Posted on 2017-04-20 00:00:00 +0000 by Noe Jacomet
An interview with Yago Bermejo Abati about his involvement in the 15M movement, Podemos and his work at the Medialab Prado in Madrid.
Can you present yourself and the way you came to be involved in the 15M movement and Podemos?
Yago Bermejo: I’ve been an activist for a while and so I became part of 15M when it started and I then collaborated with Podemos. What defines my involvement in these movements is the will to make a diagnosis of democracy and help create new digital tools to redefine consensus. In 2013 we created this collective called LaboDemo and we tried to get involved with movements that were interested in these fields. That is how we connected with Podemos which LaboDemo has collaborated with in several occasions. After this we started working with Ahora Madrid, which is a coalition of parties that is now governing Madrid and that we helped develop a process of collective proposals for electoral programs. After that, Pablo Soto who is one of our strongest collaborators, started to work with the local government, creating new open source tools for participation, and now I work in the ParticipaLab which is a lab inside Medialab Prado that deals with this kind of things too.
Can you tell us about the contact points of 15M, Podemos and the Medialab Prado? Where do these projects meet?
YB: The binding thing is trying to push crowdsourcing policy-making. This is where these projects kind of meet although 15M was a bit different because it was a protest before anything else, but there were attempts at creating tools for participation even back then. Basically making bottom-up democracy happen is what motivates us, but of course as time passes we make progress. So what I do now with ParticipaLab is quite different from what happened in terms of civic tech during the 15M demonstrations.
In France, civic tech only resonates within the wealthier social circles. How to make it more popular?
YB: We are trying to change politics in general. My take is that it is not popular yet because politics is not popular, but if we succeed, that will change. Our goal is to empower every citizen regardless of their social class and nowadays, technology is everywhere. For example, the vast majority of people has access to the internet or a smartphone, so this is not about being rich or being poor in my opinion. We try to have a different approach, a different discourse. Traditional politicians are still using the same old methods. Creating new ways of participation with civic tech can be popular, it can connect with common people and that is the basis of what we’ve been doing in Spain during the last years. For example, on decide.madrid you can make a proposal which can have strong political aspects but these can be shared in whatsapp very easily. So what we are trying to do here is facilitate the access to politics by increasing participation rate through already existing (and popular) apps, web platforms etc. Today we have over 300 000 people connected to Ahora Madrid so it is becoming more and more popular. The technology is here, what matters is finding the right way to use it in order to improve participation, and that means making sure people are involved more frequently in politics, and not just for elections every 4–5 years…
You are now a project coordinator at the Medialab Prado, can you tell us a little about that?
YB: The Medialab is a civic tech cultural center based on open source technology. Our philosophy is very specialized in the sense that we want to promote free technology for more participatory democracies (with a heavy open source component of course). In the practical sense what we are doing are, for example, annual workshops where we gather projects that revolve around participation technologies from all around the world (I’m sure Virgile told you about the one he took part in). Another innovative process we promoted is the G1000 we held in Madrid. For this one we contacted a thousand people from the city to collaborate, participate and debate about local political questions and the final step of this journey was to share our proposals with the whole city through digital technology. For the record, the people who took part in this were chosen randomly, through contact processes that happened in public places of Madrid like sport or health centers, supermarkets etc.
How is what people do at the Medialab Prado different from the work of civic tech companies?
YB: We believe democracy cannot trust private licences. We think this would conflict with the transparency we long for. And we have a case study now because there are several cities in Spain that have been using open source online voting software and a few weeks ago, for the first time, Podemos in Cataluna asked a private company to make an electronic voting tool. We were very shocked by this mistake and so there was this open debate about why we should or should not use private licences for democratic software. We even wrote an article about that. Basically our take is that the ones who have access to the code are the ones in power, so this is why it is a question of trust. To us, if the people is to be in charge, then everyone should be able to see the code of the digital tool. Democracy is a right, not something you should pay for. In the case of private companies, most of the time there is a subscription fee attached to the software, so not only you cannot access their code but you are also financially involved.
It has been almost 6 years since the 15M movement started. According to you what does civic tech have to show for in Spain?
YB: Some people in 15M attempted to build digital tools for civic participation but their approach was sloppy. For example, they tried to replicate social media in an open source form but this failed completely because only people who took part in the movement got involved in this, not the entire citizenry.
I know some people in 15M also tried to build tools to collect proposals but they were very primitive. So the next step was the things we did with LaboDemo and especially the ones done in conjunction with Podemos, these collaborations were mostly devoted to promote what had arisen with the 15M demonstrations, one could say that the attempts made within the 15M community were sketches of what we did with Podemos. As always, the idea was to use digital tools to organize collective work. We also tried using Loomio in the Spanish context which is a very interesting tool. There were other attempts to use technology for crowdsourcing proposals, so basically I would say that the last few years have been very rewarding for civic tech in Spain.
What do you think about similar foreign initiatives, like g0v in Taiwan or the Icelandic revolution?
YB: Establishing a global community is very important. Foreign initiatives are like mirrors for what we do here in Spain. They allow us to interact with each other, inspire each other and thanks to these we can import to Spain what works abroad. For example, we are very interested in what people of Iceland have done in the past, especially with participatory budgeting for example. Also we have been discussing with people in Taiwan about the way they perceive deliberative innovation, we have been particularly interested in their pol.is project, for example. We are also connected with other movements like the ones in France, where Nuit Debout got involved in digital civic participation. The official participatory budgeting platform of Paris is also quite interesting.
You have a very specific background, you’ve worked as an entrepreneur, a musician and a teacher. What drove you to this field?
YB: I think that people who work in this field have very various backgrounds. For instance I met several musicians but also people who have a very tech-oriented background. So the profiles are very different. What unites us though, is the pleasure to discover new things, to collaborate and innovate in topics that seem difficult at first. In my case I studied physics so I have always taken an interest in complex things, but the reasons vary if you ask a different person. Another thing we have in common is that most of us have been activists at some point, that is important because there is an activist aspect to what we do in this field. In my case there are three aspects: an experimental curiosity, a more creative or artistic aspect and finally the activism side that binds us.