Yolanda Martín. Citizen Participation Manager.

Citizen participation affects the way we exist and coexist, and it’s a way of establishing how we relate to each other and take part in life in our immediate environment. Coexistence is seen as a concept in which interaction is necessarily an essential part: interaction between public bodies, citizens, social fabric, markets, etc. which involves taking part at different levels. Because of the link between these two concepts, it’s essential to work on both them together – not as two different elements, but as a whole, where it’s impossible to affect one without affecting the other.

A series of global changes have taken place in recent years, which can especially be noticed locally. They mark a change of era in general and a change in public policy management models in particular.

A society that is increasingly diverse, diversified and individualistic presents more complex social needs and at the same time requires more specific answers. In view of these social changes, community action and participation become essential tools to generate social cohesion, which is the driving force of coexistence.

Because of the financial crisis we are faced with new social emergency challenges that force us to have to respond to new needs, but at the same time we have fewer resources and less capacity to respond. Furthermore, the competition for resources, which already existed before the crisis, has increased threefold, meaning that different groups are more likely to have conflicting opinions and positions.

The emergence of new technology is another aspect that has prompted this change of era. It brings not only new work, management and organisational tools, but also completely new rules. Technology affects the way we relate to each other, but if we make good use of it, technology can encourage collective action, improve communication and increase our ability to connect.

The sociopolitical movements of recent years have shown that citizens are sceptical and tired of public institutions and of politicians in general. At the same time citizens are increasingly interested in politics and demand more and more transparency and involvement in public affairs. More citizens are starting to gather in groups that used to be small and often attended by the same people all the time, and this enables a positive interaction, exchange, empathy and strengthening of links between people and their environment. This citizen empowerment offers a basis to manage conflicts that arise when coexisting and also the tools to ensure that their voice is heard in citizen participation platforms and that representation is not just expressed in terms of numbers.

If social cohesion and coexistence in the midst of diversity encourage possible participation, participation offers a chance to build spaces for coexistence, city models and links that create an identity. This won’t be possible without offering equal opportunities, though, and not only in terms of access to resources: we should offer social participation opportunities that enable social mobility and make diversity visible.

In short, social cohesion involves coexistence and participation. A detached society and that merely shares a physical space will find it hard to face the challenges of life as a community. We can’t deny that our individualistic society and the increasingly complex ways of life and types of diversity bring new challenges when working to build our cities. Public bodies and citizens need to come together to lead the creation of meeting points where diversity and equality are acknowledged and a positive interaction is encouraged. This interaction will promote cohesion more effectively if it includes common goals and challenges, things to achieve together. Direct democracy is an improvement on representative democracy which we know so well and which has become apparently weak and insufficient when facing the challenge of building together and our active responsibility as citizens. It’s therefore necessary to make sure that citizens are able to exercise their rights and duties equally, by offering opportunities and tools to participate and coexist in equality.