Meaningful engagement in the context of responsible innovation

Hello everyone,

Thank you so much for being here to witness this defense: designing meaningful dialogue in the context of responsible innovation. In order to break the ice and create a safe space for myself, let me start by telling you that as a child I had a persistent dislike of swimming lessons. I found them terrifying. And at a certain point, after weeks of vain attempts to hide behind the coats on the coat rack, the moment was there. I had to spend two minutes in the water, fully dressed, holding up peace signs while I tried not to drown. And as I was keeping my head above the water, people were looking at me, and my mother was taking pictures from the side. This moment reminds me of back then.

Can you picture this? Have I touched your empathic, imaginative and maybe also your emotional capacities a bit? If yes, then step one of this monologue on dialogue has succeeded.


The importance of practicing these capacities is one of the imperatives of this thesis. More specifically, in the context of thinking about future developments. More specifically, the idea is that we should think together about the changes in our daily lives and our sense of being, that are partly due to scientific and technological developments. This thesis holds that we have to reflect on that with more than logic and rhetoric.

I will further illustrate what I, or rather we, have been doing over the past few years by taking you through the projects.

The first project I was allowed to work on for this thesis was the frame Reflection Lab. In this project, pupils and students were encouraged to think about their view on technology and nature; their view on technology development; and about who is responsible for thinking about the ethics surrounding technological developments. They did so by comparing themselves with video fragments of actors representing four often occuring perspectives, and moving themselves on a map. Amongst others, through in-depth questions from facilitators, people indeed spoke more about the why than about the what.

On the slide you can see what a possible outcome of such a conversation looked like. The four photos represent the main characters of the video clips that participants viewed; you see how they move around the map, and an example of what people say when reflecting on why they change position.


The PhD process continued, and I was allowed to work on another project. This project also focused on reflecting on values, but this more specifically by learning from imagined futures. With a group of 12 people, we spend 2 days, reflecting on the future of the energy transition and the possible role of synthetic biology in this. There were biologists, chemists, ethicists, policy makers and policy advisors. We discovered here, most particularly, that it is difficult for people to incorporate what was touched in dialogue into their daily work.


On the slide you can see examples of what was made during the dialogue, and a quote of a participant expressing how he immediately returned to the order of the day on his way back.


The next project was a similar one, on a European level, concerning the question of how the field of nanotechnology can be more responsive to societal developments and values. After bringing together multiple backgrounds in playful conversation exercises, we discovered that the ideas about the 'why' of connecting with social developments, as well as how 'competent' society is, differed quite a bit among participants; and between participants and us as an organization. An important conclusion drawn after this study was that in order to make guiding policy advice, time also must be taken to unravel underlying science and society images.

On this slide you see an example of the type of posters these participants talked about. These were made on the basis of previous citizen dialogues. In this particular case conversations about baby clothing that can monitor, and under which conditions this could be done, as well as what this for instance would do to a sense of parenthood. It is accompanied by a quote from someone who has described how highly he regards scientific knowledge.


And then, finally, we moved to Reprodutopia. Here, in a spatially built fertility clinic of the future, we spoke with visitors about the ideal future and reproduction. The starting point of a conversation could be, for example, wearing this artificial womb. How does that feel? Who would you see using this in the future? Do you think that's desirable? The second images shows another speculative representation as a conversation starter about the artificial womb, exhibited at the Dutch Design Week.

In these studies we examined which characteristics of this experiment sparked a conversation, and what values ​​emerged.


In short, the answer: we had many conversations about the importance of wonder and ecology. Values ​​that are often forgotten in the design of technology. Moreover, these conversations were mostly stimulated through scenarios, stereotypes and the touching upon memories of personal experiences. Here lies at the same time the danger of this method, because which stereotypes do you want to confirm, and who do you touch with which scenarios, created by whom?


To finish these 10 minutes of keeping my head above the water, one thing I think that is important to remember: we conducted these experiments within the framework of a vision of changes needed to democratize science and technology development. At the same time we conducted the experiments in a scientific practice where some habits do not align with this other vision. Like the attention to language over movement, or having to report outcomes on the borderline of control. I want to point out that change does not only occur linearly, from project via behavior to policy; yet also from project via noise to policy.


What is clear is that the conversations conducted in the context of this dissertation in general opened up stories, and resulted in the exchange of knowledge and understanding, at that moment. Reaping the benefits of this noise in a sustainable and continuous manner is one of the next steps that needs to be taken.

Thank you for listening :)

Anouk Heltzel ✌🏻 ✌🏻