The second of this series of three posts focuses on how to more clearly see contemporary publics. Many of those now involved in the field of public participation and engagement now agree on the need to reinvigorate the contemporary public realm. There is nevertheless rather less agreement about how to understand contemporary publics and what is happening to the public realm at this time – especially perhaps amongst those working across this contemporary field of engagement and participation.
The Creating Publics and Participation Now projects have undertaken research in this area. This research was prompted by an engagement with the rich, varied and highly developed body of pre-existing theoretical literature on the topic of the public. The Participation Now website, also set up as part of this work, provided another vehicle for this research.
Emerging from these activities is a novel approach to contemporary publics*. Designed specifically for those involved in the contemporary field of engagement and participation, this approach relates three pre-existing ways of seeing the public. By doing so, this approach offers a 3-Dimensional way of viewing emerging configurations of contemporary publics.
The most familiar way of seeing the public is still as a real and pre-existing entity that is already ‘out there’ waiting to be represented and engaged. There are now a great number of engagement and participation initiatives that hold out the promise of fairer processes of public engagement and representation.
Global Voices, Democratising Agricultural Research, Productive Margins and Planning for Real are all examples of contemporary participation initiatives that claim they will more fairly involve and represent hitherto marginalized people, perspectives or histories.
Climate Camp is another example of an initiative that invited people to represent themselves, this time by creating or transforming a pre-existing public space. There are also countless petitioning, voting or crowdsourcing experiments such as Galaxy Zoo or Constitution UK that attempt, in different ways, to more clearly represent the public’s ideas or opinions.
Looking at how ‘real’ publics are represented in different contemporary settings of engagement and participation can helpfully bring into view one dimension of what it means to be a public today. Identifying differences between the ‘representative claims’ (see the work of Michael Saward) being articulated by different contemporary groups connects these developments to important debates about the benefits and limitations of different possible forms of public representation, inclusion and involvement.
This way of viewing publics can also support the analysis of how particular publics are being ‘targeted’ across contemporary settings. Such targeting can, for example, be undertaken through the use of public segmentation techniques; or by convening ‘mini-publics’; or through the deployment of other innovative emerging ways of assembling putatively ‘representative’ sub-sets of local, national or transnational populations.
A second way of seeing focuses on the roles that publics are offered, in this case in settings of engagement and participation. Reflecting on the multiplicity of initiatives brought together in the Participation Now collection, it is clear that many differences now exist between the kinds of roles that contemporary publics are being offered across diverse settings.
Connected Citizens and Newcastle City Council’s UDecide participatory budgeting programme are, for example, initiatives that offer people the role of ‘engaged citizens’. The engaged-citizen is a figure that is assumed to be pre-disposed to the ideals of liberal democracy and supporting established institutions.
In contrast, other initiatives, such as UK Uncut, offer the public the role of the ‘activist’. These initiatives are set up to appeal to people who oppose or identify as being marginalized from aspects of the status quo and who wish to challenge one or more prevailing public discourse or dominant social group in some way.
Then there are also those that also offer people a ‘creative’ role, including Complaints Choir, which invites people to participate in alternative forms of public action. Such as the creative process of writing and performing a song based on participants’ complaints; or, in the case of PARK(ing) Day, an annual worldwide event that brings together artists and citizens with the aim of transforming metered parking spots into temporary public parks.
By offering people these and other such roles, initiatives operate on the basis of different sets of assumptions about the capacities, identifications and desires of contemporary publics.
These different roles that publics are being offered also relate to the different types of relationships, forms of conduct and infrastructures that people are being invited to test out and develop across this field.
The issue of what role the public could or should have in society, now or in the future, has long been the topic of intense debate in the literature on the public. With thinkers as diverse as Arendt, Dewey, Habermas and Fraser offering distinctive perspectives on this issue in the 20th Century and these debates being added to more recently by thinkers such as Mouffe and Santos.
There is a third way of seeing what is happening to contemporary publics that can also be useful. This encourages us to look at how publics are being invited to ‘self-organise’ in contemporary settings.
When we look across the contemporary field of engagement and participation it is clear that publics are being supported to self-organise in a wide range of different ways. Initiatives such as Puzzled by Policy, for example, illustrate how highly structured procedures are put in place in certain settings, designed to channel (and thereby potentially limit) possibilities for forms of public self-organisation.
Pre-existing literature on public self-organisation is useful as it calls on us to look at the mediated, indeterminate and potentially innovative qualities of contemporary publics. For those interested in how publics might play a more critical and creative role in settings of engagement and participation, it will be useful to attend to distinctions between the growing number of ways that participative infrastructures now support dynamics of call-and-response; as well as to the range of often unforeseen outcomes that emerge from these public interactions.
Seeing contemporary publics in 3-D
In shifting times, there is a need to see contemporary publics from each of these three perspectives.
Looking at how initiatives work to target and enroll pre-existing groups can help us to see the evolving set of ways that publics are being represented in contemporary settings of engagement and participation.
Looking at the roles publics are being invited to enact will help us to more clearly see the range of relationships now being tested-out.
If we are interested how new and more people-driven ideas, social innovations or ways of being public might potentially be generated in contemporary settings, it is also useful to look at how engagement and participation initiatives support forms of self-organisation and the outcomes that emerge from these processes.
Each of these three distinct ways of seeing the public can therefore be differently useful.
Used together these three perspectives can provide us with a clearer view of contemporary publics – particularly when it comes to identifying divergences and possible intersections between the versions of the public being supported by the increasing multiplicity of different kinds of engagement and participation initiatives.
Those interested in being creatively involved in the development of the field of engagement and participation and those involved in the reinvigoration of the public realm can therefore potentially all benefit from seeing contemporary publics in three-dimensions.
* This post draws on the outcomes of research and development work undertaken under the auspices of the Creating Publics and Participation Now projects. A version of the three-dimensional approach to contemporary publics set out here was first outlined in (2013) article called ‘The work of public engagement‘, by Nick Mahony, that’s available here. A more detailed version of this approach is elaborated in two further journal articles that are forthcoming, each of which is co-authored by Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen.