragmentation of socioeconomic composition and the discourses around it, no more easily divisible into “capitalist and proletarians” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985), as well as the rise of a mass-mediatized consumer society based on an exaggerated and depoliticising individualism (Sennett 1977, 1998) paved the way for such party transformations. The traditional mass party saw a steady decline of its grassroots in Western democracies until today. This emptying out of representative democracy was tied to the rise of neoliberalism[multiblock footnote omitted], and has brought a crisis of legitimacy and meaning of democracy itself, frequently identified with representation (Crouch, 2004; Streeck, 2016). The Great Regression of 2008 (Eichengreen & O’Rourke, 2009) and the austerity politics that followed it (Blyth, 2013) seemed to confirm this shift and its implications, with States first going into debt to save the financial sector and then applying (or being applied) austerity policies without or against citizen consultation, guaranteeing the sustenance of capital accumulation while losing more and more capacity for social provision (Jessop, 2015).

The alter-globalization challenge to the shift of power away from democracy. These processes haven’t gone unchallenged. The last two decades have been a period of democratic movements of resistance. At the turn of the century, the alter-globalization movement called for an alternative to the rising neoliberal globalization, an alternative globalization tied to a radicalization of democracy, social justice, human rights, as well as economical and ecological sustainability (Klein, 1999; Stiglitz, 2002; DellaPorta & Tarrow, 2005). This “movement of movements” had socio-technical networks as a key part of its organization. It generated a “cultural politics of networking” where networks operated not only as technologies, but also as models for the definition of social norms and political forms (Juris, 2008): features such as free association and information, non-hierarchical and flexible organizations, globally distributed but synchronized, locally rooted action, or autonomous networked media were among its key features.

The crisis of legitimacy of the neoliberal-democracy narrative. Beyond the work of these movements, it was the 2008 Great Regression what brought about a crisis of legitimacy of the neoliberal narrative. It opened a period of crisis of neoliberalism (Dumezil & Lévy, 2011), not so much in economics but, specially, in political and social terms (in economic terms the crisis lasted less, followed by a deepening of accumulation processes, Jessop, 2015): the discredit of narratives praising free trade, privatization, international economic institutions, and global markets, otherwise, the discredit of the ideological practice preeminent since the 80s, spread along with new social and political movements, from the progressive to the reactionary. This crisis of neoliberalism fed into the crisis of representation mentioned earlier, with a peak of distrust towards official institutions, from politicians and governments to banks. The result has been a crisis of the existing model of neoliberal representative democracy (Castells, 2012, 2017; DellaPorta, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2012, 2017).

The 2011 wave of networked movements of the squares. 2011 is a key year in political terms. Progressive social movements swept the world, from the Arab Springs in the North of Africa to Occupy Wall Street in North America: they challenged the political and economic status quo and the rising inequality, while reclaiming a more radical democracy (Postill, 2017; Gerbaudo, 2012; DellaPorta, 2013, Flesher Fominaya, 2014). The 15M movement was among the key referents of this wave of networked movements of the squares, which intensively used digital networks. In Spain, 15M was at the upshot of a cycle of contention that saw the emergence of new forms of collective organization (from the networked squares of 2011 to the direct action tactics of the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages Romanos, 2014), new political parties (from Podemos to Barcelona en Comú), and the victories in dozens of cities by citizen initiatives in the Spring of 2015 (Cádiz, Barcelona, Madrid, A Coruña, etc.) (Feenstra et. al, 2017; Calleja-López & Toret, 2019). The use of digital platforms were crucial in all of these undertakings, oriented to increase the depth of participation of anyone and everyone into the political field (Aragón et al., 2017; Calleja-López, 2017; Monterde, 2016; Toret et al., 2015). Digital networks seemed to provide spaces where the disaggregating forces of neoliberal society were partially and temporarily countered and redirected to nurture collective action both online and offline. The upward extractivism of global finance and corporations was answered with democratic, locally rooted and globally connected initiatives. In the case of Spain, the struggle around the city, from the squares of 2011 to city halls in 2015, has become ever more relevant in this trajectory, in the form of municipalism (Rubio-Pueyo, 2017; Junqué & Shea, 2018; Roth, Monterde & Calleja-López, 2019).

The rise of right-wing populism. But these achievements have showed limits and perils, too. At the international scale, the wave of movements tended to fizzle out. In countries such as Spain and Tunisia, the movements left new parties or constitutions, even though the general political and economic landscape remained gloomy (Castells, 2017); countries such as the US or Egypt (or Spain itself), has seen the advent of increasingly authoritarian governments. Moreover, right wing movements spread across Europe and North America (Castells, 2017). The final result has been defined as the end of the neoliberal era and the advent of a populist moment (Gerbaudo, 2017; Rodrik 2017), in which the basis of the status quo loses its compelling power and is challenged by actors invoking the common people, from left and right, with recent successes for the latter such as the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US or the Brexit. The various negative effects of neoliberalism, particularly accelerated after the Great Regression, such as increasing inequality, the normalized connivance between economic and political power, the dismantling of welfare structures along with rising public debt, social and political disempowerment in the face of transnational corporate and financial powers, the eclipse of the public sphere resulting from phenomena such as a rising individualism or closed multiculturalism (Sennet 1977, 1998), have generated a suspicion towards the status quo in which right wing and nationalist positions are gaining ground. In many cases, such rise was facilitated by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, used by corporations (such as Cambridge Analytica), or political actors (such as the Trump or the Brexit communication teams). We analyze the various edges of this phenomenon in the following chapter. Resuming, in the political plane, the last decades have witnessed the tension between processes showing the limits or undermining democracy and others trying either to stop such undermining, or even calling to radicalize democracy. Decidim is firmly rooted in this last trend.

The rise of the network society, cognitive capitalism and knowledge commons

First generation digital networks: informational networks. A similar opposition between conservative tendencies and progressive ones can be found on the moving field of the so-called digital economy. The 90s saw the rise of the Internet and the WWW to the status of phenomena of global proportions. The initial hopes for the cyberspace envisioned by figures such as John Perry Barlow (in this Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace) anticipated a time where many of the old social structures would be superseded by a new dawn of human creativity and freedom from old governments and social constraints (bodies, sexes, races, etc.). Since its origin, the construction of the internet resulted from the conflicting interests, visions, and practices of various actors (Abate, 1999; Rasmussen, 2007), specially, military and research actors. The idea of a distributed (and thereby resilient) information network was tied to the threat of possible high scale attacks to information centers by the Soviet Union (Baran, 1964), but even more so to practices and narratives of information and knowledge circulation and freedom among university researchers (Leiner et al., 1997). Already in the 1990s, a first generation of worldwide digital networks, informational networks, paradigmatically exemplified by the World Wide Web, allowed free the flow of information and users between websites.

Old and new communication powers: from mass communication to mass self-communication. This seemed to be the dawn of a “networked public sphere” (Benkler, 2006), where earlier mediators of social communication receded from view. The XXth century protagonism of capital-intensive media such as radio, newspapers or TV, with their olygocratic editorial teams, seemed to give way to an explosion of uncensored digital media such as websites and blogs. Social communication was said to be in its way to de-intermediation, its power to be more equally distributed (Rushkoff, 2002; S Republic of Letters in XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries), had been shaken in the XIXth and XXth centuries by technologies that afforded one-to-many circulation of informhirky, 2009). Early modern communication ecologies, based in one-to-one interactions, either face to face or via letters (which still generated complex systems such as theation such as newspapers, radio or TV: this was the model of broadcasting, which potentiated a centralization of social communication, mass communication, where a the majority of the public played a passive role. The Internet and social media afforded new versions of these earlier communication models, and combined it with a new model, that of many-to-many communication, in which many emissors were able to generate (and react to) messages reaching many others, without having to pass through any mediating center (Kellner, 1999). This was giving way to “mass self-communication” , a model in which mass communication is “self-directed in the elaboration and sending of the message, self-selected in the reception of the message, and self-defined in terms of the formation of the communication space” (Castells, 2009). This did not imply an equal redistribution of communication power in society but rather its re-structuration, with new actors, including networked social movements, having an opportunity to play a role in a media sphere earlier controlled by big corporations. The fourth power of mass media journalism gave way to a fifth power: digital networks (or perhaps to a complex, more decentralized form of the fourth, a “hybrid media system”, Chadwick, 2008).

The rise of informational and cognitive capitalism. The Internet and digital networks did not only affect the public sphere in a potentially democratizing tendency, they also greatly contributed to push globalization forward as a historical process, beginning with the acceleration of global finance (Castells, 1996). At the core of the economy behind neoliberal globalization were information and other immaterial assets, such as knowledge, affects, human relations, etc. The result was a new form of capitalism: informational and cognitive capitalism (Castells, 1996; Fumagalli, 2007; Moulier-Boutang, 2007; Vercellone, 2006). Differently from industrial capitalism, where the transformation of material resources into commodities was at the core of the process of capital accumulation, now it was information, knowledge, affects, and social relations what became key in the generation of economic value. Intellectual property is a key legal mechanism under this new paradigm, used to privately appropriate social knowledge and natural information, e.g.: strong copyrights on books and music, patents on technoscientific innovations, traditional medicines and techniques, or animal and plants DNA (Fumagalli, 2007). This in spite of the fact that information and knowledge are non-rival goods, with zero marginal cost, meaning that they can be reproduced and used without depletion. Furthermore, in most cases their value increases with use: the bigger the spread of trademark the higher its value, the more a song is listened to the higher its value. While digital networks provide the means to freely reproduce and re-distribute this kind of goods, artificial scarcity is generated via legal and technological mechanisms. This appropriation has not only the form of a “theft”, but is rather based on structures and processes (from education to entrepreneurship policies) that orient, transform and produce new personal and collective practices, desires, affects and relations sustaining the neoliberal system (Laval & Dardot, 2014).

From cognitive capitalism to platform & surveillance capitalism. In time, the digital element in these processes has only gained prominence. The so called web 1.0 (O’Reilly, 2005) exhibited various limits to users’ interactions with both digital contents and other users. Differently, web 2.0 was all about interaction: the web as a platform. This exponentially increased the quantity and quality of information that could be extracted. By the late 2000s the emancipatory hopes tied to social networks were heavily in dispute (Morozov, 2011), and by the late 2010s the situation seems to be rather the opposite of the anticipated. From Amazon to Tinder, technological platforms are a way for a few corporations to extract data (going from activity, to opinions, to metadata), while leaving users with a little a say on what is gathered, how it is used or how the resulting benefits are distributed; this institutes a regime of “data extractivism” (as suggested by Evgeny Morozov). These corporations have access to more details of the lives of millions of people than any State or corporation to date. Combined with the development of new techniques of big data analysis and the always increasing rate of computing power, the infrastructural conditions were there for a socioeconomic mutation. Corporations such as Google or Facebook were heralding a specific form of informational and cognitive capitalism, which has been variously qualified as “platform”, “data” or “surveillance” capitalism. These three names speak of three connected elements: digital infrastructures, data, and social control. Digital platforms have become the basic means of production and management of a valuable resource (data) out of its source, human activities (Srnicek, 2017). Data, considered as the new “oil” (The Economist, 2017), “infrastructure” (Kawalek & Bayat, 2017; Prospect, 2017), “labor” (Arrieta et al., 2017), etc. is processed using data science methods and business intelligence (from modern statistics to Artificial Intelligence). Then, it is used in various ways in social processes of data-driven politics, science and economics (Lohr, 2015). This process of extraction, processing, and use is radically oligarchic. Corporations such as Alphabet (which includes Google), Microsoft, Amazon or Facebook have earned a monopolistic position[7]. A few actors have become the owners of both platforms and data and can thereby surveil social life in order to experiment with it: surveilling thereby appears as a first step to what we may define as “surwilling”, or willing and shaping the will of others from above; otherwise, platform corporations move from unveiling social life to orienting (or “willing”) it from above. If surveillance intrudes into privacy, into the negative freedom of people (to use Isaiah Berlin’s), into their freedom-from, surwilling shapes their positive freedom, their freedom-for. Platforms crucially influence the information people get about others and about the world, be it from friends, social actors, mass media, advertising corporations or beyond. The result is the emergence of new forms of knowing and influencing the actions of millions of people, a new techno-political power in the hands of States (such as NSA programs), corporations, or political actors (such as the Trump or the Brexit communication teams). This surveillance (Zuboff, 2015) and surwilling capitalism brings ever closer to a Big Brotherhood dystopia.

Towards technopolitical heteronomy? From mass self-communication to mass capture. Social networks such as Facebook or Twitter have grown to user bases in the billions in only a decade. This has turned them into new intermediaries of social communication, if not of social life as such. Mass self-communication has risen hand in hand with mass capture, the capture of masses of data, human actions and interactions. These platforms feed from, and feed on, some dynamics already diagnosed by Guy Débord (1967) around the society of the spectacle, heralding a society of hypervisibility and exhibition tied to capitalism. Exhibition and self-exhibition (from the intimate everyday life to political opinions and actions, passed through a variety of fiction filters), are stimulated and situated at the center of the functioning of these platforms (Crogan & Kinsley, 2012; Goodwin et al., 2016), which are in turn at the center of an economy of attention. Furthermore, in social networks, surveillance and control is not only top-down but also bottom-bottom. There are two axes of surveillance, vertical and horizontal. While the first tends to be unidirectional, the second is frequently (though not always, as platform privacy settings are variable) horizontal and multidirectional: users can and do surveil each other, with playful or predatory (Albrechtslund, 2008; Tokunaga, 2011) purposes. The monopolistic concentration of power around social network corporations becomes daunting: Facebook, for instance, also owns Instagram and Whatsapp. Key rules of social relations are not produced in and decided by processes, actors or conflicts spread in space and time, but rather are increasingly decided and designed by a reduced number of people and specific interests (geostrategic, economic, etcetera). The power of social networks moves from selling advertisement (a concrete type of content) to a deeper shaping of social attention and affects (Grizzioti, 2016), and thereby, behavior. The social anomie resulting from several decades of neoliberalism had given way to a landscape in which the autonomy resulting from new forms of multitudinous self-organization in networked social movements was underlied and exposed to new forms of corporate influence via technologies, that is to say, technopolitical heteronomy.

How datacracy is dissolving democracy. Democracy became exposed to datacracy, namely, to the strategic use of big data and digital platforms to gain and exercise political and cultural power (Cancellato, 2017; Gambetta, 2018). The rise of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 to United States presidency are examples of how social networks and big data operations have a growing impact on electoral processes, affecting the networked public sphere. Trump invested 94 million dollars in expert consultants and Facebook’s paid advertising services (The Guardian, 2017). More importantly, the campaign included numerous examples of political automation: the use of chatbots, posting bots, false profiles and the automated inflation of metrics and followers (Bessi & Ferrara, 2016). These were frequently tied to the diffusion of fake news: biased, incomplete or spurious media stories with exaggerated and emotional adjectivation (Graves, 2018). This fed back with the activity in platforms such as 4chan, Omegle, Reddit and Tumblr, where Trump’s followers formed an irregular community, self-appointed as Alt-Right (Nagle, 2017a; 2017b), which showed clear manifestations of sexism, xenophobia, islamophobia, anti-feminism, intolerance and white supremacy, openly or in the form of satirical jokes and memes (Mendoza-Denton, 2018, Van-Zuylen Wood et al, 2018; Pollard, 2018). He may also has been supported by Russian espionage and communication experts, who received large financial incentives, showing the geopolitical character of these technopolitical struggles (The Guardian, 2018a). Finally, there was the hiring of London consulting company Cambridge Analytica, which extracted personal data from 87 million Facebook profiles between 2014 and 2016 to analyze their political preferences (De Llano, 2018), using a Facebook application disguised as a “personality test” (Cadwalladr, 2018; The Guardian, 2018b). This is not exceptional, though. Cambridge Analytica intervened in the last presidential campaigns of Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China, Australia and South Africa, as well as the referendum that caused the separation of Britain from the European Union, known as Brexit (The Guardian, 2018b). These cases have drawn public attention to issues such as the vulnerability of online personal data, the power of corporations and States that can access these databases (either legally or illegally) and use these platforms for influencing and shaping public discourse and action (Mottram, 2018; Tufekci, 2018). In words of Facebook’s founder and president, Mark Zuckerberg, the platform has no affinity with any political party, and any client can access its services (Price, 2018). However, Facebook algorithms keep working as “black boxes”. Zuckerberg’s company has never shared details of its technical operation or data processing software or policies besides the content of Facebook’s terms of use, which still remain general, abstract, and non-negotiable. This opacity becomes ever more problematic as the role of platform algorithms, political automation and Artificial Intelligence (including machine and deep learning) systems grow (Trevathan, 2006; Manovich, 2013; Zysman & Kenney, 2015, 2016). Datacracy will pervade more aspects of people’s lives to the extent that the increasing pervasiveness of digital platforms grows and follows the current corporate and technocratic logics.

Free software, knowledge, culture, and internet. However, in continuous struggle and contact with these dynamics there has also been a proliferation of actors, movements, practices and projects oriented by principles such as democracy, freedom, social justice, or commonality. For instance, as an alternative to commercial social networks, also in the second half of the 2000s, there emerged alternative social networks, from Diaspora (with more than one million users) to n-1, a platform widely used during the 15M movement, together with a self-managed network of blogs (wordpress), voice-call rooms (mumble) and collaborative real-time writing pads (etherpad). They followed in the steps of a tradition dating back, at least, to the 1980s and 1990s: the WWW and free software such as the GNU/Linux operating system, have provided free digital services (free as in “freedom” and not only as in “free beer”, as Richard Stallman put it[8]) to millions of people over world. Furthermore, the GNU license was a legal tool to produce and reproduce such free digital infrastructures. The Creative Commons license expanded its possibilities to cultural works. First, free software licenses and, later (as the principles and practices of free software spread to other fields, Kelty, 2008) creative commons licenses helped to outline an alternative paradigm of collective appropriation of informational and cognitive wealth. Projects such as Wikipedia brought the free software culture into knowledge. This neatly fitted with the discourse of scientific knowledge (Merton, 1942), traditionally self-proclaimed universalism, communalism, and disinterestedness, specially up to the 1980s and landmarks such as the Bay-Dohle Act, that put science into a path of closure, privatization, and corporate interestedness. By putting the classic Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta out of business Wikipedia became an example of and alternative “open knowledge” regime, from its production to its appropriation. Softer forms of this regime, such as “open access”, have gained solid ground in time. Under this alternative paradigm, platforms for digital collaboration became key in the collective production of information and knowledge out of the proprietary logics of informational and cognitive capitalism. The broad category of “digital commons” has served to encompass a variety free software, knowledge and culture products. More broadly, the term FLOK (Free/Libre Open Knowledge) includes also non-digital forms of knowledge that generate common practices and democratic communities out of the proprietary form: from education to hardware, from engineering to culture, from biology to software (Villa-Viñas & Barandiaran 2015). More recently, struggles around Net Neutrality (have brought to the front the centrality of the control of concrete aspects of a common such as the Internet (in this case, the discrimination a types of data traffic on the network by service providers and governments) for the flourishing of other basic rights such as freedom of speech or equality in the network society[9].

Hacker culture, digital communities and knowledge commons. Free/Libre and Open Knowledge does not stand simply as a commodity or a good that is accessible by means of legal and technical devices. It is followed and often preceded by certain forms of social relation, modes of production and the collaborative culture that is necessary to produce and sustain it. The hacker culture, often associated with an ethics of fun, openness and sharing (Himanen, 2003), is even so with concrete practices (Kelty, 2008) and forms of politics (Barandiaran 2003; Maxigas, 2012); crucially, it involves the attitude to transform the way in which artifacts (in its broader sense: from institutions to modems) are given to us in order to open them up to new possibilities: a practical believe on the capacity (both individual and collective) to challenge existing limits and to collaboratively explore how to break, re-assemble and build upon what is available. In doing so communities are created around technical challenges, common infrastructures, collective resources and struggles. In turn, these communities are faced with a myriad of governing problems and these are solved by a combination of recursive tools and democratic/collaborative procedures: from the mechanisms to solve disputes in Wikipedia, to the voting procedures of the Debian community, from Forks (the duplication of the content and resources of a project to create a new one, something that is made possible by the non-proprietary form of knowledge and technologies involved) to version control systems in software development. Added to the unlimited reproductive capacity of digital goods, all this provides the sphere of Free/Libre Open Knowledge with a productive power and collective management capacity that results on a knowledge commons that often parallels that of profit-driven corporations and has been the object of extensive study (Hess & Ostrom, 2007; Benkler, 2006).

Decidim in context. As we have shown, democracies in the network society face the double challenge of the crisis of representative democracy and the rise of platform capitalism. The first phenomenon is tied to neoliberalism (and its periodic crises) as well as to the emergence of progressive and reactionary networked politics. The second phenomenon underlies new social conditions as well as those very forms of networked politics, while it is opposed by commons-oriented forms of production. The following image can help to understand the role of Decidim in this context.

Figure 1. Decidim model for a democratic society.

Under platform capitalism, corporations extract social data in huge quantities and turn it into wealth and power over people and institutions (this is what, in the image below, we label “algorithmic governance”), challenging democracy as we know it. New forms of distributed platform capitalism (airbnb, uber, deliveroo, etc.) herald forms of capilar exploitation of social wealth. However, non-corporate, collaborative forms of digital production exist, and they make possible to find alternatives. Decidim is one such alternative. It is conceived as a commons’ digital infrastructure for participatory democracy that is publicly supported and democratically designed, using itself for such purpose. The value of Decidim stands out in a context in which democratic collective intelligence faces the challenge of corporate artificial intelligence and datacracy, where the democratic impulse of networked social movements, from alter-globalization to 15M, faces reactions by market, State and right wing forces, and where public and commons’ institutions require democratic innovative infrastructures to overtake market-driven innovation in solving the complex social challenges of our times. Whereas a dominant trend pushes the governing of infrastructures and services to the top-right of the picture, towards increasing privatization and centralization in the hands of big corporations, the socio-technical potential exists to shift this trend towards the bottom-left corner: towards decentralized and public-common’s ecosystems of services, infrastructures and goods. Decidim contributes to this transition by boosting democratic participation into the governing of public bodies, social organization, the cooperative economy as well as the joint circulation among the three. So far, public emphasis has been put into regulating consumer markets, corporate governance and economy as a means to slow down privatizing trends and its negative consequences; meanwhile, corporate interests keep exerting their lobbying influence into the public and state institutions. Instead, Decidim contributes to the strengthening of innovative forms of commons-oriented economy and participatory democracy. The next section deals with “how” this strengthening operates, explaining how Decidim explores the potential of participation at various scales.

1. A white paper is document that expresses the principles, vision, technical details and insights of a project with the goal of explaining, detailedly and contextually, its value, to help others understand, join and support the project.
2. In short, by technopolitics we mean the intersection and hybridization of technology and politics. This is a conception of politics that focuses on the technical articulation of power, its structure and exercise, highlighting and intervening on devices, interfaces, codes, protocols, networks and methods in contrast with conceptions of politics that focuses on ideas, discourses, symbols and reasons. It is a conception of technology that focuses on its political dimensions, its mutability and its construction, highlighting and intervening in the power relationships, ideologies and logics in contrasts to views that understand it as value neutral and objective matters.
3. We have chosen Barcelona here as a scale of reference, but it could be the EU, or any other political territory or democratic organization. The term “scale” does not refer here to territorial extension, but to the number of agents and organizational complexity: the political involves more complexity, more agents, more conflict, more diversity and width of decision to be made, the technopolitical is a smaller community scale, the technical is a laboratory or factory that covers a subset of this community.
4. The decline has been ongoing for the last two decades, at least (Rosanvallon, 2008), and has been noticed across the “ideological and methodological spectrum” (Tormey 2015: 15). So much so that the crisis of liberal representative democracy has been identified with the crisis of democracy itself (Keane 2009; DellaPorta 2013). Different authors have denounced the technocratic tendencies and the neoliberal hegemony in this same period as heralding a stage of post-democracy (Crouch, 2004) or post-politics (Zizek, 1999; Rancière, 2001), while others, in a more limited way, have used the term "post-representation" to refer to the emptying of power and meaning of representative institutions by dynamics ranging from globalization and the dismantling of the welfare state to dis-affection and dis-empowerment (Brito Vieira and Runciman, 2008; Keane, 2009; Rosanvallon, 2011; Tormey, 2015). The meanings of “post-representation” are multiple, though, connected with different political readings of the crisis and the potential ways out of it, from those that give conjunctural interpretations to those that tie it to the transformations of modernity, its subjectivities and modes of sociality (Tormey, 2015).
5. This section is a theoretical reconstruction of aspects that are historically embedded and power-laden.
6. Organization or knowledge may be insufficient to solve the problems facing democracy today. However, we there are reasons to believe they can contribute to do so.
7. Alphabet, Microsoft (a giant from the early days of cognitive capitalism) and Amazon occupy three of the four top positions of the rankings by market capitalization. Facebook occupies the 8th place, but remains the third most visited web, with Google and Youtube (both owned by Alphabet) being the first and the second, according to Alexa and SimilarWeb, as of March 2018.
8. The four basic freedoms are the freedom to run the program for any purpose; to access its source code, study how it works, and change it; to redistribute copies; to distribute copies of modified versions. They can be retrieved at
9. Various reports and a history of the battle around Net Neutrality can be found at