Empowerment of the New Citizen-Subject: The ethics of living labs on citizenship transformation

Shelly Tsui

Onderzoeksoutput: Bijdrage aan congresAbstractAcademic


Living labs are an increasingly utilised tool in which citizens are becoming involved in experimental technological innovations to solve societally relevant problems (Bergvall-Kåreborn & Ståhlbröst, 2009; Voytenko et al, 2015). In a sense, to include end-users in the innovation process of a product or service has become policitised—it is seen as a potential policy tool that can improve engagement with diverse stakeholders, especially the public, according to the European Commission (n.d). This could then lead to a better alignment of innovation’s aims and societal needs, and bring forth ‘empowered’ and innovation-literate stakeholders that can effectively participate in issues on science and technology innovation (Stilgoe, Owen & Macnaghten, 2013; European Commission, n.d.).

Thus, the living lab approach has become a social tool through which citizens are expected to become part of a collective way of dealing and solving societal. With this comes the clear transformation of the citizen into an active citizen-subject: a citizen who participates in a living lab while at the same time, is a subject of the lab. This raises several ethical questions about the new role and expectations for citizens with regards to issues such as how to participate and be engaged. For example, the living lab can run into the risk of turning into mere participation i.e., an “empty ritual of participation and having [no] real power needed to affect the outcome of the process (Arnstein, 1969). This could lead to disenchantment in such initiatives, and discourage future participation, but also treat citizens as marginal but necessary parts of a broader innovation process.

To illustrate these worries, one can look to “Jouw Licht op 040”, a public procurement of innovation initiative established by the municipality of Eindhoven. Together with Heijmans, Signify, researchers, and citizens, the aim is to co-create smart technological urban solutions (e.g. lighting) in the city center to make Eindhoven “prettier, safer, and more interesting” (Jouw Licht Op 040, n.d.) by creating living labs in neighbours. However, citizens are primarily relegated to the role of information and feedback providers. Activities (boot-camps and information sessions) are organized from the perspective of experts on how they envision participation in the living lab. These practices reflect implicit and one-sided ideas of participation. Citizens are at risk of becoming boxed into roles and functions that limit their ability to participate, which can have consequences not only for the project, but future initiatives (Felt & Fochler, 2010; Wynne, 2007).

If the hope for living labs are to realise the ideal vision of public engagement by the Commission, and more generally the potential for the approach to better align innovation and societal needs, then there is a need to conceptualise how living labs can empowers its citizen stakeholders and to be clear on how citizens can be empowered. In this case, I propose four dimensions of empowerment that should be present in order to ensure the ethical issues for citizens are well accounted for: knowledge development, allowing for ownership, taking and delegating responsibility, and allowing for there to be collective decision-making.

Originele taal-2Engels
StatusGepubliceerd - 7 nov. 2019
EvenementEthics of Socially Disruptive Technologies - Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Nederland
Duur: 7 nov. 20198 nov. 2019


CongresEthics of Socially Disruptive Technologies
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