Participatory democracy, bottom-up initiatives, and social innovation
Anthony M. Quattrone
The election of Luigi de Magistris on 31 May 2011 has coincided with a renewed sense of citizenship on the part of many Neapolitans who have become disheartened towards the political process. During the latest rounds of local and national elections, Neapolitans have demonstrated their unhappiness by simply not going to vote or by voiding their ballot in the privacy of the poll booth. The “non-vote party” has hovered in the 35 to 40 percent range reaching a enduring level of disaffection towards all political sides. A famous Neapolitan actor, Beppe Barra, during a concert in support of the electoral campaign of Luigi de Magistris’ for the post of Mayor bluntly warned the candidate on 13 May 2011: “Luigi, please don’t disappoint me!” Many citizens in Naples feel that the election of Luigi de Magistris is a last-ditch bid to save whatever is left of the glorious capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, conquered by the North 150 years ago and annexed to the newly formed Italian state. Some historical revisionist analysts feel that Neapolitans first became disillusioned by Italian politics exactly 150 years ago, when the Capital was downgraded to a mere province in the new Italian state, and the northern Italian conquerors made ill thought political agreements with members of organized crime, the Camorra, making them become the first police commissioners. Neapolitan disenchantment with politics and total distrust of politicians started with the unification of Italy and has basically persisted to this day.
However, with the election of Luigi de Magistris, Naples appears to have become a sort of laboratory for participatory democracy, bottom-up initiatives, and social innovation. On the participatory democracy front, the new mayor has kept his promise, so far, to consult with stakeholders prior to implementing policies, with the intention of making citizens part of the decision making process. De Magistris and members of his City Government have taken their policies to the street holding open air assemblies in several neighborhoods, where citizens were given the opportunity to put forward challenging questions and where the mayor and his team have been required to provide candid and straightforward answers. The Mayor has also made time at City Hall to receive social action groups and private citizens interested in providing him with their view on all aspects of governing the City. De Magistris has stated that 90 percent of the meetings are about issues of general interest while only 10 percent pertain to “personal” matters. He commented also that most of the meetings produce a wealth of raw information not readily available to City Government officials and, in many cases, citizens also provide reasonable solutions. The deputy mayor, Tommaso Sodano, for example, held a fiery meeting with several hundred residents of the western neighborhood of Bagnoli, on 29 July 2011, to discuss several practical topics related to living conditions, such as getting more police on the streets, cleaning municipal gardens, picking up the garbage, improving the flow of traffic, and reducing noise at night caused by open air discotheques and hoards of kids roaming the streets. Although the meeting, organized by the Assise Cittadina per Bagnoli (City Assembly for Bagnoli), was publicized only via leaflets and word of mouth, the participation was high.
Bottom-up initiatives keep flourishing in all neighborhoods. Three groups that Naples Politics mentioned in a 12 June 2011 article in Naples Politics are still on the move and have not let up their work, receiving praise by citizens and attention in the media. Two groups are directly involved in taking action to clean up neighborhoods and to take care of gardens, trees and plants. CLEANAP (whose name comes from combining the English verb “to clean” with “Naples”, to form CLEANAP, which is pronounced like the English “clean up”) continues to tackle different squares and streets cleaning up monuments, scrubbing streets and walls, removing graffiti and garbage, while Friarielli Ribelli (“friarielli” refers to a local type of broccoli and “ribelli” means “rebels”) are involved in “guerilla gardening“, cutting weeds, taking care of the gardens, and planting flowers and plants. Both groups have continued to make headlines by relentlessly going from one neighborhood to another attacking urban blight and degradation. The third group, V.A.N.T.O, whose acronym stands for “pride”, is relentlessly documenting and denouncing damage and deterioration of monuments, churches, gardens and buildings in Naples, while indicating low cost methods for preventing future damage. The leader of V.A.N.T.O, Angelo Forgione together with singer Eddy Napoli were received on 20 July 2011 by Mayor De Magistris who was particularly surprised by the documentation presented by the group and who promised to take get involved.
Naples is getting attention also from international promoters of social innovation. The UniCredit Foundation, in collaboration with the European Network of Civil Society Leaders Euclid Network and Project Ahead has launched an international competition expiring on 10 August 2011 entitled “Social Innovation for Naples” in which social innovators from across the world are invited to offer innovative solutions to six problems encountered in the city of Naples. According to a press release issued by the organizers, “Naples is the epitome of state and market failures, its recent history has been marred by a barrage of corruption and a culture that still does not believe in change. These on-going challenges provide the perfect test field for social innovation to move beyond being a ‘nice label’ and to having tangible impacts on the ground and demonstrating that the time for a new approach has arrived.” According to the press release, the organizers “aim to succeed where all else has failed” and that they “are running a competition to attract the brightest and most creative minds from around the world which can solve selected challenges in Naples.” The six problems or challenges identified by the organizers are: 1) Turning a confiscated villa into a financially sustainable Social Business. 2) Making an abandoned Roman bath accessible and sustainable. 3) Creating a sustainable business plan for a volunteering organization. 4) Creating a sustainable business model for a nonprofit organization that works with school dropouts. 5) Creating an innovative new method for inclusion of the young Roma population. 6) Creating an innovative new method for recycling textiles sustainably.
An international panel of judges, will select a winner for each of these fields of intervention who will receive a grant of €10,000 from UniCredit Foundation, and who, together with a previously identified local nonprofit organization, will turn the idea into a concrete program, drawing up an executive project and a business plan. The second phase of the initiative will consist of the assessment and possible implementation of the most effective projects. More information for participating in the competition can be found at Naples 2.0 – International Social Innovation Competition.
The city of Naples is going through very interesting times with many citizens involved in participatory democracy, bottom-up initiatives, and social innovation. Neapolitan analysts, historians, politicians, and intellectuals are split between pessimists and optimists, with the former ready to bet that nothing will ever change in Naples, and the latter placing all their bets on the power of participatory democracy, bottom up initiatives, and social innovation. The Mayor and his team are with the optimists.