Integrating economic, societal and ethical context in technical research projects

‘TOOLBOX’ FOR RESEARCHERS, TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPERS AND ENGINEERS

The journey of a new innovation, from research towards development and actual usage, is complex and involves many different components that are linked to each other. Changes in future practices or in the sector of application can have an influence on development and research. Anticipating future changes can help to adapt technological development accordingly in order to increase future uptake of the technology and to make more realistic promises in the present. The pathway of the innovation is framed and influenced by governance and public perception. All these components are linked to specific groups of people with their own agendas and perceptions that potentially are affected by or have an impact on the innovation.

In research and innovation projects, the economic, societal, ethical and legal aspects are often neglected assuming that it somehow will be taken into account at a later stage while it is important and useful to consider and integrate these aspects already early in the development process. Additionally, the alignment of scientific and technological advances with values, needs and expectations of society is stimulated in various research programs – often under the phrase of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

This ‘toolbox’ provides an overview and description of several approaches that support you to consider economic, societal, ethical and legal aspects in technical research projects. The ‘toolbox’ is aiming at everyone who is interested to learn about such socio-technical integration approaches and who wants to integrate them in their project. The tools are selected because of their suitability to be integrated in labfloor practices. They can help to picture relevant actors that directly or indirectly influence the innovation, map the socio-technical environment related to a technology or exploring possible applications. By doing this, researchers can get a better understanding of the broader context of their research, can be aware of possible difficulties and if needed can adjust their research accordingly.

This toolbox is far from being comprehensive, but should be seen as a starting point to get (practical) information about methods integrating economic, societal and ethical aspects in technical research projects. For other tools, you can look through other toolboxes available (e.g., http://www.rri-tools.eu/ or http://steps-centre.org/methods/pathways-methods/vignettes/). We of course welcome any comments or questions you may have.

WHICH TOOL IS SUITABLE FOR MY PROJECT?

The overview contains a short description and key characteristics of each tool which support you to find the most suitable tools for you.

The short description gives you information about the tool and which key aspects are most important. The characteristics describe graphically for which project phase the tool is most suitable and what are the main properties. The project phase is distinguished between (1) early stage (), when some technical details or applications are still unclear and when an idea of the bigger picture is valuable; or (2) the advanced stage (), when more is known about the technology and potential applications, and more specific questions can be asked. Furthermore, the tools are distinguished in terms of their properties, whether they (i) help to broaden the scope (), (ii) they are anticipating and help to look at future developments and impacts (), or (iii) whether they support the engagement of various stakeholders ().

For example, the socio-technical configuration can be applied in the beginning of the project if an application is already envisioned, to understand what is needed for a technology to work, and to anticipate the impacts of a new technology on an existing system and vice versa.

DESCRIPTION OF TOOLS

When you click on a tool in the table below, you will find some background information on this particular tool, practical considerations such as required time and materials, involved participants, and hints for the implementation of the tool. Examples of how this tool has been applied to a technical research project in the past are also available and described shortly. Additionally, relevant literature and useful web links are provided.

The time that is indicated for each tool is a guideline and can vary, depending on the depths of the activity. For example, the content and depths can be broadened by involving external perspectives (from industrial partners, NGOs or regulatory agencies) or by teaming up with researchers of the ethical or social science department in your university. Additionally, the time can be exceed if various tools are combined, for example when applying the multi-path mapping approach during a workshop.

OVERVIEW OF TOOLS

Tool

Characteristics

Short description

Socio-technical configuration

This configuration gives you an idea what is needed for this technology to work (infrastructure, regulations, etc.) and which changes the technology can induce in the socio-technical system.

Multi-path map

The multi-path map helps to explore

which technological aspects (materials, fabrication processes, etc.) can lead to which products and markets. This tool is suitable for fundamental projects.

Innovation value chain

This tool gives insights in possible technical, economic, legal or social obstacles along the value chain and their influence on technological developments.

Actor analysis

This analysis provides an overview of stakeholders who can directly or indirectly influence the technological development.

Scenarios

Scenarios are constructed future worlds extrapolated from the present and give an idea which societal/moral changes can affect technological development or which impact a technology could have on society in the future.

Workshop

In a workshop, stakeholders with different backgrounds are brought together to discuss potential challenges around technological development, commercialization or societal embedding. This setting is also suitable for networking.