May 20, 2021

Four scenarios for the future of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

In today’s knowledge-based economies, research, technological development and innovation (RTDI) are key activities to foster societal welfare. There is the fundamental tenet that RTDI lead to knowledge and products beneficial for society, however, the relationship between science and society is far more complex and has changed from a one-directional relationship (science for society) to an interactive one (science with society). Trust in science and in technological advancement has become a major topic. The interaction of societal and professional actors in research and innovation processes in order to take full advantage of diverse sources of knowledge is increasingly receiving attention and has been coined in concepts like co-creation, citizen science or user innovation. Grand global challenges like the climate crisis urge us to ask whether RTDI deliver their parts to encompassing solutions and transformative change.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) was put forward as an idealized vision of the interaction of societal and professional actors in RTDI, leading to more inclusive and sustainable processes and outcomes. In an effort to embed RRI broadly in RTDI in the European Union (EU), the European Commission (EC) has operationalized the concept in a set of policy interventions in its framework programs (FP) for research and innovation. The eighth FP for example, Horizon 2020 has fostered public engagement in research processes, gender equality in research teams and gender aspects in research topics, open access to research data, reflections on ethical aspects and science education activities as well as more fundamental change within research performing and research funding organizations. While some national research councils have started to integrate RRI as well in their funding policies based on their own interpretation and operationalization, the EC’s approach has – for several reasons – only reached partial impact so far, as has been shown for example by the in-depth diagnosis of the NewHoRRIzon project. With the start of the ninth framework program Horizon Europe, there is far less emphasis on RRI, while there is a stronger than ever emphasis on sustainability and inclusive transition as major political guidelines.

What’s next? There is a clear need for such a thing like RRI, which helps to better align research and innovation (R&I) and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society.

Four takes on the future of science-society relations

Participants of NewHoRRIzon’s social lab for the program part “Science with and for Society (SwafS)” have developed scenarios for society, research, and innovation in the European Union in the year 2038 as a “thinkpiece” for todays’ discussions about the future of RRI. We have explored the factors most likely to influence science-society relations, such as political systems, societal developments, characteristics of the innovation system, and the state of the economy as opposed to focusing on RRI principles and instruments. Finally, we arrived at four distinct scenarios likely to play out in the future of science-society relations, with an accent on both the provocative and the plausible possibilities. The scenarios alert us to the fact that the future of science-society relations (and thus RRI) in the EU is far from being predictable, it can evolve by taking radically different directions.

What could your role be in any of the scenarios below? The future is not given ‘out there’, and thus, cannot be predicted, but can be shaped by today’s action.

Scenario 1: The Kingdom of RRI – (E)Utopia?

Starting in Scandinavia and spreading to Central Europe and some other countries, established green parties or new political movements were able to present a new generation of politicians to voters. Following a series of game-changing elections, new governments pursue agendas directed towards appealing and bold societal goals (e.g., carbon-neutral mobility for all) as the key to societal wellbeing. Participative processes are highly prevalent. Inclusive, open structures enable not only participation, but provide empowerment, and are a source of appreciation and societal satisfaction. Researchers follow agendas jointly set with citizens, understanding and accepting that targeting societal needs is a cornerstone of excellent research.

Scenario 2: Fortress Europe – Yes, we can!

In this scenario, based on a dominant liberal ideology the EU has started setting its priorities towards sustaining a strong economy with a sovereign technological and industrial basis. Now, the EU is a global leader in a wide range of technologies, including green products. The EU keeps its border closed, only young professional, qualified migrants, who can contribute to easing skills shortage and other negative effects of an ageing society. Businesses and other private initiatives working on technological and non-technological solutions for societal challenges flourish, the group of innovators is large and diverse. Nevertheless, social and global disparities increase.

Scenario 3: Long Live Populism – Failed Democracy

In this future, populist parties won national elections in more and more countries, and thus all over the EU, populist and even autocratic regimes emerged. The political creed is “salvation and hope”: The promise of stability and unity, and protection against external threats and enemies. Social cohesion exists in the superficial way that large enough groups of society feel important and listened to. The media, as well as RTDI and other systems are directed (or controlled) by, and support, the regime. The rulers involve societal actors in a tokenistic way. Societal challenges are addressed ad hoc, supported by technological solutions.

Scenario 4: Benevolent Green Eurocrats

The Benevolent Green Eurocrats scenario describes a state-dominated, top-down approach, materialized in our scenario at the EU level. Thus, in a technocratic process, a societal consensus is reached (or imposed upon) about the absolute priority of sustainability missions. The “enlightened” political and administrative system is in a position to efficiently and quickly generate rational solutions. Political communication engages people around a shared narrative about collective goals, the EU missions. RTDI activities are centrally regulated: challenge-driven, mission-oriented research, supported by public investments, serves green business and social innovations.

What’s your take?

While the scenarios paint black and white, we also posit that there is room for safeguarding meaningful interactions between the societal and professional actors in an innovation system even in the harshest framework conditions.

What do you see as the most plausible future for science-society relations, and more fundamental, our democratic systems? Is it similar to one of the above scenarios, or do you see an entirely different outcome?

Which scenario does cope best with grand societal challenges like the climate crisis? What do these futures mean for inclusion and the social justice of transitions? What does it mean to act responsibly in each of these scenarios?

Have a look at your organisation’s strategy and consider how well it shapes up in each scenario—are you confident it will hold up in any situation or is it time for some tuning-up?

Take a moment and let us know your thoughts.

Contact: Stephanie Daimer

Illustrations & Artworks

Heyko Stöber

These scenarios have been developed in the course of a scenario workshop which has taken place on 28/29 November 2019 at Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe.

Download long versions of the scenarios!

Download a presentation on the scenarios and how to work with them

Read our article in the Journal of Responsible Innovation for a deeper analysis of the scenarios

Soon to come: Report on the Scenario Sprint Method used for scenario development.