In October 2014 Engage2020 will run a second workshop on the future engagement in science and technology. Time spent thinking about the future is a rare commodity and I appreciated the opportunity to consider what engagement could look like in the future. Science engagement is shifting from a focus predominatly on education and communication towards more two way participation. Niels Bohr is supposed to have said that “prediction is hard especially when it comes to the future”. In my view our task in Engage2020 is less about prediction, and more about keeping an open mind to what is possible and preferable.
The last decade of science engagement has seen dramatic changes. The debate about upstream engagement has shifted the goalposts for many policy makers and participative processes, such as World Wide Views, have challenged our perceptions of what it is possible to achieve using participative methods. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that practice across Europe varies hugely; some countries like Denmark and the UK have a well-developed participative field with established organisations and support structures. Other parts of Europe have seen less in the way of practice but there are signs of growing activity. This is why Engage 2020 and our look at the future of engagement is so timely.
In our upcoming workshop we will be looking at three key areas where we think that more work is needed –deliberation, innovation and participative research.
Deliberative methods have a long history, but despite almost thirty years of use in some cases they have not yet become mainstream in decision making (outside of a few select cases). Developments around deliberative methods have been rapid: in late nineties the accepted wisdom was that it was only possible to have meaningful deliberation with around 100 people in the room at a time. However, through the work of America Speaks and others in using digital technology in meetings it has become possible to hold meetings with thousands of participants.
Existing deliberative methods have many strengths, but they are also seen as being excessively time consuming and expensive in an increasingly fast paced and cash poor policy making process. Deliberative processes are largely limited to very high profile and complex issues.
The challenge we face as R&I engagement practitioners is whether we can develop approaches to deliberative participation which are quicker and cheaper, whilst retaining the quality of discussion. Two possible routes to achieving this are often mentioned: distributed deliberation and online approaches.
There have been a number of attempts to create a deliberative process which taps into the wider conversations and networks of wider society. Examples like the UK Bioenergy Dialogue and the US Dialogue on Mental Health have both created discussion toolkits so that anyone can host a conversation on the topic.
The rise of digital technologies have yet to make a large impact on deliberative processes; but it holds the promise of faster and cheaper deliberation. However whilst many accessibility problems with digital approaches have been resolved, many practitioners doubt that the quality of interaction online will ever be similar to face to face processes.
The last decade has seen the growth of novel spaces for users to get actively involved in innovation and the creation of new products. Concepts such as Maker spaces, hackathons and related phenomena have challenged notions of traditional research and innovation. These new developments are very creative and have been successful in encouraging new thinking. Often existing, more formal structures of research and innovation do not know how to relate to these more open approaches. We want to explore how to bring open processes into existing R&I structures and make them more systematic, without removing the creative and open qualities which makes them unique.
Citizen science is an area of research which has received a lot of attention and interest in the last few years. Examples like Galaxy Zoo have shown that it can be possible to bring in tens of thousands of citizens to help with scientific research. However most citizen science projects only bring in citizens as data gatherers or data categorisers. We want to explore the scope to allow citizens to shape the research or co-create results within citizen science. Also we are interested in the linkages between Citizen Science and other areas of Participative research, such as Science Shops and Action Research.
Finally we want to explore what policy makers, at the EU and national levels, can and should do about all of this. Over the coming years the EU will spend nearly €80 billion on the Horizon 2020 research process. Increasingly research is carried out at a cross national level and thus the process of bringing citizen voices into decision making also takes on a cross boundary aspect. Clearly the European and national research budgets are a vital part of the picture when it comes to supporting and encouraging innovations in science engagement.
Following the event in October we will run two webinars in November and produce a report.
I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are of the future of engagement in science and technology? What have we got wrong, what have we got right, what have we missed? What are your hopes and fears for the next ten years of participative democracy in Europe?