Advantages and disadvantages of societal engagement

Advantages and disadvantages of societal engagement

on September 15, 2020

We view Societal Engagement (SE) as a key element of Responsible Innovation (RI) and want to better understand the advantages and disadvantage of SE, both in theory and in practice. Moreover, we are interested in the role that Research and Technology Organizations (RTOs) might play in bridging the gap between fundamental research in academia and applied research, development and deployment. We reviewed relevant literature in order to identify and discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of SE, and conducted a case study of one SE initiative within a RTO in order to understand the advantages and disadvantages of SE in practice. The paper closes with a discussion of responsibility and ethics that the organizing of SE would require.


Much scholarship on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and Responsible Innovation (RI) has focused on work being done in university environments. Only fairly recently, attention has started to move also to work being done in private, governmental or civil society sectors (Fisher 2019) (e.g. Lubberink et al. 20172019; Ahrweiler et al. 2019; Brand and Blok 2019; Long et al. 2020; van de Poel et al. 2020). This move is fortunate, because both efforts in fundamental research, typically done by academia, and efforts in innovation, applied research, development and deployment, typically done by industry, government and society, are needed to realize the overall ambition of RRI/RI: to align research and innovation with the values, needs and expectations of society.

Below, we are interested in the role that Research and Technology Organizations (RTOs) might play in this overall ambition. RTOs, such as the German Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft or the Finnish VTT, aim to fill the gap that can exist between fundamental research and applied research and innovation. RTOs can play an intermediary role and help to promote and mainstream RRI/RI (e.g. Arnaldi and Neresini 2019). Our interest is also driven by our professional roles; the authors work at TNO, an RTO in The Netherlands, and were involved in a three-year project that aimed to further develop and institutionalize RI practices and processes in this organization (see below).

In addition, we are interested in Societal Engagement (SE), one of the five thematic elements of RI. 1 SE typically refers to the involvement of diverse societal actors in the innovation process; one can think of large and small companies, government bodies and agencies, universities and research institutes, and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). 2 The involvement of societal actors in research and innovation processes enables the organizations involved to organize a ‘transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products’ (von Schomberg 2013). SE promotes openness and collaboration and aims to organize and innovation both with and for society (Carrier and Gartzlaff 2019). In a similar vein, Fisher et al. (2015) discussed SE in terms of socio-technical integration and various collaborative approaches ‘that seek to broaden the societal contexts technical experts take into account during their routine activities’.

SE is similar to societal alignment, an approach put forward by Ribeiro et al. (2018) as an alternative to the social control approach to the Collingridge dilemma. This dilemma refers to the challenge of at the same time anticipating and controlling the impact of technologies: on the one hand, it is hard to anticipate a technology’s potential impacts while it is still in development; on the other hand, after a technology is developed, it is hard to control its further development and deployment. Ribeiro et al. (2018) propose that societal alignment would shift attention away from institutions that produce and regulate science, technology and innovation, and centralized, formal and regulatory roles; towards actors in the private and public sectors, and decentralized, informal and deliberative roles.

Stirling (2008) distinguished three types of motivations for SE (or ‘social appraisal’, the term he used): normative – organizing dialogues are good for reasons of democracy, equality or justice; instrumental – building trust, a positive reputation and support; and substantive – moving towards desirable goals, such as environmental quality, public health and human well-being. Moreover, SE would be especially relevant for RTOs, which have ‘public missions to support society’, according to the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations. 3

A recent meta-analysis of the ‘role of stakeholders in the context of responsible innovation’ suggested that SE is relatively underdeveloped and under-utilized (Silva et al. 2019). We see a growing need for RI in general and SE in particular, e.g. with regards to emerging technologies (e.g. nano-tech, bio-tech, info-tech and cogno-tech) (Brey 2017). Other examples can be found in the domain of Artificial Intelligence (AI) (Floridi et al. 2018). There are currently many lists of ethical principles for the development and deployment of AI (e.g. High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence 2019). 4 Most of these include recommendations to involve stakeholders and to take into account values, but none of them can be so specific as to recommend which stakeholders exactly to involve (and which not) and which values to prioritize (and which not). Moreover, we expect that organizations, both public and private, will be increasingly required to engage in RI and to organize SE, e.g. in the context of the European Commission’s Horizon Europe research programme, which will be ‘mission oriented’, that is, focused on solving societal problems and on engaging societal stakeholders (Mazzucato 2018).

In short, there seems to be a need to better understand SE in the context of RI. This is reflected in several contributions to the ‘International Handbook on Responsible Innovation’ which discuss SE in terms of participation and partnership (Blok 2019), the broader innovation system (Forsberg 2019), democratic engagement (Hennen and Nierling 2019) or collective experimentation (Nordmann 2019).

SE shares similarities with Quadruple Helix Collaboration (QHC) (Carayannis and Campbell 2009), which refers to collaboration between and among academia, industry, government and societal actors, and which added societal actors to the Triple Helix model of collaboration between academia, industry and government (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 1995), in order to promote societal responsibility and to bridge the gap between innovation and civil society. SE also shares similarities with Open Innovation (OI) (Chesbrough, Vanhaverbeke, and West 2006), an approach to innovation in which organizations collaborate with, e.g. suppliers or clients during the innovation process. This is reflected in the title of a report on RRI/RI by the European Commission: ‘Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World: A Vision for Europe’ (European Commission 2016). Finally, SE shares similarities also with the formation and management of Innovation Eco-systems, which refers to ‘value creating interactions and relationships between sets of interconnected organizations’ (Autio and Thomas 2014, 204). What these different approaches share, is a view that innovation does not happen – or indeed, need not happen – in splendid isolation.

To read the rest of the article written by Marc Steen & Joram Nauta, follow the link below to the Original Source, Taylor & Francis Online.