ACTIVATE! SERIES - Fostering Civic Participation through Online Platforms
Date : 19 Sep 2018
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : AS8 Level 4, Seminar Room 04-04
10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC

Jointly organized by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster of Asia Research Institute, and Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore.


Dr Sonia Lam-Knott, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore


This session looks at the role of online media and digital technologies in disseminating information about and facilitating civic engagement amongst populations in Asia, in fostering discussion about socio-political problems in the public sphere, or in enabling citizens to influence policies and other matters of governance. The three speakers of this session will each explore these themes, based on their own involvement, experiences, or research with digital media. Kirsten Han explores the role of citizen journalism featured on independent media (or Indy media) outlets in informing netizens about current affairs and instigating discussions; Weiyu Zhang reviews how an online deliberation platform she developed has become a public discussion space; Johannes Mueller explores how his work on Citizens Design Science has enabled everyday citizens to partake in the urban planning process, so that the views of the public can go beyond the online domain and have a real impact on urban design decisions. Details on each speaker’s presentations will be as follows:

Kirsten Han
In a country ranked 151st in Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index, independent media outlets are crucial to socio-political engagement and discussion. Independent news websites have covered stories, such as homelessness or the death penalty, that were previously un- or under-reported in the mainstream media and provided perspectives that would otherwise have been missing in wider public discourse.

Yet it is difficult to quantify the impact that independent media outlets have had on either socio-political engagement or Singaporean politics in general. Independent media outlets have also struggled to survive—many have started up only to shut down, citing a lack of funds and a sustainable business model. This point towards the precarious nature of independent media in Singapore, and the limits and challenges that such outlets grapple with.

What has become clear over the years is that the existence of independent media outlets, while important, don’t necessarily translate to socio-political change or reform. While they have been key to raising public awareness on some issues, it is still a long journey between awareness and engagement.

Kirsten will talk about the experience of working and running independent media outlets in Singapore, and what such endeavours tell us about the Singaporean socio-political landscape. She will also draw on her current experience with New Naratif, explaining why she and her associates chose a totally different business model and style of operation, and how they are seeking to expand engagement by being more than just a media outlet.

Johannes Mueller
Participation of citizens in the urban planning process has a long tradition in democratic societies. Web 2.0 has been pushed forward citizen engagement in public decision making in the recent decades. Nonetheless, participation has to face a lot of criticism both by decision makers and by professionals. The drawbacks of participatory design can be for citizens that do not feel motivated in taking part in town hall discussions and designers who doubt that they will get new insights by citizens.

Citizens Design Science is developed by researchers at ETH-Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore as strategy to tackle these challenges. The idea goes beyond e-voting and internet forums: Non-experts should be able to design their future visions of a city online.

The scope of the research ranges from engaging citizens through online design tools to extracting information for urban designers and researchers. This transdisciplinary work involves developing design tools and experiments, establishing collaborations with parties interested in participatory design, and assessing actionable insights for urban design through data analysis.

Dr Mueller will present a short wrap up of the theoretical approach before revealing insights from the case study Ideas for Tanjong Pagar. Taking the study as prototype for a Citizen Design Science project, he will deduce do’s and don’ts for online participation and tell various forms of application for the online design tool.

Weiyu Zhang
Much of the political discourse in the world is now conducted online and there is increasing awareness about the need for designing productive online spaces for citizen deliberation. While many prior designs have been made to either facilitate existing political discussions or create new technologies for deliberation, we argue that our understanding of online deliberation design needs to be deepened through clearly defining both the technologies and the social processes. We present Online Deliberation Singapore (OD_SG for short), a comprehensive design at the level of both processes and technologies. Using survey and online activities data from 510 participants who have gone through a three-month experiment, we present the results of our design in terms of the demographic representativeness of citizen users, their activeness of participation, their subjective evaluations of both specific platform features and overall experience, and the effects on their attitude changes.

For Further Reading

- Chang, L., Jacobson, T., & Zhang, W. (2013). A Communicative Action Approach to Evaluating Citizen Support for a Government’s Smoking Policies. Journal of Communication, 63(6), 1153-1174.
- Kenyon, A.T. (2010). Investigating Chilling Effects: News Media and Public Speech in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. International Journal of Communication 4, 440-467.
- Mueller, J., H. Lu, A. Chirkin, B. Klein and G. Schmitt. (2018). Citizen Design Science: A strategy for crowd-creative urban design. Cities, 72, 181-188.
- Weiss, M. (2014). New Media, New Activism: Trends and Trajectories in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. International Development Planning Review, 36 (1), 91-109.
- Zhang, W. (2015). Perceived Procedural Fairness in Deliberation: Predictors and Effects. Communication Research, 42(3), 345-364.
- Zhang, W. & Chang, L. (2014). Perceived Speech Conditions and Disagreement of Everyday Talk: A Proceduralist Perspective of Citizen Deliberation. Communication Theory, 24(2), 124-145.
- Zhang, W. (2010). Technical Capital and Participatory Inequality in eDeliberation: An Actor-Network Analysis. Information, Communication & Society, 13(7), 1019-1039.


Kirsten Han ( is a Singaporean freelance journalist and Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, a platform for Southeast Asia journalism, research, art and community-building. She has been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Asia Times and Waging Nonviolence, among others. Her work often revolves around the themes of politics, democracy, social justice and human rights. A chevening scholar in 2012/13, Kirsten has a Masters in Journalism, Media and Communications from Cardiff University, where her dissertation focused on nationalism in Singapore’s mainstream and alternative media. She also has firsthand experience within Singapore’s independent online media scene, starting out as a volunteer for The Online Citizen in 2010 before a brief stint as a deputy editor.

Johannes Mueller is a postdoctoral researcher at Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) in the Big Data-Informed Urban Design and Governance project. He is one main responsible researcher for the newly developed area of Citizen Design Science. He graduated in mathematics and applied statistics at Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität München and received his doctorate in traffic engineering at the Bundeswehr Universität München. During his time as doctoral student he focused on shared mobility services and evaluated data from carsharing operators. Learning about the way engineers plan infrastructure for traffic, he developed interest in alternative forms of city planning and supports interdisciplinary strategies of solution finding. At ETH-Future Cities Laboratory, he has built up the theoretical framework of Citizen Design Science and is in charge of the data evaluation of design proposals.

Weiyu Zhang is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communications and New Media. She holds a PhD in Communication from Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on civic engagement and ICTs, with an emphasis on Asia. She is the author of the book “The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making”. Her published articles have appeared in Journal of Communication, Communication Theory, Communication Research, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Information, Communication, & Society, International Communication Gazette, Computers & Education, Computers in Human Behavior, and many others. Her current project is to develop and examine an online platform for citizen deliberation.


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In recent years, the multifaceted forms of civic practices—ranging from participatory urbanism, to artistic interventions, and to street protests launched by activists—have become more prominent in Asian cities, attracting scholarly attention across different disciplines. The transformations in civil society have raised the following questions: What are the emerging challenges and contingencies the varied interest groups are facing? What kind of conflicts can arise during and after instances of civil activism, and how can these tensions be ameliorated? How can social engagement, practice and research be bridged together by, and for, different individuals and agencies? When does social engagement become perceived as civil activism?

This seminar series, jointly organized by Asian Urbanisms cluster (ARI) and the Department of Architecture, critically presents and examines the novel forms of civic practices that have manifested in the Asian urban context through a transdisciplinary framework. Bringing together academics, practitioners, students, and the general public interested in urban spatial strategies in relation to negotiate the formation and role of civil societies, the seminars seek to initiate discourse on the following themes: First, to explore how the varied stakeholders involved in civil society groups, including academics and educators, activists, artists, NGOs, NPOs, informal interest groups and community associations, political parties, and governmental organizations currently de/reconstruct the contextual and physical understanding of shared urban space in Asia. It is of interest to review the main goals of the novel civic practices, and the extent in which these aspirations are realised. Secondly, these seminars seek to articulate how stakeholders engage in the process of collaborative knowledge production through these practices. More importantly, the aim of the series is to conceptualise civic practices as a product of the distinctive trajectories of socio-economic development, spatial/cultural policies, and the structures of political governance in the Asian region. To reiterate, these seminars provide an overview on the distinctive challenges and opportunities that contemporary Asian cities pose for civil societies, and the kind of local and global characteristics that are emerging in these locales.


Asia Research Institute | Minna ValjakkaSonia Lam
Department of Architecture | Cho Im Sik & Lee Kah Wee

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Minghua TAY