Occasional Talk - Sebastian Pfotenhauer

Sebastian Pfotenhauer

Testing future societies?

Developing a framework for test beds and living labs as instruments of innovation policy

Monday, April 6, 2020

12:00 - 1:30pm

Online - Zoom


Test beds and living labs have emerged as a prominent approach to foster innovation across geographical regions and technical domains. They feed on the popular “grand societal challenges” discourse and the growing insight that adequate policy responses to these challenges will require drastic transformations of technology and society alike. Test beds and living labs represent an experimental, co-creative approach to innovation policy that aims to test, demonstrate, and advance new sociotechnical arrangements and associated modes of governance in a model environment under real-world conditions. As a policy instrument, they are mobilized under the premises of “soft introduction” of potentially disruptive technologies and greater opportunity for democratic deliberation. In this paper, I develop an analytic framework for this distinctive approach to innovation. My research draws on theories from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Innovation Policy Studies, as well as in-depth empirical analysis from two case studies – an urban smart energy campus and a rural renewable energy network. My analysis reveals three characteristic frictions that test beds face: (1) the limits of controlled experimentation due to messy social responses and co-creation activity; (2) a tension between lab-like open-ended experimentation and pressures to demonstrate success; (3) the opposing needs of local socio-cultural specificity and scalability, i.e. the inherent promise of test bed outcomes being generalizable or transferrable because the tested “model society” is presumed to represent a future society at large. These tensions suggest that thinking of test beds as mere technology tests under real-world conditions is insufficient. Rather, test beds both test and re-configure society around a new set of technologies, envisioned futures, and associated modes of governance – occasionally against considerable resistance. By making social order explicitly available for experimentation, test beds tentatively stabilize new socio-technical orders on a local scale in an “as-if” mode of adoption and diffusion. Symmetric attention to the simultaneous co-production of new technical and social orders points to new opportunities and challenges for innovation governance in test-bed settings: Rather than mere enablers of technology, test beds could serve as true societal tests for the desirability of certain transformations. This will require rethinking notions of success and failure, planning with a view towards reversibility, and greater scrutiny of how power is distributed within such settings. Likewise, rather than envisioning test beds as low-regulation zones to drive innovation, they could be strategically deployed to co-develop socially desirable governance frameworks in tandem with emerging technologies in real-time.

Short Biography:

Sebastian Pfotenhauer is the Carl von Linde Assistant Professor for Innovation Research at Technical University of Munich. He heads the Innovation, Society and Public Policy group, which is co-located at the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) and the TUM School of Management. He is also the coordinator of the EU-Horizon2020 project SCALINGS (“Scaling up co-creation: Avenues and Limits for Integrating Society in Science and Innovation”) – a EUR 4 Million European flagship initiative investigating use of new collaborative innovation formats such as living labs and pre-commercial procurement in robotics, autonomous driving, and urban energy systems. As a scholar, Sebastian’s work is located in the intersection of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Innovation Policy, and Innovation Management. His research interests include innovation cultures, co-creation and socially responsible innovation practices, the global circulation of innovation practices, global governance of emerging technologies, capacity-building in science and innovation, and corporate social responsibility in innovation. He currently serves as the faculty director of the Elite-Master’s program Responsibility in Science, Engineering, and Technology (RESET) at Technical University Munich. Before joining TU Munich, Sebastian was a research scientist and lecturer with the MIT Technology & Policy Program and the MIT Sociotechnical Systems Research Center, as well as a fellow at the Harvard Program on Science, Technology and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has served as consultant on innovation policy to various regional and national governments, as well as for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France. His work has appeared, among other outlets, in Social Studies of Science, Research Policy, Nature, and Issues in Science and Technology. He holds an S.M. in Technology Policy from MIT, a PhD in Physics from the University of Jena, Germany, and has received post-doctoral training in STS and innovation policy at MIT and Harvard.

Online - Zoom