How often do we question the very reason of the research we carry out? Its utility and value for the common people? How far could we accept to let a democratic process decide for our research priorities? How often do we commit ourselves to have an actual impact of research outputs on people’s lives?
Freedom of scientific research is a pillar of any academic activity and job. The direct agency of people in setting research priorities is not generally considered an option when it comes to begin a new project. The underpinning assumption is that research is a matter of experts: they know the state of the art and, therefore, they can define the directions to be investigated.
A recent project funded by the European Commission under H2020, CIMULACT (Citizen and Multi Actor Consultation on Horizon 2020 – www.cimulact.eu) is exploring how democracy can enter the world of research strategy.
It does so by building a research and innovation agenda for Europe with the aim of influencing and orienting the calls for projects (and the relevant allocation of funds) of the current and future Framework Programme.
Our team of the POLIMI DESIS Lab is part of the project: as designers we bring co-design competences to a process that encompasses different approaches, from consultation, to involvement and collaboration.
At the present, CIMULACT has produced, through a massive participatory process of in-presence workshops and online consultations with more than 5000 people in Europe, 48 research topics to be investigated in the next future. These topics reflect a variety of needs of people, emerged from an initial vision building workshop conducted with the citizens of 30 countries and then further elaborated with experts and other people in additional consultations.
The lessons learnt so far are a lot.
Concerning the way to question people about the future, we can say that too easy questions are likely to bring to over simplistic answers. We all need and want the same basic things for the future: specific perspectives and wishes are worth researching instead. To do this, people are better to be challenged with compelling and insightful stimuli that can make them think at the future with awareness and more reflective disposition. Design can contribute a lot to this by introducing in participatory processes a challenge-based approach rather than just facilitating a dialogue from scratch. In other words, an informed democratic process of envisioning the future can definitely benefit from a process that introduces conceptual artefacts that could elevate the conversation at a more informed and “expert” stage.
Concerning the results, the research topics, one of the most relevant and transversal reflection regards the need of filling the gap between research achievements and their actual availability for the people in form of solutions. Dedicated research, policies and investments are needed to democratize scientific achievements. Design, here, can be part of the solution rediscovering the power of “democratic design” and so focussing on how to increase the impact of scientific research findings in people everyday life.
Polimi DESIS Lab, Politecnico di Milano