Reflexive Sustainable Technology Labs: Combining Real-World Labs, Technology Assessment, and Responsible Research and Innovation
2. RwLs, TA, and RRI: Core Characteristics
2.1. Real-World Labs
- Research orientation: RwLs serve as scientific undertakings for sustainability and transformation research with the goal to gain and provide transformative knowledge.
- Transformativity: RwLs are hybrid ventures, due to the goal to create scientific findings as well as significant changes in societal practice. They are supposed to make a difference, to walk the talk and be transformative.
- Normativity: RwLs are oriented towards the guiding principle of sustainable development and explicate their normative assumptions, basis, and goals.
- Transdisciplinarity: The core of RwLs are multiple co-operations of scientists and practice actors. The research starts from actual “real-world” problems, and not only theoretically derived ones.
- Involvement of civil-society actors: There is a continuous focus on participation and mutual integration of civil society in the whole experimentation process (agenda-setting, co-design, co-operation, and co-evaluation).
- Serving as models: RwLs are unique and bound to their specific context, but aim for transfer and upscaling of their insights, results, innovations, and methods to different and wider contexts.
- Long-term perspective: RwLs are ideally established as long-term institutions with a time horizon of (several) decades. Therefore, they can design, conduct, and evaluate transformation processes which could not take place in the regular research project timeline of three years.
- Laboratory character: The main methods are real-world experiments such as transformative approaches in specific geographic or thematic societal contexts that are tested for a defined period of time. RwLs constitute a transdisciplinary infrastructure to conduct these experiments.
- Education: RwLs provide multiple learning processes on an individual level (insights, new ways of acting, and, especially for scientists, unusual but potentially fruitful ways of working) and on a systemic level (self-reflection and evaluation processes).
2.2. Technology Assessment
- Future orientation: TA evaluates the impact of technologies for future development.
- Focus on technology: It is often inspired by new technologies and analyzes these developments from a socio-technical systems perspective.
- Problem orientation: The choice of the analyzed technology is often problem-oriented (e.g., nuclear energy, AI).
- Impact assessment: It uses a broad methodology for analyzing future impacts (e.g., Life-Cycle Assessment).
- Scientific criteria: TA is an established (interdisciplinary) research field with high theoretical and methodological standards for impact assessment.
- Policy advice: TA aims to support decision-making, especially in politics, but also more recently (fostered by RRI concepts) among further stakeholders such as companies.
2.3. Responsible Research and Innovation
- Anticipation: RRI aims at an improvement of forecasting, resilience through systematic thinking for socially robust research and innovation, while recognizing the complexities and uncertainties of science and society’s co-evolution.
- Reflexivity: RRI acknowledges the need for institutional reflexivity in governance, by being aware of activities, commitments, framings, and assumptions, as well as the limits of knowledge, values systems, and theories that shape science and innovation. It re-thinks concepts, assumptions, and demands of openness.
- Inclusion: RRI implies the integration of stakeholders and the wider public regarding issues of science and innovation; this is still an experimental process.
- Responsiveness: RRI involves the capacity to change the shape or direction of innovation processes in response to stakeholder and public values and circumstances by responding to new knowledge as it emerges, as well as emerging perspectives, views, and norms.
3. Key Similarities and Specifics of TA, RRI, and RwL Research
3.1. Science for Society
3.2. Normativity and Responsibility
3.3. Supporting Practice
3.5. Reference to the Future
4. Combining RwLs, TA, and RRI—Synthesis and Potential
- The first step in bringing TA, RRI, and RwLs together is looking from the single perspective towards the other concepts, e.g., looking from TA or RRI at RwLs as research objects and case studies. At this stage, the concepts remain disparate, and insights can be gained into the neighboring concepts (see Section 4.1).
- Inter-conceptual approaches, here, means that TA, RRI, or RwLs are integrating (single) aspects of the other concepts to widen their own work: TA studies are integrating real world experiments, for example. Therefore, TA learns from RwLs, or RWLs learn from RRI. The concepts ‘learn’ from each other and begin to merge (see Section 4.2 and Section 4.3).
- The most far-reaching approach might be an endeavor that addresses all the core strengths of RwL, TA, and RRI together. To do so, we suggest a Reflexive Sustainable Technology Lab that combines and institutionalizes the triangle of all three concepts in one lab (see Section 5).
4.1. Real-World Labs as the Research Objects in TA and RRI Case Studies
4.2. TA- and RRI-Processes within Real-World Labs
4.3. Transformative Experiments as a New Methodology for TA and RRI
5. The Reflexive Sustainable Technology Lab—A Conceptual Synthesis of RwLs, TA, and RRI
- What potentials, risks, and side effects relate to the (emerging) innovation?
- Which conflicts of goals and interests may arise?
- How can the innovation process be accelerated and shaped in a socially and ecologically viable way?
- What competencies do individuals, institutions, or societies need for this change process?
- Which structures, governance, and institutions are needed?
- What technology or common practice is outdated and has to be phased out, and how?
- Societal relevance: Setting up an RSTL is only worthwhile if the topic is sufficiently relevant to society (also in order to acquire the required funding). Major societal challenges and transitions, such as those emerging in the course of the “Great Transformation”, particularly provide these preconditions. RSTLs could in this case support the discourse and decision-making process on technology pathways and transformation which are the subject of intense social controversy, such as energy system transformation.
- Topical reference: The mainly experimental approach in RSTLs requires that at least some of the technologies (or aspects of the socio-technical system, models, processes, prototypes, etc.) can already be used experimentally or “experienced“ in some form at present. Thus, explicit RSTL should only be applied in the course of a technical invention, if necessary as a follow-up of a prospective TA study. Accompanying studies which are purely prospective could add to this.
- Relevance for actors: In order for actors to be and—even more important—to remain involved in the long term, the issue being addressed must be of significant importance to them. Either they are directly or indirectly affected by the corresponding transformation process, or it must seem meaningful to them to initiate it.
- Potential for shaping the future: An RSTL only makes sense if the technology field under investigation is sufficiently open for design, both with regard to the technologies themselves and with regard to their social, cultural, legal, economical, etc., embedding. The economic exploitability of innovations plays a role here—especially for necessary investments in the RSTL—but is ultimately only one aspect. It should accordingly not be overrated; in fact, it should always be subordinated to the goal of a public welfare-oriented, sustainable development.
Conflicts of Interest
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Parodi, O.; Bögel, P.; Beecroft, R.; Seebacher, A.; Wagner, F.; Hahn, J. Reflexive Sustainable Technology Labs: Combining Real-World Labs, Technology Assessment, and Responsible Research and Innovation. Sustainability 2022, 14, 15094. https://doi.org/10.3390/su142215094
Parodi O, Bögel P, Beecroft R, Seebacher A, Wagner F, Hahn J. Reflexive Sustainable Technology Labs: Combining Real-World Labs, Technology Assessment, and Responsible Research and Innovation. Sustainability. 2022; 14(22):15094. https://doi.org/10.3390/su142215094Chicago/Turabian Style
Parodi, Oliver, Paula Bögel, Richard Beecroft, Andreas Seebacher, Felix Wagner, and Julia Hahn. 2022. "Reflexive Sustainable Technology Labs: Combining Real-World Labs, Technology Assessment, and Responsible Research and Innovation" Sustainability 14, no. 22: 15094. https://doi.org/10.3390/su142215094