The analysis of the data collected revealed the citizens’ attitudes towards the “My life between realities” scenario were to a large degree diametrically opposed, with disapproving tendencies. These critical tendencies came as a result of the scenario’s high reference to and reliance on technological developments. Virtual reality, big data and increased integration of automated processes in everyday living occurrences, as well as monitoring of citizens’ behaviors for offering personalized products and services were deemed quite controversial by citizens in all five countries. The general backbone rationale behind these attitudes involved the fear of unknown processes, the loss of experiential authenticity and diminishment of autonomy, violation of privacy and the potential for increased social detachment or isolation. Moreover, participants were rather doubtful about the increased role of private actors (i.e., companies) in overseeing and driving some of the main aspects of this scenario.
Quote:“I don’t know if it is possible or not [the scenario “My life between realities”], but I hope it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t provide you with what it should; it dehumanizes”
(Spain, 32, female, middle income).
Attitudes of this nature were present throughout the entire discussions related to the scenario; however, (some) participants were able to identify and recognize opportunities, also. Accordingly, augmentation of lifestyles with technological measures, according to focus group participants, would overall lead to increased operational efficiency; thus, leading to resource, financial and time saving opportunities. The latter could be used for additional activities that would increase citizens’ quality of life, well-being and satisfaction. Moreover, these technological advancements were seen as contributing highly towards improving and maintaining steady conditions of good health. Participants were able to think and bring forward beneficial and opportunistic aspects, especially during the discussion rounds focused on the scenario’s particularities (i.e., elaboration of occurrences throughout the four lifestyle areas).
Quote:“The use of technology at home is nice; that it can help you, take different worries off you, the need to think. So, you have more time for yourself, for your family.”
(Czech Republic, 37, male, low income).
3.1. Green Spaces
Cumulatively, in all five countries, participants expressed attitudes of dissatisfaction towards the utilization of virtual green spaces as complementary or substitutes for physical green spaces. Diminishment and loss of experiential authenticity, including preference for the physical nature, poor stimulation of senses and inability to perform activities as one would do outdoors, were the main drivers opposing this development.
Quote:“As the most negative, I have marked the first scenario [“My life between realities”], since in my opinion, virtual reality cannot be compared with the real one. It is not the same.”
(North Macedonia, 26, male, middle income).
Moreover, the role of companies in enabling both the virtual and physical green spaces in this scenario, thereby increasing their control throughout all areas, complemented the reasons contributing towards the negative perception among some of the British participants. These critical attitudes, for the developments in this area, persisted throughout all discussion rounds with limited elaboration on opportunities. Nonetheless, some of the British and German participants recognized the substitute character and beneficial contribution of virtual greens spaces for the elderly and disabled people who may be limited in their access to physical green spaces.
Quote:“It would give disabled people that chance to do things; that, probably, is its only benefit that I could think of.”
(UK, 62, female, high income).
Quote:“I could imagine it very well for people in an old people’s home who can’t get out anymore.”
(Germany, 58, female, middle income).
3.2. Energy Efficient Housing
The technological augmentation of homes to support optimized energy consumption was subject to diverse opinions by the focus group participants in each five countries. Participants in the Czech Republic and North Macedonia expressed mainly positive attitudes. These positive attitudes centered around the potential of technology to increase efficient consumption, and thus lead to financial benefits for household residents. Moreover, in the North Macedonian focus groups it was indicated that technological solutions (i.e., smart homes) may be more effective in this aim than any other efforts on a consumer/household level. German, Spanish and British participants recognized the ability of smart homes to increase the residents’ convenience, and furthermore, British participants discussed the potential of these solutions to increase residents’ ability to understand and monitor their energy consumption.
Quote: “[...] I think it’s good if a lot of things are handled automatically in the house for me. You come home and it knows it’s dark now, it’s winter and the light switch on. But you shouldn’t give up control. I should program it beforehand so that you don’t have to pass this data on, and if I’m at home for the weekend then it should be like this when I’m away to start the washing machine. I think it’s great; why not? It makes life easier.”
(Germany, 40, male, low income).
However, participants also found the potential of increased monitoring of and data collection on individual behavior worrisome. Thus, deeming smart homes a good but unnecessary addition. This attitude was furthermore enforced, among the British and German participants, due to their distrust towards companies and beliefs that companies have the tendency to violate one’s privacy, which were described as responsible for overseeing these developments within this area. Spanish participants shared the same concerns about companies’ roles, with the additional concern about a perceived tendency for unilateral price setting policies. One Czech participant expressed their worries about technological failures and related implications on one’s everyday live. Worries about the unequal distribution and access of these services by all citizen groups due to presumed high costs were expressed by Czech, German, Spanish and British participants also.
Quote:“Well, big companies created a set of proposals, so it is clear that they will cost and it is clear that big corporations will have them hugely overpriced, so this is what I don’t like, that big corporations would be in charge because it would be the same as today. It would be inaccessible for 99% of people...”
(the Czech Republic, 27, male, low income).
The “My life between realities” mobility attributes, such as interconnectivity and efficient systems with public transport as the main mode of motorized transport, received approving opinions by the participants of all five countries. Increased efficiency and opportunities to save time complemented by increased convenience and mobility without limitations were some of the most frequently mentioned factors. Nonetheless, influenced by current operational patterns, namely, low reliability and poor sanitary conditions, Czech, British and German participants brought forward doubts about impactful future increases in the utilization of public transport for mobility purposes. The scenario’s reliance on financial means to support and increase the share of walking and biking as a means of mobility was positively confirmed by the North Macedonian and Spanish participants and not discussed by the others. North Macedonian participants recognized this scenario’s potential by using disincentivizing financial measures to make cars unwanted; thus, contributing to better environmental and human health conditions.
Quote:“Because measures like incentivizing public transport prices or facilitating connections with areas further away are also great measures for mobility.”
(Spain, 22, male, middle income).
The autonomous driving cars central to this scenario were appraised positively by the majority of Czech participants with convenience and efficiency as supporting factors. However, this view was not shared by German and British participants. The German participants based their disapproving stance on the current low diffusion and implementation levels of self-driving cars, as well as the presumed high risk of technological failures. In addition to these, British participants had concerns about the risk of software hacking and related implications. Discussions on this particular topic were lacking in the North Macedonian and Spanish focus groups.
Quote:“And what if the car breaks down on the road, god forbid, and I don’t have a computer to do an analysis of the problem.”
(the Czech Republic, 57, male, high income).
The drive and aspiration for maintaining good and/or improving health conditions and lifestyles led to focus group participants in all five countries expressing positive attitudes towards personalized diets and nutrition, one of the key elements of the consumption lifestyle area in the “My life between realities” scenario. Additionally, Czech and British participants thought that augmenting this lifestyle area with technological advancements could lead to increased convenience. Czech participants framed this as support for citizens in terms of better managing their time in view of demanding lifestyles also and advantageous for people in elderly age. Similarly, some British participants thought these technologies could ease people’s management of their various activities, as well as support those who lack dietary and food handling knowledge.
Quote:“Well I like the idea of the first one because it says you can personalize your nutrients so then your food, like your health conditions. I think that would give people lot better life quality as well, less illnesses; less side effects from illnesses would give people a better quality of life.”
(UK, 58, male, low income).
Nonetheless, participants in the German focus groups expressed strong concerns about violation of personal privacy due to the monitoring of behavior necessary for offering personalized dietary solutions. In addition, some German and Czech participants thought these developments could lead to food consumption patterns of a functional nature, while dismissing elements related to pleasure-based eating. Moreover, the dominant role of companies in overseeing these processes was opposed by the Germans as well as the Czech and Spanish participants. A controversial element of this lifestyle area in this scenario was the laboratory produced meat, with Czech participants expressing doubtful attitudes, while fear of negative health impacts driving the Macedonian and Spanish focus group participants’ negative attitudes towards the idea.
Quote:“I did not like the fact that meat was produced in laboratories. It may need to be examined whether it has negative effects on the human organism.”
(North Macedonia, 36, female, high income).
Many British participants opposed the idea due to finding this method of meat production overly artificial. However, at the same time, the method’s potential to promote animal welfare was recognized by some British and Spanish participants. Higher value chain transparency degree was discussed only briefly by German and Spanish participants and not at all in the other countries. Some of the German participants found the idea irrelevant for their values, while Spanish participants expressed approving attitudes.
The research objective of this study was to gather, understand and compare perceptions of citizens from five European countries towards one of four future scenarios depicting a vision of a healthier, more equitable and sustainable Europe by 2040. This scenario called “My life between realities” predominantly relies on and suggests technological measures in reaching this vision of the future of Europe. Accordingly, the discussions with 118 participants of 15 focus groups in total, conducted in five European countries, show that citizens hold dichotomous attitudes or opinions with disapproving tendencies towards the scenario “My life between realities” and the increasing adoption of technological measures in one’s day-to-day living. The diverging opinions were conditioned by the different occurrences throughout the four lifestyle areas; namely, green spaces, energy efficient housing, active mobility and food. For example, in the context of autonomous (self-driving) cars and laboratory produced meat, citizens expressed concerns about technologies’ potential negative impact on health and safety. Nonetheless, the opportunity and motivation of maintaining and/or improving their health conditions and well-being led to citizens expressing positive opinions towards personalized diets and nutrition. Similar attitudes, as elaborated in the results section, persisted, in various degrees, throughout all lifestyle areas. Thus, the diversity of attitudes and opinions deems necessary, reciprocally responsive policy approaches to match citizens’ needs and to address concerns systematically.
Overall, citizens’ concerns can be broadly clustered (a) based on their perceptions about technologies’ potential negative impact on one’s privacy or (b) individual autonomy; (c) overarching and reiterating concerns about the dominant role of private sector actors in leading these developments; (d) perceptions about technologies’ negative impacts on health and well-being as well as on (e) social interactions/relationships. The persistence of these negative attitudes and opinions might seriously inhibit the diffusion of technological advances in the domains of green spaces, energy efficiency, mobility and food consumption. Technological advances hold great potential for rectifying some of the negative impacts of our societies’ unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Accordingly, there is a need for policy action frameworks, driven by various stakeholders and on various levels, that aim at changing public perceptions or attitudes and improving trust towards technological developments and related operations.
Citizens’ in all five countries, driven by their preference for maintaining their privacy, reiterated most frequently, their concern about data collection, analysis and handling for the purpose of offering personalized products and services and optimizing resource efficiency. Accordingly, increasing citizens’ acceptance of these solutions would require the adoption of (regulatory) policies that aim at ensuring the secure management and ethical governance of their data as well as establishing and enforcing grievance mechanisms to ensure compliance. Moreover, through various communicative means, citizens need to become aware of the existence of such approaches and mechanisms to maintain personal privacy.
The subjective perception of inclusion could also improve the acceptance of technological change that might otherwise be diminished due to concerns about the reduction of individual autonomy. The focus groups results indicate that an active engagement of the public audience (i.e., citizens) should be implemented in all phases of the product/service development, also, thereby, increasing their understanding about these products/services, giving them the opportunity to familiarize with otherwise unknown processes and capture their needs and requirements in the very early stages. The opportunity of overruling automatic functionalities of technologies in favor of manual operations should be available to citizens throughout the entire duration of the use-phase. Such policies would enable and ensure citizens’ autonomy.
In other multiple instances, citizens expressed distrust towards the scenarios’ occurrences due to the prominent role of private actors in driving those. Following this, for maximal diffusion, technological devices, solutions and digital systems should be developed and tested in conjunction with and endorsed by other experts and stakeholders as well (i.e., adopting interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches throughout all product/services development stages). These efforts, as elaborated previously, could potentially be stronger if citizens themselves were to be engaged in this process. The endorsement and validation of such products by independent experts, in turn, would lead to reduced distrust in relation to the products’ potential negative impacts on health and safety.
Undoubtedly, technological or digital products and services are challenging the conventional norms of social interaction. However, such developments, as shown throughout the years, have the potential for connecting people without much geographical limitations, and/or, as shown by Ballantyne et al. [54
], reducing feeling of loneliness, especially among elderly people. Nonetheless, to address citizens’ legitimate fears that digitalization might lead to social isolation and/or detachment, developers and innovators could integrate more interactive features when designing new digital products and services.
Similarly, the perceived benefits or opportunities of citizens in this scenario could be clustered on basis of technologies’ positive impact on (a) operational and resources efficiency; (b) financial and time saving opportunities; (c) citizens’ health, well-being and life quality; and (d) convenience. The identification of these aspects or opportunities during the discussions, led to citizens expressing higher acceptability and willingness to adopt some of the measures described throughout the lifestyle areas of the scenario. While previous research indicated support for positive financial measures (subsidies) and opposition towards their negative counterparts (taxes), during the workshop, positive views of charges was recorded. Accordingly, centering the communication and placing the technological products and services in the context of these factors and making the latter easily visible could improve citizens’ acceptance of the former.
This exploratory examination of citizens’ perceptions is based on qualitative research that is more focused on the meanings, interpretations, and explanations of people rather than on generalizability of the results [55
]. Due to small participant sample and nature of this study, results of this paper cannot be generalized to the populations from which our samples were drawn and/or to populations of other (global) regions. However, our study aimed at fulfilling the criteria of quality for qualitative research; that is, trustworthiness, credibility, authenticity and plausibility [56
]. In order to provide robust qualitative findings, we paid special attention to each of the research steps: (1) research design; (2) data collection; (3) analysis; and (4) reporting of results. Further, the findings of this article can be supported by the conclusions of a quantitative survey, with 12,288 respondents in five European countries (the Czech Republic, Latvia, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom) that elicited citizens’ opinions to the same four scenarios introduced in this article, including here “My life between realities” [57
]. Accordingly, the scenario “My life between realities” generated the same diametrically opposed perceptions, especially in relation to the green spaces and food lifestyle areas. Only 4% to 6% of respondents supported the vision of virtual green spaces, while only a minority of respondents (9% to 12%) were in favor of the vision of laboratory produced meat and personalized diets. A larger share (20% to 17 %) selected this scenario in case of energy efficiency. On the other hand, this scenario was appreciated as a good vision for active mobility [57
Citizens of five European countries involved in focus groups, in general, expressed dichotomous attitudes towards the increasing role of technology in one’s living patterns. Concerns about technology’s potential negative impact on privacy, autonomy, human health and safety and social cohesion, drove citizens’ doubtful attitudes. Additionally, the increasing role of the private sector over the public one in these lifestyle dynamics accentuated the concerns. However, the contribution of technology in operational efficiency leading to savings in financial and time resources, its potential to maintain or improve one’s health and well-being and to increase one’s convenience and support in completing daily activities, were some of the opportunities recognized. Lay knowledge of risks might be more intuitive and less formal and precise compared to expert perceptions; however, even then, it is important for policy makers and other parties to be aware and consider these in their operations. Changing these perceptions and increasing citizens’ acceptance of technological solutions is important for leveraging the latter’s potential in advancing sustainable production and consumption patterns. Accordingly, the character of concern should match the type of response. The policy implications elaborated in this article could support the development of initial action frameworks necessary in times of such socioeconomic transformations induced by technological advances.
This research study contributes to understanding better citizens’ perceptions of technological developments as a potential measure for reaching more sustainable development. Nonetheless, due to the foresight character of scenario planning or building, the developments are rather theoretical and hypothetical and so are the citizens’ perceptions and perception formations. Accordingly, further research is needed regarding citizens’ perceptions and attitudes, including potential adoption rate, towards technological measures they are able to experience and utilize. Moreover, as already highlighted, this study presents the insights from a diverse range of participants in five European countries. This implies that the views recorded correspond to a limited series of backgrounds and to a somehow specific geographic context, which can be seen as a limitation when trying to extrapolate conclusions to populations of the same or different global regions. It must also be noted that this is an exploratory examination of citizens’ perceptions, and therefore, results should be treated with caution. Further research is needed to validate these results in different contexts and in grander population samples. Such knowledge would complement and contribute to better and more adequate responses for increasing citizens’ acceptability of technological solutions, which in turn would bring us closer to reaching the vision of healthier, more equitable and sustainable European and global societies.