Three Questions with Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CEO of CitizenLab
Urban and Regional Policy Program Coordinators Divya Khandke and Lauren Burke sat down with Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CEO of CitizenLab, who participated in the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI) Fellowship in 2018 representing Belgium. The YTILI program is a flagship young European leaders program of the U.S. Department of State that is supported in its implementation by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). It is designed to help innovators grow and scale their ventures. Since completing the program, Van Ransbeeck has grown his venture CitizenLab and recently raised €2 million to further expand his citizen participation platform internationally.
Can you tell us more about CitizenLab, its mission, and how it works?
When I was still a student in Brussels, I had ideas for my own neighborhood and for my city, but I couldn’t find the means to easily communicate those ideas to my city government. I would have to attend a town hall meeting—go there on a Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. or send in a request or an idea through an email, and you often never get an answer. Or you can just share your ideas over social media, which is impossible to manage for a city. So that’s where the idea for CitizenLab came from.
CitizenLab is an e-democracy citizen participation platform for local governments. We make it easy for citizens to have a say in local policymaking through the platform by collecting input from citizens and help turn the data into insights local governments can use for decision-making. It is a website that you navigate to, hosted by the city and integrated into the city’s main website. We provide the digital infrastructure for digital democracies, enabling citizen participation and giving them a say in local politics.
Today CitizenLab is used by more than 100 local governments, mainly in Europe—specifically in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Practically, how it works is that as a citizen you can participate on two levels. When the city is running a consultation on a new mobility plan, on a park that they are reconstructing, or any other project they are currently working on, you can have a say on that. But then, on the other hand, it’s also possible to work more from the bottom up and any idea you have, you can propose it to local politicians and collect a number of signatures or votes on it and then actually initiate the political agenda.
Cities always have the same people participating in those town halls or those neighborhood meetings. This digital element definitely offers opportunities to reach out to more people and bring more efficiency to the process of participation. We have invested in artificial intelligence (AI) and more specifically text analytics called natural language processing. This helps us to make sense of that data, summarize what citizens are talking about for city governments, and share the priorities of people living in a given neighborhood. The AI is looking at the semantics of words, comments, and ideas. It’s not just counting keywords, but bringing ideas together based on the similarity of the contents, and then out of that you can start to see priorities and clusters. We route all the input through to the right department within city government, so when there is new feedback coming in from a citizen who says “we have a problem with bicycle safety,” we can actually dispatch it to the mobility department automatically, based on the semantics of the ideas. Citizens get the opportunity to continuously participate in politics whenever they have an idea about anything in their neighborhood or in the city, on the one hand, and on the other hand, they stay informed about what the city is working on and have the chance to give their input on those projects. Citizens want to engage on projects about the strategic plans of a city and help decide what projects the city should take on next. Our mission is to put citizens at the heart of local decision-making and get them more involved in local politics.
You were a YTILI Fellow just this past year in 2018. Can you tell us more about your YTILI journey from the opening summit in Lisbon to your U.S. experience with American mentors, and how the program has impacted you?
What I enjoyed most about that preparatory conference in Lisbon was the chance to connect with all the entrepreneurs from so many different countries. I think there are two very interesting points there. The first point is definitely that you get to meet peers. It is hard to connect with peers, getting to know people who are doing identical things but in totally different contexts. It is pretty unique to see other mature young entrepreneurs who are facing similar challenges and be able to talk about challenges, growing your venture, starting your venture, growing a team, building products, etc. That is just priceless and it’s so valuable. The other point is getting the chance to meet people from so many different cultures; for me, it was a first. Normally when I go to a conference, there are people from Belgium, Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, northwestern Europe, and maybe an American or two. But what I really like about YTILI is that we had so many different European countries represented. It was so interesting to learn about how their ventures started, and what the economic ecosystems are like in Georgia or in Montenegro.
When we were in the United States, I was in Seattle. I had the opportunity to meet city officials there. I met with the City of Seattle a couple of times and some smaller municipalities around Seattle, as well as one of our customers: Vancouver, Canada. Having a chance to learn about how citizen engagement is done in the United States was really interesting because obviously in a year or two, we would love to expand into U.S. markets. I feel that I am way better prepared now that I have a better understanding of business in the United States and how local politics works there.
One of the other highlights is definitely the reverse Transatlantic Dialogue (TAD) experience with Seattle YTILI Mentor Ryan Biava, senior strategic advisor at Seattle City Light, the city’s municipally owned electric utility. Having him spend one week in Brussels, we were able to go to meetings with political scientists and government officials. We had dialogues and reflections on the CitizenLab model, how we are impacting democracy, and how we are contributing to better local democracies.
If I have to pick one way that the program has impacted me most, I’d say it would be to make me think more boldly. The fact that we have now raised more than €2 million definitely comes partly thanks to the fact that I’ve been in the United States and that it’s all “think bigger, think bolder.” Speaking to all the mentors and receiving positive validation on what we are doing and why it’s so important also gave us the confidence to think bigger and that is definitely one of the key impact factors on our successes.
GMF is overall focused on strengthening the transatlantic relationship and protecting our democracies, and for our Urban and Regional Policy Program, we are looking inward at how cities are playing a role on the front lines of democracy. How is a tool like CitizenLab shaping how cities are serving as laboratories for democracy?
Why cities and why not on other levels? We, as you also said, believe that cities are laboratories for democratic renewal. Change can move way faster at a local level. It’s less about all the different political colors and it’s easier to get to a compromise for the good of the community. Cities are also very action-driven, and it’s important to keep citizens engaged if they have a proposal so that three months later they know whether it has been refused or implemented.
The more citizens get engaged in local politics, the more direct a say we have on all the policies shaping our daily environments. Today CitizenLab, what we do is mainly go from citizen to government. We capture the voice of the citizen. We capture their ideas, their insights, their votes, and then that can influence democratic outcomes or local decision making. We still have a long way to go, but with our prototype, we’ve installed a first successful one-way flow.
But now we also want to establish a flow from the other way, from the government to the citizen. To have a two-way dialogue. And to inform citizens about what the government is working on. To inform them about local projects. To inform them in a very personalized way about decisions that are taken by the council. We want to make politics more transparent and more democratic for all.
I believe that CitizenLab and civic technology tools can bring a lot of efficiency to our public organizations and governments. I really believe that there’s a huge job to be done there. We’ve become more and more data-driven. We believe we can make a very important impact by making our governments run more efficiently in order to shorten feedback loops and make our institutions more responsive to the needs of the citizens.
We will keep on working on becoming a digital agora of any community and city we’re active in. We want to host all the interactions between representatives and their constituents, between cities and their citizens. We want to make it really easy for citizens to be involved and have a say in local politics.