Local Democracy and the Information Society: Citizen-Users as NICT Co-Designers

Alain d'Iribarne <iribarne@univ-aix.fr>
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


The development of new information and communications technologies (NICTs) is widely regarded as an international phenomenon characterized by economic or technological determinism. This view overlooks or ignores the extremely important, indeed the dominant, role played by politics and social structures in the transformation of our societies. [1]

Keywords: user needs analysis, social-pull experiment, training, health care, entertainment, work, administration.



If the new paradigms based on international competition emphasize worldwide communications networks, they seriously underestimate the importance of local social networks. When consulted, "citizen-users" put as much emphasis on local urban networks as on worldwide ones. They also have expectations of public services that are as high as for private ones.

The result is that, faced with a "technological push/market-driven" vision, there is a real place for a complementary "social pull/public policy-driven" vision. In such a vision, local policy on NICTs plays a key role that makes use of the techniques of participatory democracy and focuses on quality of life, sustainable development, and the welfare of local citizens.

This emerges clearly from the preliminary results of a research program, financed by DG XIII, called Multimedia European Experimental Towns with a Social-Pull Approach, or METASA. This program focused on four small or medium-sized European towns in France (Parthenay), Spain (Arnedo), and Germany (Weinstadt and Torgau). The purpose of the program is to develop NICTs as a means not only of improving industrial competitiveness but also of achieving other goals, such as improving the quality of life or the efficiency of public services. The project investigated telematics applications in the following spheres: education and training, work and quality of life, administration, health care, and entertainment and culture.

We cannot be reminded too often that NICTs are merely tools; whether their effects are beneficial to mankind will depend wholly on the way in which our societies seek to develop and use them. These effects will depend on the social and institutional structures that each town, region, state, or supranational entity, such as the European Union (EU), will be able to put in place. However, as in other periods of major technological innovations, NICTs reveal the contradictions in our societies, exposing their deep-seated characteristics and the way they really function and giving the lie to official rhetoric. This is why they are potentially dangerous, because their effects may be destabilizing. However, although NICTs have made it possible to achieve things previously considered difficult or impossible, they also open up considerable prospects for the future [2].

The economic and social effects of NICTs will depend primarily on political choices. The political sphere is the highest level at which economic and social relationships are regulated. Whether NICTs will be simply a source of economic growth or also a source of development or even progress depends on politics. Thus we must reflect on the relationships between NICTs and politics, with its various forms and modes of expression. This is what the European Union has begun to accept [3], realizing that the scope of legitimate political action cannot be restricted to financing near-market technological research or to ensuring that generalized free competition is established [4]. The EU understands that merely allowing free access to the information highway is not enough for access to be created, and recognizes the need to implement active policies in order to make citizens able to use information and to exert control over information. Finally, it has stressed the need to create societies based on "active solidarity."

It is heartening that these questions are being raised in official quarters, as they are absolutely fundamental. However, words are not enough. It is also necessary to take action, which is much more difficult, because it presupposes the possession of knowledge that is virtually nonexistent and plans that are no less scarce. As with any major innovation, the difficulty is to devise conceptual frameworks and plans for action that will enable full use of these technologies at the political level. The task is one of social innovation, or social creativity, which can only be realized collectively and raises the question of the conditions under which our democracies function. It is difficult to envision constructing norms, rules, and social practices except through participatory procedures, and this in turn requires acceptance of an active citizenship extended to all social groups and levels. Societies must be renewed through the development of participatory democracy alongside traditional elective democracy. Such a process requires political will, technical skills, material and financial resources, and a great deal of time, as change frequently takes place over long periods.

Mobilizing populations to define social uses: a program for involving citizen-users in the design of services

A project of this kind has actually been tackled in four small European towns: Parthenay in France, Arnedo in Spain, and Weinstadt and Torgau in Germany. In association with a consortium of industrialists and a consortium of social science researchers, the four municipalities designed a research and action program called Digital Towns [5]. Their aim was to ascertain the prospects for small towns offering extensive interactive multimedia services as a means both of creating wealth in their local areas and of contributing positively to the welfare of their own inhabitants. The primary goal was clearly a social one. At the same time, this avowedly political approach was also an economic one. It took as its starting point the hypothesis that the markets of tomorrow, and for these innovative technologies, cannot exist until they are designed and diffused, and that the markets will not emerge until social uses for the technologies have been devised.

Thus the first task was the development of such uses, or the social construction of the services people expected. Because this could not take place without the participation of citizens themselves, it was decided that the first priority should be to mobilize citizens' abilities to design the services they, as potential users, expected technology to make possible; this in turn would give the local authorities a basis for developing programs for the digitalization of their towns. These programs were designed as "schedules of conditions" intended as guidelines for the implementation of technological developments. This is why the Digital Towns project is described as social-pull/public-policy driven approach, in contrast to the dominant technological-push/market-driven approaches.

The initial phase of this project has already produced some interesting results. They allow us to put into perspective the projects developed in each town on the basis of the analysis of user needs [6], which revealed great differences in expectations among the various social groups. Overall, the less people knew about the technologies, the more precise were the expectations they expressed and the less marred they were by hopelessly unrealistic hopes or fears. The strongest fears were expressed by those social groups that felt most vulnerable; the great majority took the view that "seeing is believing." In all four towns, the majority of groups were favorably disposed toward NICTs, albeit on condition that certain requirements relating not only to use but also to freedom of access and cost were met and that, in general terms, the local way of life was respected. Overall, local users expressed both a willingness to open themselves up to the outside world and a desire to close in on the world with which they were already familiar. Ultimately, by making clear their reservations about the "tools of the modern world," they were not expressing, as is often suggested, their "antiquated" rejection of the modern world but rather their desire to mobilize those tools to their own benefit.

The Digital Towns project: NICTs in the service of the people

The Digital Towns project is divided into various subprojects, each of which is organized separately and has its own objectives. Two of these subprojects play a pivotal role in the project as a whole. Through the process of designing services, they set in motion a dialectic of collective learning leading to the appropriation of NICTs throughout the urban area.

The METASA project

Lasting initially for one year, in fact for the whole of 1996, METASA was the first reference project. Conceived as a startup project, it got off the ground with the assistance of funding from DG XIII. Its full title, Multimedia European Experimental Towns with a Social-Pull Approach, reflects its overall ambition. The analysis of user needs was based on this project. However, because user needs rarely exist when highly innovative services are being developed, the primary objective of the project was to discover the collective expectations in each town. This was why the research teams based their work on social constructions specific to each town. They then sought to translate those expectations into the services and technical functionalities required to satisfy the desired requirements.

The main difficulty is that whereas it is relatively easy to obtain the views of opinion formers or the technically informed (those who surf the Internet and other communications networks), it is infinitely more difficult to get those groups that are traditionally underprivileged for various reasons, such as inadequate economic, social, or cultural backgrounds, to express their views. However, these groups have the most at stake in social terms, since it is through them that the boundaries between the various levels of appropriation and control of NICTs in various everyday uses will be defined [7].

To overcome this obstacle, an inquiry method was designed around collective working groups representing the various strata of local society. These groups served as the locus of expression and of mobilization. They were assembled on the basis of socioeconomic analyses and reflected both the diversity of the local population and the five main thematic areas: public administration, education and training, health, employment and life outside work, and culture and entertainment.

These five spheres were used as analytical devices rather than as boundaries between the economic and social functionalities to be satisfied, as there might be a certain blurring of the boundaries when it came to implementing the action programs. This blurring is a response to criticism of the general ineffectiveness of public action programs and is an encouragement to explore the potential for greater innovation offered by NICTs. In this sense, it forces us from the outset to devise the whole process of questioning populations in new ways that go beyond the currently prevailing institutional and conceptual frameworks. Thus the task we are faced with is one characterized by collective creativity, although that creativity must be subject to examination on the grounds of technical and economic feasibility.

The Multimedia Initiation of the Digital Towns (MIND) project

The MIND project was more conventional. It involved the installation in each of the towns of equipment on the point of being marketed. The project studied the way in which manufacturers installed equipment and the way in which people were encouraged to appropriate it and develop uses for it in accordance with the nature of the installation and the content of the information services provided. The project received financial support from DG III. It was targeted initially at small and medium-sized firms, small-scale enterprises, and self-employed professionals as well as local traders, but it was later extended to the whole of the towns' populations. The project's objective was to hasten the emergence in all four towns of local electronic communities in which information could be exchanged and transactions completed.

To this end, the manufacturers in the consortium--Philips and Siemens-Nixdorf--installed several demonstration systems during 1996 based on the principle of a local network linking terminals such as multimedia PCs, interactive terminals and Cdi televisions combining on-line and off-line functions [8]. Another firm, Thomson-Syseca, was commissioned to study the conditions under which in-town nets might be installed to mutualize the equipment as much as possible by creating computer links.

At the same time, in order to assess the capacity for interactivity and inhabitants' communication needs, the district of Parthenay set up a bulletin board system in January 1996; this is a local network for exchanging information that uses a local server, the regular telephone network, and PCs connected by modems. By providing various forums for discussion, it functions as a local electronic community.

In general terms, it can be said that in all four towns expectations have been created that are characterized by a dynamic of irreversibility--according to the mayors themselves, it is no longer possible to draw back from the processes that have been set in motion--and by the creation of spaces of opportunity that involve processes whose progress and final outcomes are totally unpredictable [9]. From a structural point of view, a set of fairly similar expectations for services in the five main spheres of application emerged. There was high demand for local neighborhood services; for services offering education, training, and professional development; for services that would help to close the gap between inhabitants and local government, and for means of interactive communication that would foster social cohesion and community life. However, more detailed analysis reveals that these expectations represent sharply contrasting local systems that reflect the existing sociopolitical structures in the various towns.

Projects for the digitalization of towns based on sharply contrasting political visions

Over and above the expectations of citizen-users, the digitalization projects drawn up by the towns' mayors reflected clearly differentiated priorities. The town of Weinstadt, as the annex shows, chose to focus all its efforts on a few priority areas involving groups of heavy users with a high profile in the community: associations and other groups, schools, local government, and local tradesmen. Parthenay, on the other hand, was concerned not to exclude any of the thematic areas. Torgau gave priority to services aimed at schools and education, as did Arnedo, which also added public information services.

These differences reflect the contrasting strategies adopted by the various towns, which were in turn consistent with their particular political orientation. Weinstadt made a decision to exclude services related to health and vocational training because it was concerned that all the services it provided should have added value relative to those already in existence, particularly those available in the nearby city of Stuttgart. Pathenay, on the other hand, made its choices in such a way as to affect as many people and groups within the town as possible. In towns like Torgau or Arnedo, the priority accorded to schools and education is clearly explained by their economic situation and by the course their historical development has taken.

Types of services favored and choice of service providers

The proposed services can be grouped broadly into information services, which are the most prevalent; communication services, which provide a basis for nonmarket exchanges and are considered important in fostering social cohesion; and transaction services, which are essentially of a market nature and closer to traditional economic life. In addition to a general preference for information services rather than transactions and for Intranets as the medium of delivery, comparison of the choices made by the various towns and of the technical mediums used (Internet and Intranet), as shown in Table 1, reveals significant differences. There are relative biases toward communication in Parthenay and toward information in Arnedo and, particularly, Torgau. In contrast with the other towns, Weinstadt showed a certain preference for transactions combined with a marked preference for the Internet.

Relatively speaking, the most balanced range of services is provided by Weinstadt and the most imbalanced by Torgau, where local information seems fundamental (together with training), with the logic of the Internet considered secondary.

Table 1. Preferences in the various towns for different types of service

Type of service

Arnedo Parthenay Torgau Weinstadt


++ ++ +++ ++


+ +++ - ++


- - -- +


+ + -- +++

The choice of service providers to implement the projects completes this outline. If we consider the three basic categories of service providers, namely public services (primarily the municipalities themselves), associations and, finally, private companies, the choices again contrast sharply, as Table 2 shows. Indeed, over and above the central role all the local authorities accord (very interestingly) to associations, which reflects a common desire to draw on the vitality of the community, there are striking contrasts in the choices of providers between Parthenay, on the one hand, and Weinstadt, on the other. These differences cannot be explained by reference to the chosen spheres of reference; explanations must be sought elsewhere.

Table 2. Choice of service providers


Arnedo Parthenay Torgau Weinstadt

Public service

+ +++ ++ -
Association + ++ + ++
Private company + + - +++

Philosophies underlying the action programs: a factor in explaining the specifics of the various municipal projects

Ultimately, we must probably go back to the philosophies underlying the action programs in order to interpret these accentuated differences, because those philosophies do not exist independently of the regional social structures of which the elected municipal authorities are an integral part. Nor do they exist independently of the macrosocietal characteristics of the countries in which the towns are located [10]. An attempt to interpret these differences might take as its starting point two aspects that seem decisive: the influence of concepts of democracy (the political project) and the role given to the market economy (economic ideology). As Figure 1 shows, the towns can be arranged in four sharply contrasting positions.

Figure 1. Relative positions of the towns in accordance with their political philosophy

                            Participatory democracy



Public policy                                                    Market

Public service                                                   Private company



                                 NICTs for all

Positioning the towns in this way reveals two clearly defined political projects, in Parthenay and Weinstadt, which go beyond the notion of "NICTs for all" to embrace more participatory processes, albeit with plenty of scope for (possibly contradictory) intervention by the municipal authorities. Following the great French tradition, Parthenay emerges as a decentralized substitute for "national Colbertism," now transformed into "municipal Colbertism." Both affirm the primacy of politics and the role of public policy as a driving force, taking as their starting point the notion of the exemplary and efficient nature of the public sector as an engine of modernity, with private companies and the supporting infrastructure being called upon to follow in its wake. The Parthenay project represents above all an updating, based on the principles of community action and more active citizenship, of the notion of democracy as an engine of development. In contrast, Weinstadt is revealed as heir to the German tradition of the "market social democracy," which emerges within the framework of the town. The municipality is the guarantor of a political project but is not the main actor in its implementation. This is entrusted to two decentralized actors, associations and private companies, which have to fulfill their respective roles efficiently, without excess and without distorting the laws of the market.

On the other hand, there are two less clearly defined political projects, in Arnedo and Torgau, which seem to have difficulties in translating the social heterogeneity of their towns, and their corresponding weaknesses, into a vigorous project. These uncertainties, which confine the towns to the more limited objectives of "NICTs for all" and the preservation of social equilibrium under the pressure of considerable economic difficulty, seem to be due to the fact that municipal democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon in their areas. Nevertheless, despite the points in common, the Torgau project seems to be more clearly defined, probably because it was developed in a more difficult situation caused by the sudden transition from a centrally administered economy to a market economy; as we have seen, the aim of the project is to develop the human capital of young people and turn it into a source of comparative advantage to attract investors into a town that is losing manufacturing jobs. Arnedo enjoys a degree of freedom that has led to a project that constitutes a sort of balancing act between private companies, their workforces, and the market on the one hand and, on the other, the conservation of a social space and of a way of life. Here, more than anywhere else, the main issue at stake is the preservation of a social order without foregoing the opportunities offered by the modern world.


As soon as citizens' views are taken into account, NICTs and the services making use of them turn out to be deeply rooted in the structures of our societies. From the outset, the various populations, including those with little prior knowledge, proved themselves capable of articulating a number of more or less structured but extremely pertinent expectations, which acquired concrete form through collective learning processes involving the use of NICTs. Such attempts to bring people into contact with NICTs, and doing so without obligation, seem all the more essential in populations with low social capital. They turn out to be privileged moments in a process of acculturation, during which both the services and the technical and economic functionalities expected and required of NICTs are specified.

Both from the political perspective of social integration and citizenship, and that of wealth creation through the development of new services, municipalities have a strategic place in which they find themselves acquiring new roles as mediators, albeit in ways that vary according to their particular standpoints. These roles, which rob the free market and private companies of none of their dynamic, seem to be all the more essential because they come into play in the initial phase of digitalization. They provide the impetus for and act as guarantors of social projects.

Annex: priorities of the towns/services

+++ very high demand/priority
++ high demand/priority
+ positive evaluation
0 no demand
# negative attitude
- no position

1. Administration


Parthenay Weinstadt Arnedo Torgau

Consultation of administrative information: town hall information (I)

++ ++ +++ +++

Access to archives and libraries (I)

++ + +++ -

Suggestion box (communication with town hall: inquiries, suggestions, complaints and replies to complaints) (C)

+ +++ ++

Forum: exchange of information and opinions between citizens and the local authority or among several participants with or without mediator (C)

(already existing: BBS, TownNet)
+++ 0 +

Reception counter: inquiries and information (C)

+ +++ 0 +

Computerized forms (T):

  • requests made via network, delivery by post
  • requests made via network, delivery via network and printout on home computer
  • requests made via network, delivery via network, completion on home computer, and return via network




+ ++

Rental payments (T)

- 0 + -

Remote surveillance and remote control of equipment (T)

+ 0 0 -

2. Education and training


Parthenay Weinstadt Arnedo Torgau

Basic training for beginners: PC instruction, surfing the Internet, videoconferencing

+++ +++ +++ +++

Educational games and simulations (C)

++ + - -

Computer-based training (CBT) (C)

- + +++ -

Using the Internet/Net surfing (C)

(already existing)
++ - -

Interactive courses for schools (T): combined courses making use of e-mail and videoconferencing

+ - +++ +++

Interactive courses for companies (SME) (T): courses/vocational training

+++ 0 +++ -

Cooperation between schools (T): scientific projects or research, for example

+++ + - +++

School administration (T): access to information for teachers, parents

+++ +++ - -

Individual career planning (T): job openings, training plans, courses on offer, employment services

+++ + 0 -

Production of electronic newspapers (T): training in the layout and production of an electronic newspaper

+ + - +++

CBT course design and production (T): opportunities for teachers to design and produce CBT courses

+ O - -

Web service production (T): training in the design and production of Web services

++ + + +++

3. Health care


Parthenay Weinstadt Arnedo Torgau

Consultation of administrative and medical information (I)

  ++ +++ +++

Consultation of the practitioners and health professionals directory (I)

+++ ++ - +++

Consultation of professional information (I)

++ ++ +++  

Suggestion box (C)

  + -  

Forums (C)

  + 0  

Exchanges of messages between patient and practitioner (C)

++ - - +++

Telediagnosis (C)

0 0 +  

Remote surveillance and remote security (C)

- + -  

Practitioner's appointment management (T)

- + +  

Medical filing

  0 0  

Provision of health authority and insurance forms by computer (T)

  • requests made via network, delivery by post
  • requests made via network, delivery via network and printout on home computer
  • requests made via network, delivery via network, completion on home computer, and return via network




- +++

Prescription requests (T)

- 0 -  

Medication orders/meals-on-wheels (T)

- ++ -  

4. Employment and quality of life


Parthenay Weinstadt Arnedo Torgau

Image and promotion/marketing and brand image

+++ - +++ -

Current life of local industries

+++ 0 ++ -

Job offers

+++ ++ +++ -

Labor market entry/employment

++ ++ ++ ++


- + + ++


++ + - -

Banking services

- 0 ++ -

Connection with inland revenue

++ 0 + -

Local news

  • knowing the town
  • daily life







+ - + -


++ ++ + -

Weather information

0 0 0 -

5. Culture and entertainment


Parthenay Weinstadt Arnedo Torgau

Social town

+++ +++ 0 -

Promotion town

+++ +++ + -

Action town

++ +++ +++ -

Human communication

0 ++ 0 -

Entertainment town

0 0 0 -


  1. This paper presents the initial results of a research program financed by the Commission of the European Communities (DG XIII) as part of its 4th R & D Framework Programme; the author was the academic coordinator.
  2. On the relationship between NICTs and sociocultural constructions in the more or less long term, see:
  3. Particularly in the document published by the expert group set up by DG V, entitled "Constructing the European Information Society for All" (interim report, January 1996, European Commission).
  4. See the white paper "Growth, Competitiveness, and Employment" (Commission of the European Communities, 1993).
  5. The consortium of industrialists was made up of suppliers and installers of networks and equipment, including EDF (Electricité de France), France Télécom, Philips, Siemens-Nixdorf, and Thomson-Syseca, and of service providers, including Météo France and CNED. The consortium of social science researchers was made up of CNRS researchers and teams from the Universities of Toulouse-le-Mirail, Zaragoza, Stuttgart, and Chemnitz-Zwickau.
  6. The results of the user needs analysis were presented in an initial publication entitled "Telematics and Towns" (report to the Commission of the European Communities, DG XIII, by A. d'Iribarne, B. Lenz, E. Eveno, A. Lopez, December 1996, 180 pp.).
  7. On the problems of local democracy and the involvement of citizen-users see:
  8. The aim here was to put in place the foundations of a MAN (metropolitan area network), which is an independent urban telecommunications network halfway between a LAN (local area network) and a WAN (wide area network). A MAN is a sort of local Internet, whereas a Cdi television comprises a number of Philips devices linked to the same terminal, including an interactive CD machine, a Web terminal and a set-top box for interactive television.
  9. Thus what can be observed here is the two dominant characteristics of innovation processes described by economists, namely the creation of irreversibility and unpredictability. J. L. Gaffard, Économie industrielle et de l'innovation, Dalloz, Paris, 1990.
  10. It was this factor, among other things, that persuaded us to include a town like Torgau in the project; although it is now in the reunited Germany, it was until recently in East Germany.