Technology, Society & Governance in the 21st century

Farewell Symposium Stefan Kuhlmann

University of Twente, 24 March 2022

Key note speakers of the Symposium were Pierre-Benoit Joly, INRAE/LISIS (Paris/Toulouse); Annalisa Pelizza, University of Bologna; Jakob Edler, Fraunhofer Inst. Systems & Innovation Research (ISI, Karlsruhe);  Gonzalo Ordoñez Matamoros, Univ. Externado de Colombia (Bogota); Stefan Kuhlmann (University of Twente, STePS).

Speakers and discussions addressed pressing research and practical issues of technology, society and governance in the 21st century. These include the need to establish a new political sociology of science and innovation, to develop different modes of governance in times of digitized information systems and of disruptive socio-economic transformation, while deploying a truly global perspective, in particular on the governance of technology and innovation in the Global South.

A video of the full programme is available here: Farewell Symposium Kuhlmann March 24 2022.

Stefan Kuhlmann
Panel: Esther Turnhout, Klaasjan Visscher, Kornelia Konrad, Barend van der Meulen, Ewert Aukes

Stefan Kuhlmann: Reflections and thanks

Many thanks for all the great contributions and inspiring discussions today! Let me, at the end of this journey, now briefly share with you a few reflections, followed by some words of thank.  

Almost 15 years ago I was standing at this very place, in this Amphitheatre, to deliver my inaugural speech as professor and chair-holder of Science, Technology and Society at the UT. A lot has happened since.

Far earlier, in Autumn 1979, I found my first employment as junior researcher at the University of Kassel. There we studied empirically what then was called “informatization of public administration” – progress or risk? Tough debates at the time. In the early 1980s, myself and others were motivated by a combination of curiosity, scepticism and engagement (with ingredients of irony) – both as an individual attitude and as an intellectual way of working in social sciences. This sceptical-engaged way of working felt as a release from earlier and ongoing ideological and political-economic fights, where one had to position oneself vis-à-vis various Marxist concepts of class struggle, vis-à-vis the upcoming neoliberalism, vis-à-vis obvious weaknesses of representative democracy, and also in view of emerging environmentalist claims.

This sceptical-engaged way of working resembled much of the relativist and constructivist analysis of science and technological innovation as co-evolution of society, technology and institutions, in the field of Social Studies of Science and Technology (STS). In the 1980s STS were emerging at different, loosely coupled places in Europe and North America, almost simultaneously.  

Since the early 1990s I myself focussed on the “governance” of science, technology and innovation. Some people consider Governance as a neo-liberal concept. Well, we have used “governance” rather as a sceptical-engaged research heuristic (a pair of lenses) to study the actual expectations of stakeholders, and the options and limitations for consciously and realistically shaping science and technology in society. In doing this, I tended to avoid substantive normative and political claims, which would organise the world in good and bad intentions.

Rather I was and I am interested in procedural approaches:

  • What processes would help societal stakeholders and political actors to understand their respective room for manoeuvre to act and shape?
  • How can we help them to reflect diverging stakeholder views and learn to achieve desirable effects?

Key procedural concepts include “Strategic Intelligence” for policymaking; and here in Twente Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA); later we developed principles of procedural “meta-governance”, and more. I have no time today to explain these concepts in more detail.
Anyhow, I am glad that I had the chance to help develop, apply and test these reflection- and learning-based approaches in many practical and political settings in Europe and beyond, as researcher, teacher and policy advisor. One could say, as a dancer in the innovation policy dance, the metaphor that I had used in my inaugural speech 2007.

Now, looking back on several decades I see this sceptical-engaged way of working – not disappearing!  But it is becoming relativized in Social Sciences. Normative, political claims are moving to the foreground, in part for good reasons, I would say. There are a number of future challenges that need to be more convincingly addressed by STS in research and education, conceptually and normatively:

  • the need to (re)politicize STS by addressing power and politics (Pierre-Benoit has talked about this challenge);
  • the need to understand the incredible political and economic power, the performativity, the options and the risks of computer-based, digitized governance across societal domains, (Annalisa has addressed this challenge);
  • the need to combine local and global options for governing technological, sustainable und inclusive innovation, with a better understanding of the specific conditions in the Global South (Gonzalo has addressed this challenge);
  • the need to push ongoing socio-technical transformations in desired, in particular climate-neutral directions, with conscious and learning-based modes of policy intervention (Jakob has addressed this challenge).
  • the need  to develop and perform sceptical-engaged modes of inspiring and educating students (the STePS panel has addressed this challenge).

Now, while we are discussing this in a safe and comfortable university environment, less than 1500 kilometres from here Ukrainian cities are bombed and citizens killed! The ongoing deadly crusade of Putin and his entourage in Ukraine is a shock, also for the world of STS. We need to spend even more attention to concepts of power in STS, including also the emergence and role of violence. For too long, many STS works tended to de-politicize their subject of research (also through irony) – that holds also for parts of my own research and publications! 

Today our speakers have hinted to the political dimensions of STS, and referred to seminal works in this respect (think of Sheila Jasanoff, Scott Frickel & Kelly Moore, Bruno Latour, Dominique Pestre, Sergio Sismondo, to drop just a few names). Still, the subject index of the 2017 Handbook of STS has not even the entries “power” and “violence”.  So, do we have an elaborated conceptual understanding of “power” and “violence” in STS?

  1. Modes and manifestations of power; processes of exercising power; actors and institutions stabilising power relations; knowledge-based power; technologies and instruments of power; politics and power; separating lines between legitimate and illegitimate power;  …?
  2. What about our conceptual approaches to modes and roles of human violence in socio-technological development? Sure, feminist and post-colonial studies have helped a lot to understand both open and masked modes of structural violence. Yet, is this sufficient to understand and shape knowledge and technological innovation in aggressive political and societal environments?

To sum up: In STS we need to deconstruct the institutionalisation of violent power in technological and informational arrangements (physical and mental), without a priori verdicts about good or bad. This understanding could help us to emancipate from such arrangements. 

Now some words of thank:

I am extremely grateful for having had the chance to connect to and enjoy the world-class interdisciplinary scientific and intellectual culture in the Netherlands, for many years, in different positions and roles. Way back in the 1980s I met and worked with Ignace Snellen on modes of digitisation of public administrations (Tilburg; Rotterdam). In the 1990s I worked with Ben Dankbaar  on issues of innovation policy (Maastricht; Nijmegen). I discussed with Ruud Smits (TNO; Utrecht) and Arie Rip (UT) on Technology Assessment, innovation policy and policy evaluation. Ruud brought me in 2001 to Utrecht University as part-time professor at the Copernicus Institute. And in 2006 Arie convinced me to fully move to the University of Twente.
The rich interdisciplinary tradition in the Netherlands is best exemplified in the Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC), a collective effort of Dutch scholars at many universities and research institutes. WTMC originates from the late 1980s. I had the pleasure to follow their activities since my arrival in Utrecht in the early 2000s. When in 2018 the University of Twente became again the host organisation of WTMC, I got the chance to work as Academic Director of the school until 2021 – for me that was a great honour and a lot of fun! And it included fantastic collaboration with Paul Wouters, Harro van Lente, Govert Valkenburg, Bernike Pasveer, Anne Beaulieu, Andreas Weber, and Elize Schiweck (and many more).

Many thanks go also to colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, where I have worked for 18 years. ISI was a good place to experiment with reflection- and learning-based approaches to policy-design and making. Jakob, please convey my regards to your colleagues, maybe we see each other at ISI’s 50th anniversary in Autumn this year.

I still have a good remembrance of my colleagues at the University of Kassel in the 1980s. Without their collaboration I would not have found my way into the domain of STS and policy studies.

Of course I want to thank all my UT colleagues, in particular of the STePS group and in the wider Department Technology, Policy, Society (TPS) for all their constructive and inspiring collaboration, there are too many faces and names to be mentioned individually!
Particular thanks go to Elize, our management assistant, for her highly committed, friendly and humorous work!

Last but not certainly not least, I wish to warmly thank my partner Eva – my intellectual and emotional sparring partner for so many years! Our two kids David Elias and Lou had to bear with us, while they managed to grow up as unique personalities.