PhD Argument 2

Decidim.Barcelona is a prototype for public-commons participatory democracy and has characteristics of a collective intelligence.


[Version November 2020 :: These PhD posts are online workbenchs and mood boards :: Opening up research process, playing with multimedia and inviting your comments]


Note: Epistemological vs ontological definitions.

2.1. How does Decidim.Barcelona work as a prototype for public-commons participatory democracy?

Weekly Decidim office meetings in the FiC. The ‘estándar’ meeting using interactive group work flow panels (the semi transparent panels to left of image employing post-it notes). Still from The Sound of the Hive video (38 secs, 2019). Recorded July 2018.
Drawing: thinking through the multidimensionality of Decidim… is there a coherent or emergent whole? or Intersectional point? By CH (5 October 2020).

2.2. Decidim.Barcelona has characteristics of a collective intelligence.

Decidim facilitator Alicia Mullor explains the monthly Som meeting. Still from La Colmena video (11 mins 57 secs, 2018). The Som meetings are the assembly meetings of the MetaDecidim community, including both knowledge-sharing and decision-making processes. Here, the meeting had divided into smaller working groups, where each smaller working group also had a facilitator. .
(Recorded July 2018)
Decidim open source code on Github (screenshot taken 6/10/2020)



Note: Epistemological vs ontological definitions.

I specifically hold back from claiming that ‘Decidim.Barcelona is a collective intelligence’ because I’m focusing more on epistemological definitions rather than ontological definitions of collective intelligence. That is, for me, it’s more important to specify and nuance the ways in which Decidim.Barcelona works as a collective intelligence, and how it is useful to understand Decidim in that way, rather than making big definitive claims about what Decidim is per se in an ontological sense. The whole of the Decidim project doesn’t always have to be a fully functioning collective intelligence for it to be significant.

Moreover, in the vision of collective intelligence being developed here, collective intelligence qualities move, change, re-configure themselves, grow and reproduce – potentially they have the capacity to appear and disappear, go latent as well as go active – my feeling is that it is not a static quality or status which can be possessed permanently in an unchanging way.

In terms of the nuance, to give us a starting point to orientate ourselves, Javier Toret has commented:

Yes, you can say that Decidim is a project born out of collective intelligence. In two ways. First, the introduction of participatory methodologies, and social movement and hacker knowledge into the City Council’s administration. Second, through the selection and development of specific technologies, software and decision-making processes, Decidim.Barcelona has created a distributed and participatory structure. For example, the modular structure of the Decidim.Barcelona code compared with the Consul code used in Madrid.

Toret, in conversation with Hotz (20 September 2020)



2.1. How does Decidim.Barcelona work as a prototype for public-commons participatory democracy?

Scoping strategy
Focusing on ‘how does it work?’ saves going into the entire philosophical and political background for all of those key concepts (participation, democracy, public, commons) which would entail going into too much excess material at this stage.

2.1.1. How does Decidim.Barcelona work?
I am carrying out an analysis of key texts and my fieldwork material, making sure I keep close to the operational focus in this section: What is Decidim.Barcelona in operational terms? How does it work? What is the technical structure and how does it fit into wider technical, political and institutional structures?; What is the quantitative picture of how many processes, proposals, number of people participating and from how many areas? What is it like to use Decidim.Barcelona and be part of Decidim.Barcelona processes?

Weekly Decidim office meetings in the FiC. The ‘estándar’ meeting using interactive group work flow panels (the semi transparent panels to left of image employing post-it notes). Still from The Sound of the Hive video (38 secs, 2019). Recorded July 2018.

Decidim speaks for itself

In the words of Decidim:

Decidim [] , from the Catalan “let’s decide” or “we decide”, is a digital infrastructure for participatory democracy, a digital platform, built entirely and collaboratively as free software. 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 platform to be used in the form of a political network for democratic participation. 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 for regulations, urban spaces and election processes, etc. It also makes possible to connect traditional in-person democratic meetings (assemblies, council meetings, etc.) 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.

Xabier Barandiaran and Antonio Calleja-López, Decidim White Paper (p. 8, 2019). Full list of contributors and specific acknowledgements below.

The fact that the Decidim community speaks for itself means that a lot of information on ‘how Decidim.Barcelona works’ is available through self-produced and self-authored texts – both individually and collectively authored, typically published with Creative Commons and CopyLeft licences. These texts are diverse in format such as academic literature, websites, social media, recorded online discussions. This self-produced and self-authored body of work is also a conceptually significant part of the PhD argument and thesis, as explored in Argument 1.1. on Epistemological Self-representation, which I am linking with Haraway’s idea of Situated Knowledge. For example, the Decidim White Paper is published under the Creative Commons BY-SA (Attribution Share Alike) International (v.4.0) and GFDL (GNU Free Documentation) licenses, and introduces itself thus: ‘We have been busy building Decidim, it is now time to explain it’ (p. 7, 2019). The longer quote above and this operational diagram below give a taste of what we find inside the White Paper:

Xabier Barandiaran and Antonio Calleja-López. Decidim White Paper (p. 61, 2019)

Argument 1 lists a sample of texts and authors from the more general Tecnopolítica body of work. Here are some examples focused on particular aspects of Decidim:

Who Speaks for Decidim?

In terms of keeping intersectional clarity on ‘Who are the storytellers?’, ‘Who speaks?’ and ‘Who writes?’, there is some progress on the gender and language aspects, albeit limited. The Spanish version of these Argument posts was actually started before the English version, but I had to finish the English version first due to uni deadline. And some foundational work on race aspects is underway (see posts on decentering power and whiteness, and ‘words doing what they say they do (or not)’ on this website), acknowledging the relative whiteness of the face-to-face Decidim spaces I encountered; and I am engaged in these discussions in my everyday life in my local community and online following initiatives such as #CiteBlackWomen. However, I haven’t touched on ableism and class – as yet I haven’t fully deciphered class codes in Spain or Catalunya – although the 15M movements behind Decidim would have engaged with all of these intersectional factors and more. I have only found one reference to these matters in the Decidim White Paper:

Although Decidim has a strong privacy preserving social contract, new functionalities may contribute to promote the empowered inclusion of excluded groups for gender, class, race or other reasons.

Xabier Barandiaran and Antonio Calleja-López, Decidim White Paper (p. 36, 2019). Full list of contributors and specific acknowledgements above.

Additionally the upcoming Decidim Festival highlights Feminism (see image below), however we must remember the distinction made by Sara Ahmed regarding the potential gap between what words say they do and what they actually do.

Screenshot of #DecidimFest 2020 video (16th October 2020)

How is Decidim a Public-Commons?

The project requires a public-commons partnership. Decidim is a free, open and democratic digital infrastructure, whose core functionalities and sustainability are guaranteed by public funds, and around which a series of productive agents and services are organised (from community, public and private spheres). Decidim is maintained and developed by a growing ecosystem composed of businesses, foundations, citizens, associations, hackers, researchers and diverse institutions. The services and resources generated by this ecosystem go beyond the needs of public institutions, rather they attend to the needs of the social fabric (associative, cooperative, collaborative), allowing for multiscale democratic coordination by the social intelligence.

Xabier Barandiaran, Antonio Calleja-López, Arnau Monterde, Pablo Aragón, Juan Linares, Carole Romero and Andres Pereira, ‘Decidim: redes políticas y tecnopolíticas para la democracia en red’ [Decidim: political and tecnopolítical networks for network democracy] (p. 141, 2017) (A)

How to transmit the experience and operational reality of this multi-dimensionality?

Drawing: thinking through the multidimensionality of Decidim… is there a coherent or emergent whole? or Intersectional point?
By CH (5 October 2020).

Is there a coherent functional whole that emerges from all the dimensions? Or are there better ways of thinking about the ‘whole’, such as an assemblage, actor-network, collective intelligence itself, or even something different like a continuous intersectional point of experience, or taking another strategy completely and simply talking about an overview? The continuous intersectional point of experience could be articulated by the vectors/lines that move through the different layers in Bratton’s stack diagram in Argument 1.3.2. (2015), where those vectors/lines indicate time passing (that kind of movement through different axes can also be seen in Google’s Waterfall of Meaning installation at the Barbican’s AI exhibition, 2019).

I have started working through these questions, noting the range of dimensions in play, thinking and sketching to nudge the thought process forward in a way that embraces the complexity, as well as seeking accessible ways to express this (see above).

During my time with the Decidim Team, one unsolicited reference to an idea of a ‘whole’ or overview stuck in my mind. When Xabier Barandiaran (co-founder Decidim) was introducing his colleague Andres Pereira:

And Andres is a hacker from the aLabs association. Everone here has a different origin and different skills. Well, he is a classical hacker, he is in charge of the architecture of Decidim, also on organising the different development teams, all the programmers now which are about 40 in the community. Well, Andres is taking care of all the development infrastructure, opening repositaries, managing certificates, working on multiple dimensions.

I very often say that Andres is very particular skillset on himself because he understands the code from what is being executed on the server, to how the program works, to the laws on participation, to how we organise. He is perhaps the person who has the vision, or code, or programming vision of the whole project on all it’s scales.

Xabier Barandiaran describing the role of Andres Pereira in the Decidim Team, The Sound of the Hive video (4 mins 25 secs – 5 mins 33 secs, 2019). Recorded July 2018.
Still of Xabier Barandiaran describing the role of Andres Pereira in the Decidim Team (Andres to the right foreground), The Sound of the Hive video (4 mins 25 secs – 5 mins 33 secs, 2019). Recorded July 2018.

This quote illustrates that ‘problem-solving the complexity’ by refering to the idea of an overview, only really pushes the complex bit to another spot, for example Andres’ very particular skillset that Xabier refers to.

Permanent prototype – dynamic creativity between the concrete and the visionary

The prototype aspect of Decidim is fundamental to my interest in the project. For me, a prototype indicates something experimental, people learning how to do something experimental so they can do it again and again and again, an element of the unknown (we don’t know exactly where it’s going and the future is not yet determined)… whilst at the same time being a concrete, operational project which pushes our thinking, creative and problem-solving capacities to grow, and has real transformative impacts on us, our relationships, our lives and our worlds.

For me, the dynamic between the concrete and the visionary is creative and limitless. And that is where I want to be.

Recalling the metaphor of the recursive wheel raised in Argument 1.3.2., I think the idea of the (permanent) prototype connects with recursivity, and we can imagine it through that recursive wheel. In other words, as Decidim (and Tecnopolítica) are always in a process of growth, change and challenges, the concrete operational reality of Decidim and the vision are never going to be exact mirror images of each other. For example, the future vision of what Decidim can become is always going to be ahead of the current operational achievements of Decidim in some respects. And, in other respects, the application of Decidim may yield unplanned functionalities and consequences which go beyond the original plan. Meanwhile, there is a dynamic whereby the vision and operational application will always be trying to catch up with eachother, in effect pushing each-other into further motion, very much like the aforementioned recursive wheel which I requote here for ease of reference:

We can say that when there is repetition everything remains the same, while when there is recursion, something new arises that occurs in the relationship between consecutive repetitions.

The biologist Humberto Maturana explains it with this example: if the wheels of a cart spin skidding on the mud, the cart does not move, it stays in the same place, and the observer sees the turning of the wheels as repetitive. However, if the wheels of a cart turn in such a way that their point of contact with the ground changes, and in each new turn the wheels start in a different position than the previous one, as a result of such change the observer sees a new phenomenon, the motion of the car, and considers the turning of the wheels as recursive.

Marga Padilla, El kit de la lucha en Internet [The online struggle kit] (p. 43, 2013)

2.2. Decidim.Barcelona has characteristics of a collective intelligence.

The following characteristics and/or configurations of collective intelligence mix: live experience; formal structures; epistemlogical self-representation / situated knowledge from Decidim and Tecnopolitica; and collective intelligence definitions from ‘the literature’ where necessary. They also serve to structure codes in order to carry out coding on material gathered in fieldwork.

2.2.1. Connecting people and groups on different scales and media.
For example: AMPA (school parents association) -> Fapac (Catalan Federaton of AMPAs) -> Som (presencial MetaDecidim meetings where Fapac attends) -> MetaDecidim (community of Decidim) -> Decidim.Barcelona online platform (MetaDecidim is governance structure for Decidim)

2.2.2. Adaptative technology. Decidim.Barcelona can adapt to different aims, contexts and scales, from neighbourhood noise problems to City policy programmes. An adaptability feature of Decidim is the modular structure of the code, which is emphasised particularly in comparison with a similar project in Madrid City Council used a code called Consul which is not modular. There is a blog post by Xabier Barandiaran with comparison of Decidim and Consul and here is an example of one of the comparison tables:

Table from blog post ‘Comparison of Decidim and Consul’ (Barandiaran, 2019).

2.2.3. Adaptive teams. Reconfiguring into different forms of collective intelligence according to need. For example, the hive of the Decidim Office and the distributed cognition between co-authors of the White Paper. I witnessed the contrast between: the busy hum of ‘constant communication’ (Inma, 2018) in the hive of the open place Decidim Office; and the near total silence when three authors/contributors formed a kind of distributed cognition when working together in a closed room on the White Paper.

The capacity for reconfiguration was also designed into the work space, as described in the section on ‘Designing a participatory lab space’ in the White Paper (p. 74-75, 2019) including these drawings:

Drawing above by Makea Tu Vida and drawing below by Xabier Barandiaran, in Decidim White Paper (p. 75, 2019)

2.2.4. Reproduction. How one collective intelligence creates another collective intelligence. Related to the idea of self-reproduction or autopoiesis. The main example of this which we look at is Tecnopolitica co-creating Decidim.

2.2.5. Social and distributed learning. More generally, collective intelligence is something that can be learnt and realised by potentially anyone, not just observed at a distance in Gephi maps. Specifically in Decidim.Barcelona, there are mechanisms for social learning: face-to-face meetings (moved online with Covid) such as Som, Lab, JAM, DecidimFest; the open source code making process itself; all the online spaces for deliberation and info-sharing on Decidim.Barcelona.

Decidim open source code on Github (screenshot taken 6th October 2020)
Members of the MetaDecidim community sharing the mic and speaking to the whole group [describe this with more precision when checking original footage]. During the monthly Lab meeting of MetaDecidim. The Lab meetings have more of a seminar format compared with the monthly Som meetings (Recorded July 2018)
Decidim facilitator Alicia Mullor explains the monthly Som meeting seen in this still from La Colmena video (11 mins 57 secs, 2018). The Som meetings are the assembly meetings of the MetaDecidim community, including both knowledge-sharing and decision-making processes . At the point of the meeting visible in this still, the meeting had divided into smaller working groups, where each smaller working group also had a facilitator. [describe this with more precision when checking original footage]. (Recorded July 2018)

2.2.6. Capacity to resolve problems and manage problems which are not resolvable. From problems-solving big picture issues such as the tension between privacy for users of Decidim.Barcelona, and ensuring that all users of Decidim.Barcelona are legitimate, not bots, or holders of multiple accounts. To addressing specific neighbourhood issues and making City policy proposals.

2.2.7. Patterns of repeating and changing forms across different scales and contexts. See Argument 1.2.1 for more detail. Both the concepts of fractality and recursity may be relevant here:

Recursive bootstrapping: Decidim is the main space for the (democratic) organization of the community. This means that the reflexivity is constitutive of the community. In a sense the organization does not only eat its own product, it nurtures from it. The very software is a product and also the scaffold of the community. The more successful the software facilitating an adaptive, resilient, autonomous and strong community the better for the community → the better the software → the better the community. This implies a deeper testing of the software, a political test. There have been many cases in which improvements to the
software have been made as a result of the difficulties encountered on the way it shaped democracy itself within the meta.decidim community. This translation of political difficulties into software improvements is possible thanks to a participatory process inside

Xabier Barandiaran and Antonio Calleja-López, Decidim White Paper (p.66, 2019)

2.2.8. Aliveness and movement, as we can see in the video of the Decidim office and MetaDecidim community La Colmena [The Hive] as well as the first experimental video piece The Sound of the Hive. Also see Argument 1.2.1 and storytelling blogpost ‘It’s Alive!’ for more detail.

Decidim office life in the FiC. Multiple simultanous interactions and movement. Spontaneous interaction in physical proximity in foreground. Meeting in middle ground to left. Person moving through open plan space to right. People working at their desks out of sight. Modular desks that allow different shapes to be formed, including the shape of a cell in a beehive (see image below).
Still from The Sound of the Hive video (20 secs, 2019). Recorded July 2018.

2.2.9. People working and making choices together, constructing society together. As per a definition of collective intelligence emphasised by Tecnopolitica researcher-activists Toret and Calleja:

Following Levy (1999), a first entry into the [collective intelligence] concept is given by his interpretation of intelligence as reading or “working together (inter legere), as a union point not only of ideas but also of people ‘constructing society’”. We believe this view is heuristically more interesting than those that focus on some of the possibilities of intelligence only, emphasizing their cognitive aspects or ─in its pragmatic versions─ defining it as the “ability to solve problems” (Heylighen, 1999).

Toret and Calleja, in the Collective Intelligence Framework document for the D-cent project on Decentralised Citizens Engagement Technologies (2014, p. 29)

2.2.10. How collective intelligences have formed through (and consist of) theoretical and practical co-production, co-creation, debate, struggle, collective learning, self-reflection and self-publication. Arguments 1.2 and 1.4 also refer to this point.

[point to conclude. link forwards, backwards or to overview?]


(A) Original quote in Spanish: “El proyecto implica un partenariado público-común. Decidim es una infraestructura digital libre, abierta y democrática, cuyas funcionalidades nucleares y cuya sostenibilidad vienen aseguradas por fondos públicos y alrededor del cual se organizan una serie de agentes productivos y de ser- vicios, tanto comunitarios, como públicos o privados. Decidim está mante- nido y desarrollado por un ecosistema creciente compuesto por empresas, fundaciones, ciudadanía, asociaciones, hackers, personas investigadoras y diversas instituciones. Los servicios y recursos generados por este ecosis- tema van más allá de las necesidades institucionales públicas y atienden a las necesidades del tejido asociativo, cooperativo o colaborativo social, permitiendo la coordinación democrática a múltiples escalas de la inteli- gencia social.”
Xabier Barandiaran, Antonio Calleja-López, Arnau Monterde, Pablo Aragón, Juan Linares, Carole Romero and Andres Pereira, ‘Decidim: redes políticas y tecnopolíticas para la democracia en red’ [Decidim: political and tecnopolítical networks for network democracy] (p. 141, 2017)


[note: full first names are included in reference list to give a clearer picture of gender balance]

Aragon, Pablo (2019). Characterizing Online Participation in Civic Technologies. Doctoral Thesis UPF.

Ahmed, Sara (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, Durham USA.

Bratton, Benjamin (2015). Stack diagram by Benjamin Bratton (2015) with six layers: user, interface, address, city, cloud, earth. Cited in Calleja-López (2019, 2020).

Barandiaran, Xabier (2018). Xabier Barandiaran telling Tecnopolitical Histories (video).

Barandiaran, Xabier, Calleja-López, Antonio (2019). Decidim White Paper (2019). Authors and Editors: Xabier E. Barandiaran & Antonio Calleja-López. Contributors Eloy Caloca Lafont, Arnau Monterde, Pablo Aragón.

Calleja-López, Antonio (2017). PhD thesis of Tecnopolítica researcher-activist Antonio Calleja-López covering the period 2011-2016: Since 15M: the technopolitical reassembling of democracy in Spain

Calleja-López, Antonio (2019). Más allá del capitalismo de la vigilancia: democracia digital y datos comunes.

Calleja-López, Antonio (2020). Democratización tecnológica: notas para reimaginar la sociedad digital de abajo arriba (2020).

La Colmena (2019). La Colmena [The Hive] is a documentary style video I made from material recorded during the fieldwork in the Decidim Office (July 2018). Working from the experimental video The Sound of the Hive inspired by the hive-like hum in the Decidim Office and Meta.Decidim meetings.

Linares-Lanzman, Juan (2017). El 15M y los medios españoles: análisis de redes temáticas en Twitter [15M and the Spanish media: analysis of network themes in Twitter]. Doctoral Thesis UPF.

Haraway, Donna (1998). ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory. From Margin to Center. Pluto Press. First printed 1984.

Monterde, Arnau and Javier Toret (2012). Tecnopolítica, Internet y R-evoluciones. Sobre la Centralidad de Redes Digitales y el #15M (2012). Authors: Arnau Monterde, Javier Toret, Simona Levi, Axebra, Alcazan, Take the Square, SuNotissima.

Monterde, Arnau (2015). PhD thesis of Arnau Monterde (2015). Emergencia, evolución y efectos del movimiento-red 15M (2011-2015). Una aproximación tecnopolítica [Emergence, evolution and effects of the network-movement 15M (2011-2015). A tecnopolítical approximation]. (Doctoral thesis, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona).

Padilla, Marga (2013). El kit de la lucha en Internet [The online struggle kit]. Madrid, Spain: Traficantes de Sueños.

Padilla, Marga (2018). Presentation ‘Citizen Participation Technologies for Social Movements and Organisations’, MetaDecidim Lab, FiC, Barcelona, July 2018.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2012). “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Originally published in In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 1988, p. 271-313. Macmillan, London.

The Sound of the Hive (2018). An experimental video capturing the hum of the Decidim office which was still ringing in my ears for a long time after returning home from fieldwork. Working from The Sound of the Hive, I made a more complete picture of the Decidim Team and MetaDecidim community in the documentary style video La Colmena [the Hive].

Toret, Javier and Antonio Calleja-López (2013). D2.1 Collective Intelligence Framework. Horizon 2020 project D-CENT, Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies.

Toret, Javier et al. Tecnopolítica: la potencia de las multitudes conectadas. El sistema red 15M, un nuevo paradigma de la política distribuida. [Technopolitics: the potential of connected multitudes. The 15M network system as a new paradigm of distributed politics.] (2013). Author and research coordinator: Javier Toret. Authors: @Datanalysis15m, Antonio Calleja- López, Óscar Marín Miró, Pablo Aragón, Miguel Aguilera, Xabier E. Barandiaran, Alberto Lumbreras, Arnau Monterde

Violeta Cabello (2020). Member of Meta.Decidim community. Twitter profile:

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