Engage2020 Seemann Edward AEarlier this summer Involve ran a workshop in London as part of the European project Engage 2020. The event looked at the future of engagement in science and technology. I personally find that time spent thinking about the future is a rare commodity and I appreciated the opportunity to sit down and consider what engagement could look like with experts from across Europe.

People have looked for answers about the future for as long as we have walked this earth. In ancient times we sought the advice of Oracles, today we seek it from well-paid consultants. The success rate may well not have improved in the intervening years. The famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr is supposed to have said that “prediction is hard especially when it comes to the future”.

In many areas of life prediction had as bad a reputation (sometimes deservedly). Discussing the future does not have to be about prediction, however. Our discussion in London, rather than trying to anticipate exactly what will happen, was about keeping an open mind to what is possible and preferable. The purpose of the work was to establish a vision; something to work towards.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that practice across Europe varies hugely; some countries like the Netherlands, 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 is a sign of growing activity, both in individual countries and at the European level.

This is why Engage 2020 and our look at the future of engagement is so timely. It is of course naive to assume that representative democracy is unchanging and fixed in time and space. It is equally naive to assume that participatory democracy is something that is designed once and then never changes. In fact I think that the last decade has been one of intense innovation and development and I anticipate that this trend will continue in the future. We must dispel the idea that still persists that participatory democracy or public engagement is a new phenomenon.The first citizens’ juries first took place in the 1970s; thus they are older than a significant number of practitioners who use the method.

Developments around participation 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. I am convinced that similar changes are around the corner in a number of other areas. Our conversations over the two days focussed on four themes (or challenges) that we identified as areas where real change is likely. These four areas are:

  • Distributed Deliberation –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). Existing deliberative methods have many strengths, but are also seen as being excessively time consuming and expensive in an increasingly fast paced policy making process. Deliberative processes are largely limited to very high profile and complex issues. The challenges we explored were whether we can do deliberation quicker and cheaper while retaining the quality we expect. We also discussed the impact of digital technology on deliberative processes. Whilst many accessibility problems with digital approaches have been resolved, some issues around the quality of interaction remain.
  • Citizen Science – Citizen science is an area 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 large numbers of citizens to help with scientific research. In our meeting we discussed why it is that most citizen science only brings citizens in as data gatherers or categorisers? What is the scope to allow citizens to shape the research or co-create results? Another area we wanted to explore further was the degree to which Citizen Science can work more closely with other related fields, such as science shops or service learning. We started sketching ideas for a more integrated model where citizens play a more active role in the research process than just data coders.
  • User-driven Innovation –Over the last years we have seen the growth of spaces which allow users to get involved in innovation and the creation of new spaces. Maker spaces, hackathons and many other related phenomena show a more user driven form of 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 discussed at length how to bring open processes into existing R&I structures and making them more systematic, without removing the creative and open qualities which makes them unique.
  • Science Governance – Finally we looked at the issue of governance of science and technology. 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. In this discussions participants looked at the difficult question of how citizen voices can be heard in European Research policy.

In addition to these four topics we also highlighted three crosscutting issues that needed to be addressed. These included: firstly, the rise of digital technologies and how these interact with participative processes and change them in the process. The increased use of smart phones and pervasive access to the internet could potentially change engagement on a fundamental level. Secondly, we considered the use of creative or artistic techniques in the use of participative methods. Thirdly, we encouraged our participants to look at how institutions might need to be reshaped in order to bring about genuine participation.

Increasingly people are acknowledging that genuine engagement requires a shift in organisational culture. I was pleased with the conversations we had on the day. The next steps for this work will be a series of webinars in September and October, as well as a further workshop.

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? Over the coming weeks I will post more detailed analysis of each thematic area, hopefully prompting further debate. Predicting the future may be a thankless task; but the less ambitious goal of exploring possible futures is very worthwhile.