Affordances of civic spaces

I couldn’t seem to find a quick description of what I mean by online civic space and thought I’d better pop up a definition.  The purpose which I prescribe for a civic space is: 

to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making

However we also need to look at the affordances of that space to define it – what does it do.  Affordance is fancy way of saying ‘ the effects that you expect something to have’.  Rather than a quality which is largely descriptive an affordance is something that you expect your design to have.  Below are the affordances which I expect an online civic space to have:

  • Publicity– you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives
I think I may be being a bit slack with my use of the word affordance here and may need to tidy up this language – comments on this very welcome.I am also considering whether or not I need to add in the idea of representativeness into this list – or whether the fact that identity is here means that the representativeness is something that needs to be considered in the context of the decisions being made rather than an affordance of the space.  More on that when I finish mulling.
  1. Tim Bonnemann

    June 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Just a couple of quick notes on publicness:

    I agree that the business of democracy belongs in the open, by and large. However, certain democratic processes require political privacy (hence, for example, the secret ballot).

    Also, saying something in public on the web nowadays usually means going on a permanent record. That’s a huge shift compared to the pre-internet age, and only time will tell what implications this may have on the quality and dynamics of public discourse. My guess is designing for gradients will become more important.

    • curiouscatherine

      June 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm

      Mmm….sloppy writing on my part. I am really talking about ‘public-ness’ in the sense of space where you encounter people outside of your private or familial sphere. So though I agree that some democratic processes require privacy, the reason that I consider publicity to be an affordance of civic space is this idea that it enabling you to connect to the wider public. thank you for the comment – will be more careful in future!

  2. Tom Phillips

    June 6, 2011 at 11:13 am


    I baulked at the expression “democratic debate”. Not because it is wrong, but because it sounded to me a bit self-limiting or even exclusive. Seems to me to infer a need to define “democratic”. Might be better to use another word?

    I think the way we are programmed leads us to think of “democratic” as always in terms of government. Civic participation in governance doesn’t have to be linked to government specifically, and there will be many aspects of debate about such participation where to describe it within the frame of “democracy” might be something of a turn-off perhaps?

    I frequently encounter the word when used as a bit of a weapon – in the sense of “This is democracy in action, you got what you voted for”. Usually when what is being done or offered is anything but, of course. That said, though, I suspect that language currently lacks a fully suitable word. “civic” and “civil” come into it. These both contain more than what the word democracy conveys, but at the same time, convey a bit less, as democracy does, on the surface at least, convey a sense of participation.

    I spent an hour or so musing on all of this, and just kept coming back to the old adage that “Democracy doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter who you vote for; it’s always the Government that gets in.”

    The sef-flagellation will continue until the answer dawns.


  3. Paul Brewer

    June 6, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I like the idea of nailing down the “benefits” sought and then identifying the conditions that will most likely allow those benefits to be realised. So a key benefit of an online civic space might be: “My voice was heard”. What are the conditions necessary for that? Maybe: “I found out about and understood the issue”; “I was able to comment and discuss”; “I was able to vote / register my opinion” etc. Maybe underneath that is are sets of technical features, such as identity management, voting mechanism, feedback, data feeds etc. ??


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