Socio-technical Futures Shaping the Present - Empirical Examples and Analytical Challenges in STS and Technology Assessment
Location 123
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 3


  • Martin Meister (TU Berlin) email
  • Andreas Lösch (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology ) email
  • Armin Grunwald (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology - KIT) email
  • Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer (Technical University of Berlin) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Martin Meister (TU Berlin, 1), Andreas Lösch (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, 2), Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer (Technical University of Berlin, 3)

Short Abstract

In our track we want to provide a forum for mutual inspiration for different strands of research in STS and TA that address the different roles of socio-technical futures in shaping the present. As possible contributions we address empirical examples as well as analytical proposals.

Long Abstract

One of the key conceptual statements of STS says that any imagination of new technologies is unavoidably coupled with the shaping or even invention of future kinds of users and usage, of altered social relations or even new societal regimes. Such statements are also guiding for technology assessments (TA), e.g. vision assessments, which try to evaluate societal consequences of imagined futures. But neither in STS nor in TA has much attention been given to the detailed analysis of the influence of socio-technical futures on the present (e.g., their influence on orientations and decisions in innovation processes or their influence on societal debates), including the study of such influences on past presents. Also, there are only some attempts to elaborate the constitutive interplay between imagined and factual socio-technical developments conceptually.

In our track we want to provide a forum for mutual inspiration for different strands of research in STS and TA that address the different roles of socio-technical futures in shaping the present.

This comprises questions like

• What types of future concepts are at play?

• How could we differentiate them according to their functions in social processes (e.g., debates, R&D or technology governance)?

• What patterns of guidance through these concepts can be generalized from empirical case studies?

• How can the insights in different effects of socio-technical futures be used for technology assessments and in technology governance?

• And overall, what are ways to conceptualize the shaping of the present by socio-technical futures?


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Shaping the present by creating pictures of the future?

Author: Armin Grunwald (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology - KIT)  email

Short Abstract

What does it mean to shape the future? We only can intervene into the present by action, or by decisions which then might have consequences for future developments or events. This loop from the present to futures and back to the present is regarded as an exemplification of the ‘hermeneutic circle’.

Long Abstract

It is a commonly used rhetoric phrase that we develop ideas how to shape the future and that we shape the future exactly by implementing those ideas. In particular, the world of NEST (new and emerging sciences and technologies) is full of narratives and pictures how NEST should be developed in order to shape the future, e.g. by solving the global energy supply problem, by enhancing human performance, or by designing artificial life.

However, what does it mean to "shape the future"? We are only able to intervene into the present, by communication, by action, or by decisions to be made. These interventions then might have consequences for future developments or events. Thus, the phrase should better be formulated in the way of the title of this Session: we do not shape "the future" but we intervene into present constellations and thereby influence future developments.

In my presentation I propose to understand this loop as an exemplification of the 'hermeneutic circle'. Its promise is that after having processed the loop we do not return to the same point but rather have gained new insight which could be used for orientational purposes. However, to really achieve this 'value added' depends on some preconditions to be fulfilled. I will take the history of the socio-technical futures brought forward over the past 15 years and will try to trace some ways how the present was shaped by those futures.

Socio-Technical Futures for Parliamentary Research: Building a Foresight Service for the European Parliament

Author: Philip Boucher (European Parliament)  email

Short Abstract

The Scientific Foresight Unit of the European Parliamentary Research Service delivers research on science and technology futures to inform action at the European Parliament. We present our experience in providing this service with reference to projects on cyber-physical systems and assistive technologies.

Long Abstract

The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) offers an in-house foresight service, delivering bespoke research on science and technology futures to inform decision making at the European Parliament. This is offered primarily through the Science and Technology Options Assessment panel - which is comprised of 24 MEPs from a range of Parliamentary Committees - but the service is also available to other MEPs and Committees.

The aim of the foresight service is to support Parliamentary work, including political action to anticipate and prepare for different socio-technical futures (on a 30-50 year timescale). The service also creates a range of fora for debate amongst politicians, policymakers, researchers and publics about socio-technical futures and their associated challenges and opportunities.

The working method of the service was developed in 2014-15 in liaison with Parliamentarians and foresight experts, and remains in an experimental stage with pilot projects on cyber-physical systems and assistive technologies. It comprises six steps:

1. Topic selection

2. horizon scanning

3. 360° envisioning

4. scenario development

5. legislative backcasting

6. sense-making for empowering MEPs

In the paper, we will discuss how socio-technical futures are designed, articulated and deployed as part of this method and how they shape the present, with particular reference to the unique positioning of the EPRS and STOA Panel within the European Parliament.

Science, State and Citizen in Visions of the Bioeconomy

Authors: Tess Doezema (Arizona State University)  email
J. Benjamin Hurlnbut (Arizona State University)  email

Short Abstract

Shifting citizen-state-market subjectivities are emergent with imaginations of a future bioeconomy. Efforts to update U.S. biotechnology regulation shed light on commitments in policy, law and public investment that are framed as indispensable to bringing this imagined future to fruition.

Long Abstract

The proliferation of bioeconomy strategies, blueprints and plans that have emerged in the last several decades has offered a variety of visions of a world transformed by biotechnology, and prescriptions for pathways to these futures. Though the visions vary, they are unified by the notion that biology holds the potential for profound, cross-sectorial economic transformation with corollary benefits for human wellbeing. They are also unified by the notion that this future depends upon particular commitments in the present—in policy, law, and public investment.

We examine actions surrounding the recent directive to update the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, examining it as a site where imperatives articulated around visions of the bioeconomy come together with critiques of existing regulatory precedents, such as the AquaAdvantage Salmon. In these visions, markets are seen as secondary to and dependent upon political infrastructures that facilitate the forms of technological transformation that ostensibly portend economic transformation. Thus while the market is seen as a constitutive infrastructure of the bioeconomy, it is figured more as an achievement rather than a driver of techno-entrepreneurial activities. Because the not-yet-realized conditions of the market are also the conditions of possibility for the formation of rational consumer subjectivities, citizens are constructed as necessarily ignorant of what serves their own future best interests. From this follows particular interventions of the state to create (future) markets by disciplining (future) consumers, and figuring (future) innovation as a necessary and sufficient mechanism to ensure the security and wellbeing of its citizens.

Reflexive hermeneutics against closing down TA discourses: a case of synthetic biology

Author: Go Yoshizawa (Osaka University)  email

Short Abstract

A hermeneutic discourse analysis of TA documents on synthetic biology revealed a tendency to close down future spaces under hermeneutic imperialism of science against opening up sociotechnical futures and the outputs of TA.

Long Abstract

The development of newly emerging science and technology is related to the ability of actors to anticipate and reflect, to confront ideas about technology-driven futures with shared values, and assess them accordingly. The societal assessment of techno-futures can provide a semantic and hermeneutic structuring of a basically open future to allow a better informed and reflected debate for preparing decision-making (Grunwald 2013, 2014a, 2014b). However, there is always a danger that the present discourse of the future is affected by subtle closing down pressures called as 'hermeneutic imperialism' of science (Wynne 2014, 2016; cf. Stirling 2008) while going against opening up the outputs of TA with plural and conditional advice (Ely, van Zwanenberg & Stirling 2014). Inspired by hermeneutic approaches to policy analysis (Dryzek 1982; Fischer 2003) and sociological hermeneutics (Reichertz 2004; Hitzler 2005; Keller 2011), this case study takes a discourse analysis of 35 TA documents on synthetic biology. The analysis revealed a tendency to close down future spaces that appears even in studies conducted by dedicated TA organisations in Europe, where rarely touch upon security and sustainability of global natural and innovation ecosystems underlined in the context of bioeconomy and biodiversity. With a strong focus for concern on safety reflecting the GM debate, European policy discourses tend to adopt a more manageable approach under the name of the proportionality principle, being in line with the 'act now, before it's too late' slogan for European futures (Felt 2015) and the idea of the hype cycle as a stagist model.

How engineers derive requirements from situational scenarios - the basic mechanism

Authors: Martin Meister (TU Berlin)  email
Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer (Technical University of Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

One important role of situational scenarios is to guide engineers in developing new technology. We propose that the basic mechanism behind this is a cognitive drive for mutual specification of technical and social requirements.

Long Abstract

Situational scenarios of future technology imagine new socio-technical situations in which the interplay between the technical and the social is sketched in some detail. In an empirical project we are investigating how such situational scenarios are guiding engineers in developing new technology. Our findings rely on case studies in the field of ubiquitous computing from Japan, USA, and Europe. In our talk we argue that the basic mechanism behind this guiding role of scenarios is a cognitive drive for mutual specification. Either an imagined context of use defines technical requirements to be met, or the working of an imagined technology defines promising contexts of use, including social requirements like type of usage and users or larger institutional setting. We show that and how this mechanism works for different types of scenarios: For narrative scenarios which exist in texts, videos, pictures, or comics, and for prototype scenarios which consist of technological prototypes and testbeds realized in labs. Astoundingly, we found that specification not only goes from abstract ideas to more concrete ones but also in the other direction. This can be shown from cases where concrete scenarios are forcing or at least nudging the engineers to change their overall approach.

A Typology of Socio-technical Futures: Performativity of Scenarios, Simulations, Prototypes

Author: Mariya Dzhimova (Munich Center for Technology in Society)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the different roles and functions of three types of socio-technical futures in the innovation process – futures projected in narratives and scenarios (1), futures projected in computer simulations (2), and futures projected in prototypes (3).

Long Abstract

In recent years a growing number of articles in the fields of technology assessment (TA) and science and technology studies (STS) has pointed out the significance of socio-technical futures in the innovation process. However, most of these studies have been mainly concerned with socio-technical futures projected in promises, discourses, and scenarios, whereas there have been relatively few studies focusing on futures projected in digital computer simulations as well as in physical and digital prototypes. Therefore, this analytical paper addresses this research gap by proposing a typology of three different kinds of socio-technical futures and investigates their specific roles and functions in the innovation process: narratives and scenarios articulated in language (1), computed simulations embodied in digital materiality (2), and prototypes embodied in digital as well as in physical materiality (3). This paper lays out the position, that each of these types of socio-technical futures has its own performativity. That means each type provides specific constraints and affordances, translates ideas into action in its own way, and accordingly, shapes the future presents differently. Furthermore, this paper assumes that because of its respective idiosyncrasy, each of these different types of socio-technical futures has different significance for different actors in different fields, and therefore fulfills specific functions in the innovation process.

How Smart City futures are shaping urban planning today - and what urban studies can tell us about the impacts of (past) urban futures

Author: Philipp Späth (Freiburg University)  email

Short Abstract

Empirical findings from interviews/ document analysis in 4 large German cities, which are said to be currently turned into smart cities, are juxtaposed with the rich literature on how ‘urban futures’/ ‘urban imaginaries’ influence urban planning today and influenced it in the 20th century.

Long Abstract

Today, the ideal of a 'Smart City' strongly influences urban planning and the development of urban infrastructures in most large cities globally. How exactly, i.e. in what forms and ways, is this ideal of smart and interconnected infrastructures impacting on contemporary decisions about infrastructure development and the shape of the built environment in a sample of 4 large German cities? In what ways are the 'smart users' and 'smart citizens', that are meant to be necessary for populating these smart cities, created?

In this contribution, I will contrast own empirical findings from interviews and document analysis from 5 large German cities, which are said to be currently turned into smart cities, with the rich literature on how 'urban futures' or 'urban imaginaries' (Soja 2000) influence urban planning today (e.g. de Jong et al. 2015, Luque-Ayala & Marvin 2015, Vanolo 2015) and influenced urban planning in the past (i.e. the 20th century) (Ward 2002, Hall 2014).

Applying an newly developed analytical framework (Sengers/ Spaeth/ Raven 2016), I will trace effects that the introduction of particular smart city ideals had on a) material technological developments, on b) management and governance institutions and on c) discourses about desired futures of the respective cities and their infrastructure systems. This will enable me to study the interplay between imagined and factual socio-technical developments in the field of various urban infrastructures (ICT, energy, mobility).

Managing the Future: The Special Virus Leukemia Program

Author: Robin Scheffler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

Presents a genealogy of the development of human cancer viruses as “administrative objects” at the US National Cancer institute, emphasizing the important role of management theories and technologies in constituting these viruses as objects, and their influence on the growth of cancer research.

Long Abstract

In 1964, the US National Cancer Institute established the Special Virus Leukemia Program (SVLP), a program that aggressively sought to develop a cancer vaccine using contracts to manage research in molecular biology and virology, spending nearly a billion dollars during the 1960s and 1970s. Remarkably, however, the object of the SVLP—a human leukemia virus—was not even known to exist. The SVLP represented a milestone for both cancer virus research and the development of 'big biomedicine,' presaging the future-based innovation schemes of the biotechnology industry by decades. 

The paper develops the analytic concept of "administrative objects" through a genealogy of the SVLP. This concept extends work by scholars of anticipation, futurity, and bureaucracy to argue that future-oriented modes of governance may be generative of scientific knowledge in themselves. Cancer viruses stood at a juncture of the crisis atmosphere stoked by childhood disease advocacy and the articulation of Cold War research and development strategies. This atmosphere redefined the central question as one of not if human cancer viruses existed but when a human cancer vaccine would be developed.  In focusing on urgency and time, these forces fashioned leukemia viruses as objects for administration and management before they were recognized as scientific objects. These administrative frameworks gave planners a vocabulary to operate within future discoveries rather than current scientific knowledge about leukemia viruses. While this envisioned future may not have come to pass, the infrastructure built upon these administrative objects played a vital role in the growth of the molecular sciences.

The Function and Implications of "Future" in Robotics Research

Author: Andreas Bischof (Chemnitz University of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

Fictional futures are part of the culturally shaped identity of robtics researchers. Notions of "future" areused to legitimize research and to symbolize the ability to resolve societal problems. The promise of helping robots thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Long Abstract

Notions of the future play a crucial role in the epistemological genealogy of robotics. The construction of robots is aiming at applications and scenarios to be realized in the future. This is not only characteristic for the recent boom in robotics funding. It starts with the fictional origin of robots and mutually shaped ideas of socio-technical futures by writers and researchers.

These future concepts often work by the promise of all-around benefit. Visions of an everyday world inhabited by helping robots become a regulative ideal of research coordination. So-called "Grand Challenges" bunch different branches of robotics research under umbrella-like aims of national economic span. The idea that robotics is realizing imagined futures becomes its legitimation and motivation.

Despite their actual abilities robots are addressed as universal tools. Robotics thereby becomes increasingly a discipline to adapt the applications and use cases to the tools. Thereby users and situations of use become formalized parts of a solution process - instead of active stakeholders.

This empirical glimpse on future concepts in social robotics research shows different functions of the popularity of socio-technical futures in research: Fictional futures do not just become part of a culturally shaped identity, they are used to legitimize research and even more important to symbolize the resolving of societal problems. Thereby the promise of helping robots becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and implies a instrumental relation to the social worlds of application.

Visions as socio-epistemic practices shaping the present

Authors: Andreas Lösch (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology )  email
Reinhard Heil (ITAS/KIT)  email

Short Abstract

The talk develops a concept for analysing the efficacy of visions of the future as socio-epistemic practices in current processes of innovation and transformation. This is needed for a real-time technology assessment of heterogeneous technologies.

Long Abstract

Technology Assessment (TA) is increasingly confronted with practices that create, influence and instrumentalise sociotechnical visons of the future. These visions seem to have a constitutive role for innovation and transformation processes in the present involving very heterogeneous technologies. Research in STS revealed insights into the efficacy of visions in such processes, but mainly in a retrospective manner. It is analytically difficult to investigate what exactly visions enable and effect in the specific practices and processes in the present. A focus on the normative implications and the scientific and technical feasibility of visionary ideas as in recent vision assessments in TA is not sufficient. Increasingly analyses and orientation are sought after which show the efficacy of visions in processes because of new and enabling technologies (e.g. nanotechnology) and the great transformations (e.g. energy, climate change). This needs analytical approaches that focus on the role of visons in practices.

The contribution develops a theoretical-methodological concept to make such effects of visions as practices in current processes analysable. In it, visions are conceptualised as socio-epistemic practices that are constitutive in social processes because they enable productions of new knowledge and new sociotechnical arrangements. Based on different examples - such as smart grid, Big Data and open source digital fabrication - a concept is developed which enables insights concerning the process related efficacy of visions for a real-time TA that accompanies these processes.

The organizational enactment of socio-technical futures. The case of "Industrie 4.0" in Germany.

Author: Uli Meyer (Technische Universität München)  email

Short Abstract

Socio-technical futures shape and are shaped by organizations. This paper explores this interrelation in the case of “Industrie 4.0” in Germany. It combines concepts from STS and organizational theory to develop a more elaborate understanding of how imagined future technologies affect the present.

Long Abstract

Socio-technical futures shape the development of many organizations, while organizations are the main actors which create, and maintain such imaginations of technology. Regardless of this intimate relation, neither STS nor organization studies have scrutinized its dynamics substantially. This paper presents an attempt to bridge these two perspectives to gain a more detailed understanding of the dynamic of socio-technical futures and organizations. The empirical case used to analyze this relation is the vision of a fourth industrial revolution labeled "Industrie 4.0" in Germany. Coined in 2011 by state actors and industry associations, the term has gained considerable momentum on both a discursive and a practical level.

To understand, why this imaginary future gained so much footing, while others did not, it is necessary to understand the dynamic between the socio-technical futures, organizations and the field forming around this issue. This paper will elaborate on these: "Industrie 4.0" is the consequence of the sense making (Weick 1995) by different organizations, which try to reduce uncertainty. By doing so, they enact (ibid.) not only their own environment but also that of many other organizations, especially industrial companies. In such a perspective, "Industrie 4.0" gained so much momentum, because it enabled policy makers and industry associations in their sense making process. In their interaction with other organizations, they create an organizational field (DiMaggio/Powell) in which crucial aspects of the socio-technical future get institutionalized in a self-reinforcing dynamic. The paper presents a theoretical model to describe such dynamics and gives examples from Germany and Europe.

Visions of In Vitro Meat: Shaping the Future of Food

Authors: Inge Böhm (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT))  email
Arianna Ferrari (ITAS/KIT)  email
Silvia Woll (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT))  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the imaginaries and visions of different innovators and stakeholders of in vitro meat on the basis of semi-structured interviews.

Long Abstract

In vitro meat has recently gained media and some public attention, especially after the launch of the first burger made entirely of bovine stem cells in 2013 and the late-breaking announcement of cultured meat balls in January 2016. The basic idea of IVM is to produce meat from muscle cells grown in cell culture. IVM is presented by the innovators as one of the most important solutions for shaping a sustainable future of food: It could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use and could be healthy and animal-friendly (cf. Bhat et al. 2015).

Innovators, artists and social scientists imagine a concrete future with IVM: a 3D-printer in a restaurant, a bioreactor in every household, a pig in the backyard which serves as stem cell donor; and the overall idea of a post-animal bioeconomy, the "reinvention of the way of producing animal products" (cf. New Harvest). Visions of in vitro meat influence the actual debate about sustainable food, although they struggle to be included in broader food policies mainly because of the lack of public and political awareness of the negative impacts of meat production and consumption (cf. Wellesley et al. 2015). In our project, dedicated to explore visions of in vitro meat, we performed interviews with different stakeholders involved in this innovation. In our talk we will present the results of these semi-structured interviews and we will try to show how different visions of what in vitro meat is and what it could be concretely shape the development of this innovation.

Proposal of Applying Constructive Technology Assessment to the Autonomous Car

Author: Keita Sugihara (Nanzan University)  email

Short Abstract

I propose actor-network theory (ANT) based constructive technology assessment (CTA) for the autonomous car. I discuss the utilization CTA from the perspective of ANT in order to realize a socially desirable autonomous car. Further, I discuss a plan for hosting an autonomous car workshop in Japan.

Long Abstract

Today, the autonomous car is attracting a lot of attention in developed countries. In the near future, the realization and diffusion of the autonomous car will have substantial influence on our life, both positively and negatively. This presentation aims to apply actor-network theory (ANT) based constructive technology assessment (CTA) in order to realize a desirable autonomous car in society. First, I will present the social expectations for the autonomous car in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Second, I will discuss some negative aspects of the autonomous car, citing a case from the Netherlands. Those negative aspects of the autonomous car include asocial behavior of drivers of the autonomous car toward pedestrians. In the presentation of this case, I will rely on the study of Waelbers in the country. Third, I will discuss CTA, citing the study of Rip. Then I will examine how we can utilize ANT in CTA, relying on the study of Callon. Fourth, I propose applying ANT-based CTA on the autonomous car in order to realize a socially desirable autonomous car. I will discuss why using CTA from the ANT perspective is useful in the development of a desirable autonomous car in society. In addition, I will discuss a plan to host an autonomous car workshop in Japan, based on CTA from the ANT perspective. Finally, I will discuss how the concept of the autonomous car is shaping the present and summarize my presentation.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.