How can IT tools support participation in a responsible way?
While the use of IT tools enables new forms of participation in research and innovation processes, pitfalls are definitely also present. In a recent workshop, PRO-Ethics partners discussed how to avoid deepening the "digital divide" along with other ethical dilemmas.
In September, the project partner VDI/VDE-IT organised a joint cross-learning online workshop on the use of IT tools for participation processes. Invited were all funding organisations (RFOs) involved in the PRO-Ethics project as well as representatives from expert partners interested in new online formats. The workshop explored the goals and conditions under which IT tools can be used by the RFOs.
The workshop was introduced by a state-of-the-art presentation on IT tools that enable new participation formats. The VDI/VDE-IT team had conducted extensive research and mapping in order to distinguish tools for differentiated purposes. Today, IT tools are available that support basic science literacy in the general population (e.g. wikis), enable proactive participation and promote design options by citizens (e.g. e-petitioning, or online citizen workshops).
In order to discuss how these means can be linked to the work of the PRO-Ethics project, all 25 participants were divided into three groups to discuss the goals and framework conditions in the PRO-Ethics three action fields: citizen participation in innovation projects, citizen engagement within agency processes and citizen engagement in evaluation processes. Some major issues of the discussion were:
• Definition and understanding of target group: Certainly IT tools enable new forms of participation. However, a precise understanding of the target group is necessary, so that the use of a tool does not deepen the "digital divide" by allowing only privileged groups to access the discussion. This is particularly evident when less digitally affine groups, such as older people, are to be involved in a process. Thus, a precise understanding of the target group, including their requirements and digital skills, is necessary to use IT tools successfully.
• Methodological framework for participation: The use of IT tools and a good understanding of the target group alone is no guarantee for successful participation. Successful participation depends to a large extent on whether the means used are appropriate to the objectives pursued. Therefore, it is necessary not only to define the objectives, but also to pursue a methodological strategy in which the methods used are logically related to each other. This was expressed very nicely in the discussions of the pilot of UEFISCDI (Romania), in which a participatory foresight process is carried out. In principle, a Delphi method is pursued here, which is based on a logical sequence of steps in an online-based process. Such methodological frameworks are necessary so that the results of a process also support the general achievement of objectives. Based on this framework, it should then be decided which steps can possibly be better mapped and executed online.
• Covid-19 pandemic: In many areas, the restrictions on public life due to the Covid-19 pandemic have led to an acceleration of digititalisation. Online-based solutions have, for example, made it possible in many places to hold (limited) school classes or maintain essential work processes in the home office. Our political life is also affected by these changes and political institutions are required to enable democratic processes even under conditions of physical contact restrictions. Under these conditions, the use of IT tools for participation also gains a central role in order to further strengthen an increasing democratisation of innovation policy and promotion. While digititalisation is increasingly accepted in many areas of our lives, institutions for innovation promotion should take a pioneering role here and design applications in such a way that they enable responsible participation even in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.
These and other results of the workshop will be analysed by the project partner VDI/VDE-IT in order to support possible applications of IT tools by the funding organisations in their upcoming pilots.
By Julian Stubbe, Franziska Wetterling and Kay-Lennart Hoffmeister