Whinging about EU bureaucrats has become something of a pastime for UK politicians – in the same vein as tax evasion and jeering like schoolboys. But a walk around Brussels actually does reveal city-wide inefficiency that’s difficult to ignore. From crumbling traffic tunnels to a Palace of Justice that’s been undergoing repairs for 30 years, the Belgian capital and the urban heart of European affairs just isn’t very good at getting things done.
In fact, last year, the former head of the city’s infrastructure agency told local lawmakers that the blueprints for one tunnel improvement project had been eaten by rodents. That’s a dodgy excuse for a missing homework assignment at best, and it’s not a claim that flies particularly well with the taxpayers funding city development.
It was recognition of the local government’s failure to drive progress – or prevent stagnation – where it matters most that inspired the creation of Brussels Together last September.
Launched by Xavier Damman, co-founder of digital storytelling tool Storify, this collective of activist groups uses technology to help people organise and work together to accelerate change in the city. “If you are a citizen with a problem, our goal is to make sure there is no barrier in front of you to stop you from solving it,” he explains.
Damman realised that change wasn’t happening at the hands of politicians in Brussels. At the same time, there were already a number of citizen-led improvement initiatives operating in the city – but they were all working independently rather than sharing knowledge and collaborating.
Refugees Got Talent is working to provide space and materials to local refugee artists so that they can practice their art again, while Womer is forging stronger relationships between the city’s consumers and independent local businesses by organising events to bring the two groups together. These organisations, along with others concerned about making Brussels more sustainable, collaborative and forward-looking, now operate as part of Brussels Together — pooling resources, knowledge and volunteers to prompt positive change on the local level.
Through monthly public meetings, Brussels Together quickly identified three stumbling blocks for citizen initiatives: volunteers, visibility and funding. As it is, most citizen-led improvement projects operate in a vacuum — forced to find their own resources and forge brand new networks from day one. Dealing with admin, self promotion and coordinating volunteers is enough to suck the joy out of any activist’s mission.
Luckily, Damman already had a solution up his sleeve in the form of Open Collective, which he co-founded in the US last year alongside former Dropbox employee Aseem Sood and Argentine political scientist Pia Mancini. The transparency-oriented platform helps organisations collect donations and mobilise volunteers by bringing activities like bookkeeping, fundraising and meetings online and out into the open.
Anyone can see the inner-workings of a collective at any time – in stark contrast to local, national and transnational authorities in most European cities. Damman believes this kind of model offers a positive future for activist groups and nonprofit entities alike.
“The old way of organising people, from the top down, doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “It was based on centralisation and the idea that the people at the top know better, which used to be true, because before the internet older people did have more knowledge.”
The biggest pro of Brussels Together so far has been its capacity to take knowledge transfer to the next level, letting groups learn from the experience of other collectives. This shared learning works particularly well in localised areas, where neighbourhood-level insights can be crucial to achieving outcomes big or small.
“People can say, ‘Oh, you actually overpaid for this, so let me put a comment there so that the next initiative will be able to pay less,’” Damman says. “This can only happen through transparency. If there’s no transparency, there’s no collaboration or trust.”
Today, Brussels Together includes more than a dozen separate initiatives, each with its own purpose and aims. But underneath those individual goals lies a common purpose: to take change out of the hands of the inefficient political system and give it to the people.
As Damman puts it: “We don’t want to play the politicians’ game. We’re not trying to work within those systems. Instead, we’re creating our own infrastructure – and getting things done.”
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Jennifer Johnson is a freelance journalist focused on energy policy and climate justice.