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The Balkan Startup: If You Build It, Will They Come?

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, October 21 2013

The list of the 12 local projects that have joined The Balkans Startup Project

The late Douglas Engelbart, an early pioneer of the Internet also known as the guy who invented the computer mouse, used the term "bootstrapping strategy" for his own business as a way to "use what you build to boost your own effectiveness."

Today, the Citizens Foundation of Iceland, an organization which provides open-source civic engagement platforms, is "boostrapping e-democracy" with The Balkan Startup Project.

The project will help fund 12 local project proposals in seven Balkan countries but, as the word "bootstrapping" suggests, it will act more as an incubator, giving civic activists in these countries the tools and expertise they need to see their own launch and the project's continuation at a local level.

Two weeks ago, I met with one of the project's co-founders, Robert Bjarnason, at the Internet Festival in Pisa, Italy, where he presented the Balkan Startup. The other co-founder is Gunnar Grimsson of the Citizens Foundation of Iceland.

He explained to me that the Balkan Startup will utilize the Citizens Foundation's open source technology, as well as its knowledge and experience with e-Democracy to implement the 12 projects. Each of the 12 projects have a video that explains the issue each country faces and how citizens want to solve it: from improving public services to promoting a better environmental policy, the videos show mostly very local needs that should be addressed by the appropriate public administration, and the activists hope, creating dialogue and collaboration with the local government.

A presentation of the project explains: “The projects are designed to be easily reproducible at little cost to neighboring communities. The project will therefore not only transfer knowledge to the Balkans but also between the Balkan countries."

The Icelandic Way?

Iceland is considered a model in the e-democracy field, as it has one of the first and successful local e-democracy projects and was also the first to attempt a crowdsourced constitution.

The idea of bootstrapping e-democracy “the Icelandic way” wasn't planned, though, Bjarnason revealed, but rather emerged after a meeting on transparency and civic engagement that took place in Brussels last March. In the conversations that followed the event, Bjarnason found out that there were several activists from Balkan countries that were interested in their successful experience in Iceland.

And with good reason: in 2010, Citizens Foundation used an open source software called Your Priorities to build a website called Better Reykjavik, which allows citizens to propose and vote on ideas for the city. Over 70,000 people have used the website since then, according to its mayor, Jòn Gnarr. It is quite a feat considering Reykjavik has a population of 120,000. The website now connects the citizens of Reykjavik with their representatives who consider the site's top ideas every month.

Mayor Gnarr agreed to be the “protector” of the new venture. (Check out the video below about the Balkan Startup and find out what Gnarr does when Darth Vader comes to visit Reykjavik)

The idea behind Better Reykjavik has been used for similar projects -- the software has been developed actively since 2008 with over 450,000 users worldwide, including Greece, according to the presentation at the Pisa conference -- but as of now, remains the most successful project of the Foundation.

If you build it... will they come?

When Bjarnason, a self-educated entrepreneur and technologist, launched his first software company, he was only 12 years old.

"If you build it, they will come" is a catchphrase you might often hear being used by the tech community. But the Balkan Startup completely reverses its premise, says Bjarnason. While the idea of building first may have worked for Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, this was never quite true for the start-up community and certainly is not today. Marketing and promoting a website is a lot of hard work and costs quite a bit of money.

Hence, the initiative is created as a start-up with fundraising goals in three phases: a seed stage (200,000 euros), an impact stage (600,000 euros) and a sustainability and replication stage (600,000 euros). On the website it can be read that 70 percent of funding will be divided equally between the 12 projects and 30 percent will go to the non-profit Citizens Foundation for project management, development and support.

The Citizens Foundation

At the moment, though, the website shows that only 947 euros have been raised, which looks more like a small, crowdfunding effort.

So then, why use the “start-up frame”?

Bjarnason explains that crowdfunding is just the beginning and that he doesn't to expect it to account for more than 20 percent of the total fundraising amount. The initiative will act as a start-up by directing a significant part of the fundraising effort towards NGOs, Foundations, international programs and other donors.

Exporting e-Democracy?

In the last three years, quite a bit of praise has been heaped on Iceland for their innovative use of technology, which has paved the way for experimenting abroad and, possibly, with a new paradigm for thinking about democracy.

Far from playing the “e-democracy prophet,” the founder of Citizens Foundation comments, “Our population is small and very well connected, and considering that I usually speak about what we did in Reykjavik, not even in the whole country. I don't think it is easy to replicate these projects on a national level.”

Robert Bjarnason

In Pisa, Bjarnason participated in a panel among other presenters of civic projects that aimed at fostering greater political participation and he had the opportunity to compare their various approaches. He remains convinced that people's behavior is not as predictable as one may think: “It was an interesting conversation and I am certainly fascinated by the mathematic approach of some of those civic media, but I think that those models do not take into account that people often don't think and act rationally.”

There are also scaling issues, of course, but there are many specific factors that may factor differently in each country, he argues.

The more the merrier?

Professionals working in the region consider the new project as a great addition to the field as it provides start-up support and network to emerging leaders. TechSoup Europe's Chris Worman, has a long history working in Eastern Europe and more recently, in the Balkans. He told me in an email, "Challenges will arise in building real constituency for projects that can come to support it after the initial funding is gone.”

It seems to also be the opinion of international organizations' operatives in the field. UNDP Montenegro's Marija Novkovic told me in an email interview, “We are happy to see new players join the arena – the more people talk about the power of technology to solve youth and voter apathy, low participation and obscure dealings with public money, the sooner we will all start reaping the benefits.”

Working in the Balkans has, of course, deep cultural value, Bjarnason said during our interview. “Think of this: the more active countries are Serbia, with four projects, and Kosovo, with three. It is good to see people from those countries working together sharing the same values." [People from those areas were at war in the late 90's.]

On the other hand, the flourishing of too many small, low-cost initiatives, may be also seen as a lack of coordination among activists, resulting in a dispersion of money, energy and other resources.

UNDP's Novkovic addressed my doubts during our email exchange. She wrote, “New media and technology have empowered the citizens and civil society organizations to demand more openness, transparency and two-way communication with their elected representatives. In that regard, the proliferation of similar initiatives cannot be pegged as a lack of coordination, rather as proof that we are moving in the right direction, as sketched out by the principles of the OGP." Her native Montenegro, as well as Croatia, has been involved in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2011, while Serbia is set to join in April 2014.

Regarding the fundraising efforts, Bjarnason didn't seem worried about even being able to reach their first fundraising milestone of 200,000 euros: “Even if we raise half of it, this will be enough to get all the 12 projects launched.”

Bjarnason's answer may seem unusual, but it is not strange to people working on transparency and participation in the Balkans. In a past Skype conversation, TechSoup's Chris Worman explained to me how this worked with Community Boostr, a project aimed at enabling and promoting tech for civil participation in transparency and accountability initiatives in the area.

More specifically, Community Boostr launched “The challenges”, a competition that took place from April to June 2013, in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia: people were invited to submit ideas and share comments on evolving concepts. After a public vote to determine a short list, a panel of Judges chose finalists and then a few winners.

Worman explains, "The initial investment [in Challenge winners] from TechSoup is only about 5,000 dollars, that [...] comes after a community has been formed around the project through the Challenges process. [...] When all is said and done, the money has proven the least important part of the equation after a community has been mobilized around and through the creation of a tool.'

Marija Novkovic, a Montenegro native herself, points out the importance to keep these type of initiatives concrete and grounded in reality. “Community Boostr was a well-designed process," she said. "The fact that it ran in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia simultaneously demonstrated the strength of project partners to engage civic activists and techies from the region."

There is room to improve, of course. Worman wrote to me recently, “Organizers could be more savvy about media relations and using high-profile individuals to bring media into the discussion. […] Regardless, these will not be successful until they start influencing the silent majority of voters who are not necessarily 'online' which means traditional media partnerships.” He also pointed out that several of the initiatives in the area are already making headlines in the national media.

While the Balkan challenges ended in June, the project is working on a follow-up event, the Community Boostr camp, that will take place in Sarajevo on November 7-8. More than 100 participants from five Western Balkans countries -- Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia -- will be attending the camp.

At the moment the Balkan Startup Project does not work with Community Boostr, but Bjarnason told me that a partnership might follow later, when the local projects will be funded and running.

But, in the Balkans, shifting from the streets to policy will be key, concludes Worman. “There have been several well organized web-to-the-streets movements in the past year […] This does not however mean that the politicians are listening or feel accountable," he said. "There needs to be a concerted effort to win some political battles to keep folks coming back to the streets.”

The article has been edited to clarify a quote on the war on Serbia and Kosovo. The quote was erroneously attributed to Robert Bjarnason.
The article previously stated that TechSoup's initial investment in Community Boostr was 5,000 dollars. That figure actually refers to the Challenge winners.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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