Addressing the challenges of ambiguity in responsible innovation
On a sunny Monday early April, some fifty early-career MVI-researchers met in ANNE Centraal in Utrecht for a one-day conference entitled ‘Responsible Innovation: The Challenge of Ambiguity’. The central question of how to deal with different perspectives on technological innovation was addressed during a keynote lecture by Prof. Phil Macnaghten, a series of speed talks, and an interactive session during which participants exchanged experiences about, and explored possible solutions to deal with ambiguities in their own research projects.
The fact that one of the main aims of the meeting was to meet new people in the field of Responsible Innovation research became immediately apparent: even when people just came in and were grabbing their first cup of coffee, they were introducing themselves and their work to the next in line. Besides networking, the meeting served two other purposes, explained Wouter Boon from Utrecht University, chair of the Young-MVI Board: ‘Today, we are providing you with the opportunity to step out of your day to day business, and take some time to reflect on your work.’
Keynote on lessons learned
In his keynote speech, Phil MacNaghten from Wageningen University shared some examples from his rich experience in science and technology studies. He presented the RRI framework he established together with Jack Stilgoe and Richard Owen, and briefly talked about three projects he has worked on and what he learned from them in terms of impact and project setup. ‘The less a project is funded, the more impact it has,’ he said with a laugh, since his widely renown RRI framework was originally developed during a very small research project conducted for the UK Research Councils.
‘One of the common ambiguities in RRI is when to start,’ he said. ‘At an early stage you have ample possibilities to influence the final design of a new technology, but it is impossible to predict where an innovation might go. Whereas in a later stage, it is perfectly clear what the impact of a new technology will be, but there is virtually no possibility to steer its direction anymore.’
With the aid of three case studies, he demonstrated how RRI has evolved over the past decades. One of the first studies he conducted, was about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). ‘We carried out that project about two years prior to when the public discussion about GMOs started in the late nineties. The aim of the project was to navigate conversations about GMOs, when they were not a subject yet for the general public. Interestingly enough, we found that the more people knew about the subject, the more they became worried.’ Several years later, nanotechnology was emerging. ‘Society had learned from the GMO-case, and wanted to start the discussion about the risks and benefits associated with this technology before it had matured. That project taught us a lot about how the public responses to emerging technology in general. It was interesting to observe that there is a persistent pessimism about technology when people are asked to imagine what a specific type of yet unknown technology might bring.’
During lunch, again participants explicitly went looking for new connections. For example, philosopher Mandi Astola, who works on the ethics of co-creation at Eindhoven University of Technology, engaged in a lively discussion with Ruth Shortall from Delft University and Marion Collewet from VU University. ‘The main reason for me to attend these types of conferences is to meet new people. It is always interesting to learn what people are working on, even though it is not in my own field,’ she stated. Ruth Shortall: ‘I just arrived in The Netherlands, and don’t have a network here yet. I hope today I can get an idea of upcoming calls and opportunities for this kind of research in The Netherlands.’ Her colleague Marion Collewet, whom she cooperates with on an NWO-MVI project about energy transition: ‘For me it is always useful to hear how others cope with some of the struggles I encounter as a researcher in the Responsible Innovation domain, for example in cooperating with other disciplines or with companies or societal organizations.’
Speeding up connections
After lunch, Young-MVI Board members Koen Beumer and Johanna Höffken introduced the concept of the speed talks. ‘Prior to this meeting, every one of you has been asked to prepare a two-minute pitch on ambiguity in your work. We will position you in two lines across each other, and you will pair up with the person straight across you. The both of you will deliver your pitches, and then you get about a minute for further discussion. Then one of the lines moves one seat to the right, and the whole process starts all over again. This way, in the end, each of you will have spoken to at least eight new people.’
This concept worked like a charm. Everywhere people were engaged in lively conversations. And because of the limited amount of time they had for each talk, they skipped the chit-chat and started talking about meaningful things right from the start of each new conversation.
Time for action
To further elaborate upon all of the experiences exchanged during the speed talks, the conference ended with an interactive session facilitated by Frank Kupper, interdisciplinary researcher at VU University and performer at his own company ‘Mens in de Maak.’ His main starting message: ‘Don’t think, just do. I know that is hard for people like you who are used to extensive contemplations and who ponder over details all the time. But what we want to do here, is to conduct a collective inquiry of ambiguities, and design concrete actions to deal with them more productively.’
During the next one and a half hour, the group went through a seven-step plan, collecting different experiences with ambiguity, classifying them into four different categories of ambiguity (epistemic, methodic, institutional and normative), developing stories about how someone typically would cope with them, and finally formulating possible alternative actions, which could lead to better outcomes. After the hard work, Kupper closed the session with a compliment that actually summarized the entire day rather well: ‘Thank you for this energetic session, and for engaging in such lively and rich conversations. We hope it was a useful and nice for all of you.’
Young-MVI is a NWO committee with and for early-career researchers in responsible innovation. Young-MVI provides advice to the NWO program committee for MVI, serves as ambassador for the MVI approach, and engages early-career researchers working on responsible innovations.
More information: https://www.nwo-mvi.nl/node/5679