Rebel Geeks: Hacking Madrid
Can a technological revolution overcome Spain’s deeply entrenched political elite?
Pablo Soto, former software developer, activist and recently elected councilor for Participation and Transparency in Madrid’s radical new administration, is trying to build the technology for a direct democracy, allowing citizens to propose and elect their own laws.
Together with colleague and fellow democracy activist Miguel Arana, Soto is working on a website that will allow the people of Spain’s capital city to suggest, select and vote on new policies directly.
We didn't come here to play the game of the parties - we came here to play the game of the people.
Decide Madrid enables citizens to express their views on whatever issues they feel the government should be addressing and to make new policy proposals. If any idea gets enough public support, through registered by votes on the website, the government will hold a referendum for the whole of the city to decide.
“Everything that’s happening now can be understood as part of a huge change that started in Spain four years ago,” Soto explains, referring to the 15M or indignados movement that began in 2011. “We didn’t come here to play the game of the parties. We came here to play the game of the people.”
While the website seems the perfect response to calls for more democracy in Spain, it is not without its detractors.
Opposition parties are trying to scare people off the idea by warning them of the dangers of empowering technology to dictate government policy.
The developers also have to convince a sceptical older segment of the population who don’t trust or understand the technology. Are the people of Madrid ready for people power? And can its creators get enough participation to keep the project alive – and protect it from political opposition and media oblivion?
On my very first day in Madrid, I found myself at kilometro cero, a plaque in the Puerta del Sol square which marks the symbolic “centre” of Spain, and a point from which all the city’s streets – and their house numbers – radiate (a fact which all good Madrilenos use to navigate). As I stood on the plaque, trying to take a creative photograph of my feet to send home, I recalled that it was not the first time I had seen this square.
Shortly after the beginning of the Arab uprisings, I followed the news as Spain’s “15M” protest movement exploded on to the streets (named, in Spanish, after May 15, 2011, when the demonstrations began – though more often referred to in the international media as the “indignados”) – and Sol, as the square is also known, was at the centre of it all. Now, through the multicoloured haze of tourists, I could still recognise the angles and statues of the Puerta del Sol I’d seen on TV, filmed from above: a sea of people and tents, banners and chants, of hands waving in the air.
Four years after the 15M began, Madrid is one of many Spanish cities in the throes of radical political change that began that day. At the local elections in May 2015, grassroots movement Ahora Madrid formed a coalition with the traditional socialist party, PSOE. Ahora Madrid’s candidate, Manuela Carmena, was appointed mayor, signifying an end to the 20-year reign of the right-wing Partido Popular over the city.
It also heralded a new era for the thousands of Spaniards demanding “Real Democracy Now” (the original motto of the May 2011 protest): “We can never go back to the pre-15M ways of doing politics,” says Pablo Soto, an Ahora Madrid councillor and one of the main subjects of our film, who believes the 15M fundamentally changed politics in Spain for ever. Now Pablo and his colleagues in the department of Participation and Transparency are trying to implement a more participative democracy, in a country that just 40 years ago was a military dictatorship. The idea is to delegate decision-making powers from elected representatives – ie, politicians – to citizens, using new, open-source technologies.
Pablo’s team includes Miguel Arana, whom he met in Sol during that first night on May 15, 2011. They have been “getting into trouble together ever since”. By their own admission, both are obsessed with the idea of implementing a digital democracy revolution in Spain – neither has slept much since Ahora Madrid were elected. Their insistence on collective processes and the importance of participative decision-making has been greatly informed by their experiences in Sol, where the public assemblies – which gave anyone a chance to speak and where decisions were made only by consensus – were laborious and never-ending, sometimes literally. “But it was absolutely necessary,” recalls Pablo. “It was a process we needed to go through, to meet up and discuss politics together. Because that’s what politics is.”
In the city council office Pablo now shares with Miguel and their colleagues, two photographs have been blown up and stuck to the wall with Sellotape. Both show the occupied Sol square, one during the day, the other at night.
The trajectory they have shared together – from the squares, through the streets and into the public institutions – is at once a literal and metaphorical one. For many, including Pablo and Miguel, the Puerta del Sol square is a historical and political reference point, the origin not only of Madrid’s house numbers, but also of the particular political moment in which the country finds itself.