Civic imagination: Giving value to citizen engagement
City/Region : City of Bologna , Italy

By adopting a regulation on public collaboration between citizens and the City for the care and regeneration of urban commons, Bologna Municipality started a process that opened the door to a more participatory way of government: for citizens and with citizens.  Associations, individual citizens or informal groups can enter into Collaboration Pacts with the City to improve public spaces; an Office of Civic Imagination works full time on innovative policies to engage citizens; the Comunità web portal is available to share ideas and projects, and 6 Permanent District Labs allow citizens to interact with the City and co-design projects.

Agendas addressed
Public spaceSocial inclusion and integrationLocal economies and employment
Pathways followed
  • Ensure equal access to municipal services
  • Involve citizens through participatory implementation
  • Encourage local private and civic engagement
  • Promote social innovation supporting inclusion
  • Nurture a sharing economy
  • Wisely select and apply smart technologies
June 22nd, 2017 – public meeting, Mercato Sonato / San Donato – San Vitale district laboratory. San

In Bologna, a city of about 380.000 inhabitants, civic engagement has always been very strong, so at a certain point citizens were asking the city administration to let them improve their neighbourhood, but municipal regulations made it very complicated. At the same time, there was the perception by local decision-makers that there was no trust in politics, this is why local politicians declared that it was necessary to imagine public policies and tools to make the government of a city more and more the result of a shared responsibility in the care of public spaces as well as in the sustainable and fair use of resources. The Mayor gave a specific responsibility on Civic Imagination to one of the Deputies, who created a Civic Imagination Office, working specifically on innovation through civic engagement, that is part of the Urban Innovation Foundation, created by the City and the University of Bologna.

In Action
June 21st, 2017 – public meeting, Casa del Gufo (House of the Owl) / Savena district laboratory. Arn

We used a step-by-step approach: the Regulation on urban commons was the first step in 2014. To date, it allowed the implementation of 408 collaboration pacts as a first tool to rebuild trust. After came the “Comunità” website, a tool to develop a sense of community but also a way to make the contents of the Pacts transparent and available to everybody. In 2015 the City organised the first “Civic collaboration Day”, to celebrate civic engagement and to disseminate the first results. In addition to active citizens and local associations, also many municipal executives and officers were invited to participate to spread this new approach of trusting citizens and fostering their participation in all sectors of the city administration. In 2016, the Municipality launched the Urban Innovation Plan that illustrates the main projects of the City to connect them with the potential and the networks emerging from the direct engagement of citizens and communities. Afterwards, the priorities of the Plan were brought to the District Labs for discussion.

6 District Labs were created, one for each District. 2017 was devoted to an intense participatory activity which is still ongoing. The work was organised and managed by the Active Citizenship Unit of the City of Bologna, together with the Civic Imagination Office, in collaboration with the University of Bologna. The team started with internal design work for a one-year plan, then intermediate bodies and community leaders were involved to share and co-design the work; new connections were stimulated by sharing information, listening to people, organising public meetings. Then specific actions were co-designed and priorities selected.

Throughout the process communication was done through social networks, the web and the Comunità pages, as well as through public meetings in all city districts, including design-thinking sessions with citizens. Also, the first participatory budgeting was launched in 2017, with an allocation of a share of municipal budget of 1 million euros and in which 14.584 people voted, 84 projects were proposed and 6 projects were funded (one for each City District, now in the implementation phase). Furthermore the 2018 participatory budgeting process is ongoing. The District Labs involved 2.500 people. During a presentation of the results of the Labs a lady took to the floor and said: “I am a simple citizen and I wish to thank you because you involved me. You understood that citizens want to be involved".

June 27th, 2017 – public meeting, Center Saffi / Porto-Saragozza District Laboratory. Quadrilatero,

Since the regulation was introduced in 2014:

    408 collaboration pacts have been implemented;
    15.000 sqm. of city walls were cleaned;
     In 20 schools, students regenerated annexed green areas and decorated the walls;
    40 green areas underwent regeneration and cleaning, after which we also report interesting social cohesion actions
    110 benches renovated.

Each collaboration pact or project selected by the participatory budgeting process are examples of how the collaboration and mutual trust between citizens and city administration help neighbourhoods build nicer and more inclusive places. Some examples: a pact allowed the repainting of the walls of a kindergarten, in collaboration with an Art Lyceum by creating a beautiful mural representing scenes taken from a book about nature, an initiative with the further objective to educate to live in the open air; “LEILA - the objects library” that focuses on the sharing of objects that are not of daily use - those objects that often remain abandoned in our basements. By making an object available at LEILA, a citizen is allowed to use any of the objects that are there, thus fostering sharing and full use of tools that most of us do not own. LEILA also organises events and labs and teaches repairing of tools and objects, thus promoting re-use; the regeneration of Piazza Cavour gardens in collaboration with Bologna traders’ association; the creation of a new service for cyclists with Dynamo, the bike station that promotes green mobility in town.

The results are also made clear by numbers: 2.500 people participated in Laboratories, and15.000 people voted for the participatory budgeting.


The result of our strategy was the consolidation of a government approach aimed at directing choices and resources where citizens deem them most useful or necessary. It was the strengthening of a method to co-design parts of the city and to offer more targeted services to the community. Furthermore, collaboration pacts made it possible to unlock a huge potential that was otherwise blocked by bureaucracy and made available a large number of volunteers to improve their own neighbourhood.

The number of collaboration pacts implemented makes the increase in trust clear: a pact requires mutual trust. Also the number of people who voted to decide which projects were going to be funded by the municipal budget showed a change in this relationship. Creating “antennas” at territorial level by establishing district teams and their contribution to the work of the district labs allowed us to have a clearer perception of the sentiments of people and to have an ever open communication channel with active citizens.

Lastly, the fact that many citizens spontaneously became "promoters" of the ongoing participatory initiatives showed that they trusted it was going to be real participation. Groups of citizens from the same district worked together to improve their neighbourhood, thus regenerating many areas of the city and at the same time improving social inclusion and creating a sense of community (for instance former Santa Marta convent, which was in decay for many years: a group of citizens proposed a plan to manage the gates opening, to take care of the inner garden, to organise meetings and labs for the social and cultural promotion in the area and it is now working very well).

To precisely measure impact, we use the numbers of participation: in District Labs, in participatory budgeting vote, collaboration pacts proposals, public spaces regenerated.

Challenges and lessons learned

Experience taught us that it is important to involve citizens in decisions that effect their daily lives, and about their own neighbourhoods. It also taught us that you need to discuss needs you can meet in the short time and issues which citizens can be part of the solution of. It’s extremely important to be clear and transparent with objectives, times and budget. There is no need for a large budget, you only need it to be assured. Our main challenges now are: to involve more young people and students and to keep all the engaged citizens active and part of the decision-making process.

Report (in Italian)


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