The use of public engagement for technological innovation

Public engagement is a valuable means for obtaining societal perspectives on the potential impacts of science and technology. It is highly useful for exploring the socioeconomic and legal challenges related to new technologies and their applications, and for building trust and managing risks and ethical problems.


1. Context

Technological innovation is regarded as a crucial enabler for the advancement of societies and economies at large. Technologies and their application, however, also present an array of social, economic, and regulatory challenges. How to harness the benefits of technological innovation while addressing the risks associated with these developments is the subject of much discussion by governments, regulators, industry, academia, and the general public. A key aspect associated with these discussions and debates is public engagement, which is increasingly recognized as a valuable instrument for encouraging transparency and openness, aligning values with the needs of citizens, increasing representativeness, and building trust in decision-making and in the technologies themselves.

2. Debate

Within the context of technological innovation, public engagement is used to refer to the involvement of a diverse group of people in discussions and debates about potential applications of new and emerging technologies. It addresses aspects such as their governance, regulation, and the wider issues that could arise from the way that these technologies are developed and adopted. 

The methods and approaches used can vary widely. Examples of more traditional methods include surveys, public consultations, workshops, focus groups and citizens’ juries. More recent, innovative methods include the use of creative art-based approaches, serious games, digital technologies, and online platforms. Consultative approaches such as surveys, interviews and focus groups are a well-established method to gather information from a selected sample of the public. Deliberative methods are particularly useful to explore topics in depth, and where there is a potential uncertainty or controversy. Innovative methods such as art-based and experiential techniques can help to render public engagement more meaningful, by helping the public to understand how a technological innovation might fit in or affect their wider everyday lives, and also increase the diversity of participation. The use of online approaches can speed up the process of engagement, capture the views of the public on a large scale, and increase inclusivity and geographical coverage.

Challenges with public engagement include ensuring that the most appropriate methods are used in each situation and the availability of funding. It is also necessary to have the required time to plan and execute successful initiatives, ensuring that decision-makers and researchers recognise their value, and to have the required capacity and skills to carry them out and communicate them. 

3. Conclusions

The effectiveness of public engagement techniques with regard to technological innovation is often not formally assessed and evidence about many approaches is still limited. Overall, the evidence on impacts is strongest for traditional approaches with less evidence around atypical techniques, which tend to consist of proof-of-concepts to demonstrate the feasibility of a particular approach. The most reported outcome is raised awareness and understanding of technological innovation, but there are also reported examples in which public engagement initiatives have had an impact on aspects of public trust, on policy and regulation, or have helped inform market adoption of technological innovation or contributed to changes in business models.