Digital Participation to Empower Civil Society and Accelerate Sustainability Transformations in Urban and Rural Areas


The roundtable critically and constructively explores the economic, social, and ecological implications of the change process in urban and rural spaces. The discussion is informed by the WBGU questions: “How can digitalization be used to ensure sustainable urban development, and what opportunities and risks do concepts such as smart cities offer?”



The participants are experts from diverse fields and communities including:

  • Technological enthusiasts.

  • City officials.

  • Startup founders.

  • Representatives of civil society organizations.

  • Political actors.

  • Change management professionals.


Topics and Questions

This roundtable brings together eight creative and inspirational individuals from across the digital transformation and sustainability communities.

The discussion focuses on two key areas:

  • How to use digital participation to transform sustainability.

  • How to drive participation across both rural and urban areas.

Topics and trends including civic crowdfunding, e-government, and e-participation have shaped the discourse over the past few years and provide a useful foundation for further conversation.

Questions for the roundtable include:

  • How can digital technologies and approaches contribute to the sustainable transformation goals of urban and rural areas?

  • What are the necessary prerequisites, conditions, and formats for digital participation?




Context and Challenges

Roundtable Context

  • Innovations in information and communication technologies can help rural and urban areas better address major social, environmental, and economic challenges.

  • Solid governance, policies, structures, and processes are needed to manage the uncertainty and complexity of changes.

  • Strong citizen participation is essential for demand-driven and sustainable transformation.

  • Citizen participation opportunities include both traditional formats and channels and digital ones.

  • Traditional formats may include town halls, public forums, interviews, and other similar events.

  • Digital formats may include social networks, web platforms, and dedicated apps.

  • Virtual reality and augmented reality can show how urban and rural places will be transformed.

Roundtable Challenges

  • Sustainable development challenges require a respectful and inclusive approach to local history, cultural traditions, and individual perspectives.

  • New technologies create new challenges including environmental impact, a lack of familiarity with technical data and platforms, data privacy, and the unintended exclusion of groups that lack digital access.

  • Technological transformation by itself cannot create sustainable modernization and renewal. 

  • Sustainability goals must be foundational to digitalization strategies.

  • Digital change and sustainable transformation must mutually support and reinforce each other. 


Roundtable Results

Participants agree that a combination of the following factors creates some unique opportunities to significantly boost digital participation in sustainability transformation:

  • A shift to digital experiences as part of adapting to COVID-19.

  • The launch of the European Green Deal.

  • The numerous tools, frameworks, and approaches developed over the last few years.

Administrative governance processes are about 20 years behind technological development and current thinking. The right tools and mindset do exist, so it’s time to redesign and rescale political and democratic processes to bring them up-to-date.

The participants collected and then discussed their experiences of the challenges and opportunities of digital participation in general and in the context of sustainability transformations. Examples:

Opportunities for Greater Digital Participation

  • Rethinking governance and democratic processes for the 21st century.

  • Understanding new opportunities to connect and consolidate.

  • Creating spaces for continuous joint learning.

  • Fostering common, shared approaches.

  • Bridging divides through hybrid formats.

Challenges with Greater Digital Participation

  • Lack of opportunity and access to digital tools, leading to limited participation.

  • Lack of training, governance, or technology as a prerequisite for digital tools.

  • Prevailing established social practices and resistance to change.

  • Loss of key benefits of participatory processes such as a sense of community, or not seeing the outcome of contributions.

  • Missing out or underutilizing opportunities.

  • Complexity of inputs, such as tools and participatory processes, or the lack of transformation of information into usable, practical knowledge.


A Vision for Greater Digital Participation by 2030

The participants imagine a future where digital participation is part of the everyday practice of most citizens and integral to the political discourse. This promotes a new approach to sustainable governance, with the greatest sense of community. The conversations around this vision include the following points:

The use of digital participation has closed the gap between rural and urban areas and created engagement on sustainability issues across the whole scope of “rural-urban.”

Participation is the default in society when it’s supported by digital tools.

People have a deep understanding of all positive and negative effects of participation.

Easily accessible participation encourages people to be responsible for sustainability.

Individuals, communities, and societies have more responsibility and ownership.

Digital participation works alongside traditional channels and opens up new ways for people to meet.

Digital and hybrid participation becomes mainstream and enables real, local, and sustainable actions.

There is higher transparency for processes and connections between topics.

Digital participation is part of the daily routine.

People can easily participate and understand the results of their participation.

Redesigning a city feels like role-play.

Digital participation is integral to both the citizens and the administrations.

It is possible for anyone to start an initiative, feel like a community citizen, and have the resources to create change within the society.

All people are included and this enriches our entire democratic participation.

Digital tools and approaches support effective, participatory governance mechanisms.

Good examples help to accelerate digital participation around the world.

There are many diverse and specific open source tools to support digital participation.

Sharing becomes practical and easy.

There is an experimental approach on how to best empower autonomous communities.

Digital participation becomes an everyday habit, and is easy to apply to democratic processes.


Next Steps

The roundtable concludes with some concrete policy and research recommendations that can help move towards this vision, with agreements to continue to collaborate and exchange ideas and information regularly.

The results are currently being processed and it is planned to publish them in an article.