How Citizen Engagement can help us Address Complex Issues like Climate Change

  • Portait of Hans Bruyninckx

    Hans Bruyninckx

    Executive Director for European Environment Agency

Hans Bruyninckx is the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, since 1 June, 2013.

Over the last 20 years, he has conducted research in more than a dozen countries, in areas including environmental politics, climate change, and sustainable development. He has taught on global environmental politics and global environmental governance in relation to the European Union (EU), publishing extensively on EU environmental policies and its role as an actor in global environmental governance. Throughout his career Dr Bruyninckx has worked with governmental agencies, civil society and businesses, often in an advisory role.

Why is it important to engage citizens on scientific issues?

For me the question of why citizen engagement in science is important is quite straightforward: we are working on science and innovation not for ourselves but for society. We need societal change on a number of issues, like the environment, climate change and the technologies related to that. If you are working for societal change you should want to involve society. That is the core element of why we should engage more, in more structured ways and using more creative approaches. I think this holds true not only when it comes to large public research and innovation projects but also the private and academic sectors.

I think scientists and research funders are missing an enormous potential if they don’t engage society at large. The creative capacity of organised and unorganised citizens is enormous and you don’t want to overlook this when you face major societal challenges. The creativity and inspiration needed to turn around the major challenges in the 21st century will not only be found in universities, companies and research and innovation departments. The largest challenges from the European Environment Agency’s perspective are those of climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem resilience. All of these complex challenges will require tapping into societal potential.

Research and innovation aims to improve the living conditions of people in society and it would be very unwise not to involve them in that enterprise. Changing societal conditions almost by definition require a transparent, open and engaging debate with citizens. Modern forms of governance are in my opinion essential if you want to spend public money (and also private money) in a way that is legitimate and in line with what we think of democracy in Europe today.


Embedding Citizen Engagement in Policy Making and Research

There are some great examples of where R&I institutions are already involving citizens in very fundamental ways. We have examples of co-creation in research and innovation, where we see NGOs, citizen scientists and individuals connected through the Internet contributing to new technologies. There are also lots of examples of activities of crowd-sourcing in design, such as citizens helping to design new cars. It surprises many people to learn that we now have cars that are produced and designed by citizens; we have new products that are not designed by three or four engineers in a lab but are produced in an open source way. There is a lot of potential in these new ways of working. Of course not all efforts will lead to magnificent results, but I think we have an obligation to think out of the box when it comes to research and innovation. Many people who work in technology and innovation are very focussed on the technical aspects. Ordinary citizens bring a different view of society and reality, which helps ensure better, and more socially anchored innovation.

Over the last couple of years we have framed the 2050 agenda around the concepts of a climate neutral society, eco-system resilience and a circular economy. This triad will mean massive innovation and massive technological change but also societal change. There is huge potential in rethinking how we invest in innovation in a more systemic way. We need to invest in research, not only to analyse the problems but also to help solve them. This is the key challenge that we are facing over the decades in Europe. This is increasingly recognised as the agenda for the first half of the 21st century. Now we need to make better use of societal resources to frame new innovations.

Policy makers should require more engagement when they spend public money for research and innovation. At the moment this is often not the case. The requirement is often that the result should serve societal purposes, but the methods to engage societal actors early on is often not even suggested and definitely not required. If I was a policy maker for a day, I would put that among the requirements for funding in research and innovation. There are good methods and practices out there, as well as great examples of how to engage society in science and technology. The networking technology which allows citizens to be connected to all sorts of issues has great potential, but these are not necessarily always the most democratic fora. All sorts of people can be engaged in more loose and unstructured ways and we need to be mindful of how we design the engagement. As we see with social media, it raises an enormous potential when it comes to awareness raising and crowd-sourcing, while at the same time being short term and potentially causing upheaval or damage to people. We are at the very early stages of learning how to engage with all these new methods and citizen-focussed processes. I also think it is important that we don’t limit ourselves to just engaging with individuals. In Europe we have very well organised NGOs and civil society organisations, who also provide the interface between citizens and economic stakeholders, policy makers, and universities. We need to make use of that solid mid-field of organised society and engage with them. I have the impression that often we now jump over those organisations directly onto the internet and social media, but I think there is an important role for civil society to play.

As a scientist I am very clear that fundamental science needs to have a space at the table. I do not believe that we should only fund research and innovation that provide immediate solutions to societal problems. We also need a space where people can think and innovate and also reflect freely on all sort of issues. We need this type of research to be the fertile ground for more solution-oriented technologies and innovation. We have to be very careful not to give too much steer and maybe not too much involvement at all stages. Citizens have a vital role in solving our societal challenges, and so do scientists and innovators. We must make sure that all of these groups have the space and freedom to excel