How can we successfully involve citizens in research and innovation?

Citizens often experience research and innovation through end-products and services. But how can citizens successfully participate in different stages of research and innovation, including in the strategic development and evaluation processes of research and funding organisations? This continues to be a central question for the PRO-Ethics consortium.

PRO-Ethics aims to test new, ethical ways to involve citizens in decision making processes, using pilots to gather real-world learnings that may inform the development of a comprehensive ethics framework. As the second round of pilots are being designed by PRO-Ethics’ partners, organisations with experience of involving citizens in their work were brought together in an online workshop to feed in their knowledge and to explore key questions PRO-Ethics partners were likely to face. While there are many challenges that may arise, our discussion explored three key themes:

1. The purpose of participation
2. How to build trust with communities
3. How to structure processes for successful participation.

The stakeholders involved included research, funding and citizen science organisations from 11 different countries, who collectively had experience of a variety of contexts from local government to living labs and science centres.

What did we find out?

Ensuring value added

There are many ways to consider “value”, but when it comes to citizen participation it is important that research and funding organisations consider value from the perspective of all those involved - not just the value obtained for a particular research or innovation project. While the input of lived experience can enrich research and its subsequent end products, what will those who participate get in return? This is an important question to consider in any project.

Citizen participation can be approached in many different ways and there are different levels of engagements, from full co-creation to consultations. However, when a project directly affects a community (or will have a resulting effect on them) citizen participation is crucial.

Finally, to ensure participation is meaningful, citizens should be involved when there is a prototype of a solution, service or policy that people can practically be involved with. This ensures citizens see the tangible value of their input within a larger process or body of work.

Practical considerations for successful citizen participation

During the discussion on what practical conditions needed to be in place for successful citizen participation, there were mixed feelings about whether citizens should be involved in co-defining challenges in the very earliest stages, or whether to wait until a research or funding organisation had a set project objective. This is because there are valid reasons for doing both.

There was widespread agreement that projects involving citizens need to have a clear plan for how citizens would participate. Having a process to manage citizen input will always be key. How will citizen feedback be tracked and used in research and innovation, and how will research and funding organisations communicate this process with those involved? These are central questions that any project needs to answer.

Another practical consideration relates to making the process for participation accessible, in order to ensure that citizens are motivated to get involved. Remuneration is also a way to make sure that those who are involved represent a balanced group of society; without remuneration, only those who can afford to participate for free will do so.

Ultimately, there are many practical considerations to take into account, and there are lots of ways participation can go wrong. Therefore, regular reflection and review needs to be built into the structure of participative processes. Leaving room for adaptation that fits citizen needs is also important.


In conclusion, when considering successful citizen participation it is important to keep in mind the purpose of participation, how to build trust with communities and the structure of the participation itself. There are many challenges that citizen participation is likely to surface, so there needs to be careful consideration at the start. As research and innovation begins to involve citizens in more of its activities, organisations must be aware of potential participation fatigue - when the same communities are asked to contribute for little return time after time.

Trust is one of the most important elements for successful participation with any community and this should be the priority for research and innovation projects that involve those with lived experience. Being transparent about how citizen input will be used and communicating with the same communities after a research project has been completed are all practical ways to help build solid relationships between communities and the innovation sector.

Finally, the contract for participation requires regular feedback loops. Participation cannot be a one way, extractive exercise. Citizens and research and funding organisations must work together. This process requires an infrastructure that can support the various elements of participation, from outreach through to evaluation. All these elements require time and resources. When done well, citizen participation has the space for these considerations to be taken into account.

By PRO-Ethics partner Nesta
Photo: PRO-Ethics

Published 20.05.2021