It's time to get creative about public engagement in innovation policy

Woman holding up a poster that says We Need You

Nesta is launching a new 'Everyone Makes Innovation Policygrants programme. Tom Saunders, Principal Researcher in Nesta’s Inclusive Innovation team, explains why...

It’s time to get creative about public engagement in innovation policy.

When someone decides to engage the public in a discussion about science or innovation, it usually involves booking a room, bringing a group of people together and giving them some information about a topical issue then listening to their thoughts about it. What's wrong with this standard format of public dialogue? Through Nesta’s research into public engagement in innovation policy we noticed a number of issues:

  • Almost all public engagement work is offline, with very little money spent on digital methods.
  • Most dialogues are top down, e.g. a research council decides that they need to engage the public on a particular issue. They rarely come from citizens themselves.
  • Most public dialogues are only open to a small number of hand-picked participants. No one else can take part, even if they want to.
  • Few public engagement activities focus specifically on engaging with underrepresented groups.

Opening up the discussion

Science and innovation have wide-ranging effects on the lives of everyone, yet only a tiny group of people get to make important decisions about what is prioritised and how resources are used. For example, studies show that only 15 per cent of scientists come from working-class households. This lack of diversity narrows “the kinds of questions we ask, the kinds of problems we think worth tackling and the ways in which we go about doing our work,” argues Dr James Moore, from Goldsmiths, University of London. If we want innovations that address the needs of society, then we need a wider range of people to take part in discussing and debating innovation research and policy.

How do we create opportunities and channels for dialogue and debate between the public and decision makers? Citizens’ juries and public dialogues are tried and tested methods that allow professionals to come into contact with the public, and for a two way dialogue to take place. If done well, these methods can help influence funding streams, directly inform research strategies or ethical frameworks, help researchers to understanding public priorities in their area of work or contribute to wider public debate about a controversial technology or policy. But these methods tend to be cost a lot to organise and they aren’t especially fun or interesting ways for members of the public to spend their time.

Creative methods of public engagement

On the communications side of public engagement, there has been an explosion of creative methods, from science busking to immersive theatre. We now need more experimentation and creative ideas when it comes to involving the public in discussing and debating the problems that innovation could address, funding priorities or the development of new technologies.

Organisations around the world are starting to get creative with methods of public engagement. For example, the European Commission uses a scenario based game to create an entertaining environment which allows players to think creatively about the future. Pint of Science organises an annual festival designed to bring scientists out of their labs to meet ordinary people in pubs. Researchers at the University of Leeds worked with school children to turn their ideas of what a sustainable future could look like into a graphic novel - “Dreams of a Low Carbon Future.” vTaiwan uses innovative digital tools to improve the way we debate complex issues. Others have designed digital platforms that combine artificial and collective intelligence to open up debates about technology to larger numbers of people.

New grants programme

Nesta believes that innovation policy urgently needs to become more inclusive. This is why we have launched the Everyone Makes Innovation Policy small grants programme -  to show policymakers, funders and researchers the value of engaging the public, as well as demonstrating a range of exciting ways this can be done. Grants of up to £15,000 are available for projects using creative methods to engage the public in issues relating to innovation policy. The deadline is 9th March.

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