Constructive Technology Assessment

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The core idea of constructive technology assessment (CTA) is that the social problems surrounding technology can and must be addressed through the inclusion of a large diversity of actors in technological design and implementation processes, including especially social actors. Social actors are those who experience and/or articulate and define health, environmental, or other value-laden effects of evolving technologies but are not directly engaged in technological developments. They may be consumers, citizens, employees, corporations, social groups, and more. CTA activities thus depart from traditional technology assessment (TA), which limits itself to charting the effects of given technological options, and does not attempt directly to influence or broaden the design process.

Historical Background

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, TA was widely adopted in several countries in Europe and in the United States. At first mainly conducted by technical experts, it developed toward a more participatory mode, bringing public values and opinions into the assessment of new technologies (Grin and de Graaf 1996, Vig and Paschen 2000). Both conventional expert impact assessment and various forms of participatory TA focus on shaping public policies related to technical change. TA policies have often been institutionalized in separate organizations such as the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the Netherlands Organization for Technology Assessment (renamed in Rathenau Institute), which serve legislatures and try to inform the broader public.

The Rathenau Institute was also heavily involved in developing the theory and practice of CTA. Since its founding, CTA practices have been taken up by many organizations, including corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies, although not necessarily in the same way and often not under this label. These actors face different opportunities and constraints depending on their position in the innovation process. They share, however, the insight that negotiation among all stakeholders is necessary in order to deal with social problems that come with technical change.

CTA activities can take the form of dialogue workshops, consensus conferences (public debates), scenario workshops, or citizen reports. These are methods that can be used to organize structured discussions between social actors and designers (or technological actors). They only become CTA practices, however, when they focus on influencing design and technical change (Schwarz and Thompson 1990, Misa et al. 2003, Schot and Rip 1998, Schot 2001, Sørensen and Williams 2002).

Because CTA addresses innovation, it becomes a form of technology policy, although regular technology policies are not aimed at the integration of societal aspects into technical change. Some organizations and authors have called for such integration. They have argued that technology policies should aim at promoting those technologies that promise positive societal effects or externalities, as economists would term them (Carnegie Commission on Science 1992, Freeman and Soete 1997).

CTA Perspective

From a broad historical perspective, CTA practices may be viewed as a new form of management, replacing a problematic modernist way of managing technology (Misa et al. 2003). The core of modernist management lies in the separation of technology and its social effects. The lack of what may be called negotiating space between the actors involved in the design process and spokespersons for actors who are directly affected by the technology is a feature of the modernization process as it has manifested itself until the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In the modern regime of technology management, two tracks are apparent: promotion and regulation. On the one hand, there have emerged separate sites—called laboratories—where designers are given plenty of room to tinker with new technologies without having to think about the effects, because creativity might suffer. After they have been tried and tested, the black boxes are sent off into the world to bring about welfare and progress. This model encourages just plugging the technology in; playing with the technology is even considered dangerous. On the other hand, there has emerged a regulatory arena to mitigate the appearance of negative effects. Regulation does not concern itself with steering the scientific and technical developments, but rather with setting limits to their application.

Beginning in the 1970s, more and more problems and limitations became associated with this dual-track approach. Problems cropped up and so-called negative side effects of existing technologies were not easily solved through ex post facto regulation. They only worsened. Environmental problems are good examples. Since the 1980s there has been an explosion of new governmental regulations including the use of economic instruments as well as great increases in knowledge of environmental problems and solutions. Environmental advisory agencies have flourished. Yet many environmental problems have not been solved. Chimney filters and catalytic converters appear unsatisfactory. It has become clear that environmental problems must be addressed through a drastic reduction of energy and resource use. Another form of production and consumption is required. This will not come about through government regulation only, also not if it would focus on creating new market mechanisms.

An alternative form of production and consumption implies not only making environmentally-friendly technologies, but also an alternative form of making technology. The character of the technology design and implementation process is in need of change. It must be broadened to include social aspects and actors. Ultimately such a broadening could lead to a change in the current pattern of technology management (the dual-track approach). New institutions should emerge that will become platforms for the constructive integration of technology and society. It is constructive not in the sense of conflict avoidance, but in the sense that all affected are in a position to take responsibility for the construction of technology and its effects.

Features of CTA

The view that design and implementation processes must be broadened is based on the presumption that social effects are present in the form of (sometimes implicit) assumptions about the world in which the product will function. Thus, when technologies are designed, assumptions are made about users, regulations, available infrastructures, and responsibilities between various actors.

In technology studies, the notion of scripts is used to refer to this set of assumptions (Akrich 1992). The effect of broadening (and thus of the application of CTA) is that the designers' scripts are articulated and laid out as early as possible to the users, governments, and other interested parties, all of whom have their own scripts, and who will feel the effects of the technology. From the point of view of CTA, it is important to make room for such an early and more regular confrontation and exchange of all the scripts. Thus CTA processes acquire their three normative beneficial features: (1) anticipation, (2) reflexivity, and (3) social learning.

ANTICIPATION. Whenever users, social groups, and citizens take part in the design processes, they are more likely to bring in social aspects at an early stage than are designers. Designers rarely anticipate social effect; they have a hard enough time anticipating market conditions in a timely fashion. They react to market signals and social effects only when they occur, which leads to ad hoc problem solving. In the field of management studies, this lack of sensitivity toward user needs has been identified as a barrier for successful innovation.

Despite the emphasis on anticipation, there is no presumption that all social effects can be predicted. On the contrary, it must be assumed that technological development is nonlinear and unpredictable. During development all kinds of unexpected side roads and branching emerge. The given unpredictability of technological development has two implications. First, anticipation must be organized into a regular activity, including during the phase of implementation. That is when unforeseen effects emerge by way of new interactions and applications. Owing to the importance of anticipating social effects as early as possible, corporations and other technology actors can be advised to organize a trajectory to develop scenarios for coping with social effects alongside product development trajectories. Second, the technology development process should be flexibly structured so that choices can be deferred or altered.

REFLEXIVITY. Broadening the design process results in being able to notice earlier and more clearly that social effects are coupled to specific technical options and that designers design not only technological but social effects. Scripts can no longer remain hidden. The effects that emerge are dependent not only on the designers' scripts but also often on the outcomes of complex interactions between designers, users, third parties, and the context in which these actors operate.

CTA activities aim to stimulate actors to take account of the presence of scripts and realize that technological developments and social effects are coproduced. Actors thereby become reflexive. They must integrate technology and its effects into their thoughts and actions. Consensus may be reached, but controversies could very well occur as CTA exposes hidden scripts and places them next to one another. This need not be such a great problem in societies where controversies are a routine and normal part of the process of technology development. Analyses of controversies have shown that attempts often are made to suppress reflexivity. Attempts are made to separate technical facts from assumptions about the social reality in which the technologies function. Controversies subsequently take the unproductive course of the dual-track regime, either emphasizing promotion or regulation of new technologies.

SOCIAL LEARNING PROCESSES. Learning may occur on two levels. First-order learning leads to developing a better ability to specify and define one's own design. Second-order learning means learning about one's own assumptions and scripts, learning that one is creating new couplings and demands. CTA relates to both forms of learning. It is important to embed technological development in social learning processes as early as possible so that users, designers, and third parties have the opportunity to scrutinize their own presumptions and come to new specifications. In practice, design processes then become more symmetrical from the beginning. As much attention is paid to technical as market and social issues. Design processes become open (so actors are ready to partake) and space is made for experimentation, for trying out various couplings and problem definitions.

Changing the Design Process

CTA activities are not directed in the first instance at such substantive goals as the reduction of environmental pollution, the defense of privacy, or other such social goals. Thus, for instance, the development of wind energy or a security system to guard against bank fraud cannot be automatically labeled CTA. The purpose of CTA is to shape technological development processes in such a way that social aspects are symmetrically considered.

When design processes assume the character of CTA, fewer undesired and more desired effects will result. Such a claim is based on two arguments: (1) By incorporating anticipation, reflexivity, and social learning, technology development becomes more transparent and more compliant to the wishes of various social actors. (2) In a society where CTA processes have become the norm, technology developers and those likely to be affected by the technology will be in the position to negotiate about the technology. An ability to formulate sociotechnical critique and contribute to design will become widespread. Resistance to specific social aspects will not be viewed as technophobia, but as an opportunity to optimize the design (or achieve a better fit in society).

The effect of CTA will not be to bring technology under control so that it plays a less dominant role in society. Rather, it aims to change the form of control and how technology development is played out. The goal is to anticipate earlier and more frequently, to set up design processes to stimulate reflexivity and learning, and thus to create greater space for experimentation. Possible technologies should be made more open and flexible so users easily can have control over them. Technological development will also become more complex. More coordination and new competencies will be required. In some cases the processes will slow. New institutions will emerge to encourage negotiation between developers, users, and third parties. Should design processes acquire the character of CTA, technologists will not suddenly see their work disappear or have it constantly evaluated by new bureaucracies. Almost all of the incremental design changes will not require negotiation. In the program of requirements, allowance routinely will have been made for social aspects (including flexibility). However, the variety of technological designs probably will increase, as more groups will be involved in their capacities as knowledge producers and technology developers.

The three quality criteria for CTA processes make apparent that broadening the design process is not an end in itself, and that "broader" does not necessarily mean "better." Broader is better only in those design processes where space has been created for anticipation, reflexivity, and learning. That provides some guarantee that processes should result in better technology, which is to say technology with more positive and fewer negative effects. These three criteria also allow existing CTA activities to be evaluated, and suggest directions for improvement.


SEE ALSO Consensus Conferences; Discourse Ethics; Expertise; Office of Technology Assessment.


Akrich, Madeleine. (1992). "The De-Scription of Technical Objects." In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Classic article on how technical objects are turned into black boxes, become stable, naturalized, and depoliticized. The process of their making is concealed. The article is informed by actor—network theory.

Carnegie Commission on Science. (1992). Enabling the Future: Linking Science and Technology to Societal Goals. New York: Carnegie Corp. A report that integrates social dimensions in a proposal for a new kind of technology policy.

Freeman, Chris, and Luc Soete. (1997). The Economics of Industrial Innovation, 3rd edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A highly influential yet stylized history and broad review of theories of innovation.

Grin, John, and Henk van de Graaf. (1996). "Technology Assessment as Learning." Science, Technology, and Human Values 20: 349–366. An excellent exploration of the nature of learning processes involved in technology assessment.

Misa, Thomas J.; Philip Brey; and Andrew Feenberg, eds. (2003). Modernity and Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press. A truly interdisciplinary exploration of the connections between technology and the modern world. The ambition is to lay the foundations for a new field, hence it includes discussions on theory and method, next to a wide range of empirical studies.

Rip, Arie; Thomas J. Misa; and Johan Schot, eds. (1995). Managing Technology in Society. London: Pinter. An analysis of the underdevelopment of innovative potential for achieving societal goals. Factors that block change, as well as conditions for successful learning, are identified in a wide-ranging selection of cases that encompass biotechnology, clean technologies, information and medical technologies.

Schot, Johan. (2001). "Constructive Technology Assessment as Reflexive Technology Politics." In Technology and Ethics. A European Quest for Responsible Engineering, ed. Philippe Goujon and Bertrand Hériard Dubreuil. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters. A history of the emergence of Constructive Technology Assessment and an analysis of experiences leading to suggestions for a new research agenda and practice.

Schot, Johan, and Arie Rip. (1998). "The Past and Future of Constructive Technology Assessment." Technological Forecasting and Social Change 54: 251–268. An attempt to define criteria for a good Constructive Technology Assessment practice.

Schwarz, Michael, and Michael Thompson. (1990). Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology, and Social Choice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. An introduction to a cultural theory of risk leading to a plea for constrained pluralism in technology introduction and adoption discussion and practices.

Sørensen, Knut H., and Robin Williams, eds. (2002). Shaping Technology, Guiding Policy: Concepts, Spaces, and Tools. Cheltenham, UK: Elgar. An overview of recent developments in technology studies. It introduces a range of new concepts and ideas, and it highlights both the policy implications of these concepts and explores new possibilities for intervention by government, policymakers, managers and the public.

Vig, Norman J., and Herbert Paschen, eds. (2000). Parliaments and Technology: The Development of Technology Assessment in Europe. Albany: State University of New York Press. An informative and historical country based overview of technology assessment.