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Robotic Visions

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Who: ‘Robotic Visions’ involved roboticists and science centres working together to engage young adults in dialogue on the future of robotics research.

What:  Five 'visions conferences' held across the UK aimed towards young people and researchers to explore uses of robotics and the future of the research.

Why: 'Robotic Visions' aimed to provide a unique platform for two-way discussion and debate between young people and robotics researchers

Where: Held at various geographical locations throughout the UK (Bristol, Newcastle, Aberystwyth, Glasgow and Oxford

When: 2009/2010

Project Description

'Robotic Visions' aimed to provide a unique platform for two-way discussion and debate between young people and robotics researchers. This dialogue project involved a nationwide programme of five separate 'visions conferences', held at various geographical locations throughout the UK (Bristol, Newcastle, Aberystwyth, Glasgow and Oxford) in association with key robotics research laboratories and experienced host venues (mainly science centres).

Researchers worked with science centre staff to adapt the conference format and approach to suit the audience and venue. However, the direction of each conference was led by the participants themselves - both students and researchers - who worked together to identify the issues and topics that were of most concern to them. Each conference provided a distinctive high quality in-depth engagement experience for all the participants, and consisted of two distinct phases: 

  1. a divergent phase - where participants were given the opportunity to explore the uses and potential of robotics, bringing their creativity and personal aspirations to the fore
  2. a convergent phase - where key priorities and themes were identified by the participants and a list of key recommendations (considering a range of stakeholders and audiences including government, and other researchers and young people) was produced.

A celebratory session was included at the end of each conference, to which key local and regional stakeholders ('VIPs') were invited. Part of this celebration included the formal presentation of the participants' shared vision to the VIPs. This brief overview was followed up by a short report compiled after each conference which draws out key cross-cutting themes from the discussion.

Students at the centre for life explore the who, what and why of robotics

In addition, opinions gathered at the conferences fed into a Parliamentary Seminar held in Westminster. Student representatives from the conferences presented their peers' main findings and discussed the implications of robotics technologies with MPs and other dignitaries. 

A final report containing key findings from all five conferences, as well as further information about the programme is avaialble to view.

The project was overseen by the Science Communication Unit at UWE and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).


'Robotic Visions' sought to provide a stimulating and challenging environment for young people and expert roboticists around the UK to work together to explore current research activity and develop a shared vision of the potential future directions of robotics research.How many roboticists does it take to beat a robot at connect 4?

Planning each conference involved a number of initial meetings where the host venue and partner researchers worked together to come up with a suitable format that best suited their local needs. The sessions also involved collaboration and sharing of resources and skills in order to ensure the greatest likelihood of success at each event.

This project aimed to:

  • Use a 'Visions Conference' event format to provoke comment and debate within and between groups of young people and robotics researchers about science and engineering related issues.
  • Raise awareness of robotics related issues amongst the target audiences.
  • Empower the young people involved to identify the areas of society they see robotics having the biggest impact on in the future.
  • Give young people the opportunity to have their voices heard by policy makers and other stakeholders (e.g. the research community and funding bodies).
  • Work with policymakers to develop the events so that there is a meaningful outcome for their sector.
  • Enable young people to explore and engage with complex technological issues.
  • Encapsulate the feelings of young people towards the future developments of Intelligent Robotics in the UK.
  • 'Add value' to existing science communication activity by involving robotics researchers in truly two-way communication with young people, thereby assisting to build capacity for dialogue and in-depth public engagement within the robotics research community.
  • Forge relationships between the research, public engagement and policy making communities.
  • Promote the successes of the event format to the wider public engagement and robotics research communities.

Results and outcomes

What Worked Well

  • Having a dedicated point of contact at each location (i.e. a lead representative from each venue as well as a lead roboticist) meant clearer lines of communication and responsibility.
  • A ‘VIP’ session was held at the close of each event, to which local dignitaries (Councillors, academics, industry representatives, ethics experts etc.) were invited to receive presentations by the young people regarding the ‘visions’ they had developed during the event for the future of robotics.  These served both to increase the prestige of the event (for staff and audience members) as well as provide a focus for deliberations during the activities.  The policy-relevant dissemination culminated in a Parliamentary Seminar held in Westminster at which representatives from the regional events presented their peers’ findings.
  • The joint workshops with both roboticists and science centre staff meant that the local team took much greater ownership of the event running in their vicinity, and also meant they learnt to work together prior to the delivery day.  Where possible ‘dry runs’ of activities were also included during these workshops to provide the opportunity for feedback and work out how best to integrate individual expertise.
  • More senior researchers were usually able to answer a broader range of questions and better satisfied the intellectual demands of the young people in the audience than PhD students or early career researchers.
  • The science centre staff were generally highly enthusiastic and effective facilitators and created an excellent atmosphere for the deliberations.

"they're [the roboticists are] really enthusiastic about their job and they seemed so happy about it and it made you think that it could be a really enjoyable job because they just seemed to enjoy it so much. They were really passionate about it when they spoke about it." Participant, Glasgow Science Centre

"I hoped to see young people getting engaged in some of the ethical issues in the application of robotics over the coming 5 to 10 years. This was very successful - they were very engaged and asked very intelligent and well focussed questions." Roboticist, Centre for life 
“I enjoyed the conference, I enjoyed meeting the students and working in a new way and I think with a few slight changes this type of conference could be even better. Treating the students as adults and presenting new science to them like this was really good and a worthwhile venture.” Facilitator, Glasgow Science Centre

“The VIP session left the students on a real high. I think their confidence increased steadily throughout the day but really peaked after the final session. Some would have liked to have stayed longer. We had to try and sweep them out of the door at 17.30.” Facilitator, Centre for Life

What didn't work well

  • No-one had enough time to dedicate to the project!
  • Some venues ‘down delegated’ fairly rapidly, i.e. a senior member of staff was involved in the initial discussions but the day-to-day operations were overseen by someone different, occasionally without clear delegation and/or briefing.
  • Some of the roboticists were a little over-ambitious regarding what could be achieved in the time available during the event itself and/or had not been able to dedicate much time to preparation in advance.
  • An online ‘community’ was attempted to link pupils from all the various conferences however was not popular amongst the young people involved.
  • The introduction of the ‘rarely cover’ policy meant that it was very difficult to recruit participants since teachers were reluctant to take their pupils out of school.  Furthermore this drove the conference organisers to condense the conference to a single day meaning it was difficult for the young people to develop a finessed view of the subject area.

Resources Required

  • Sufficient facilitators for the size of group involved (approximately one facilitator per 6 audience members).
  • Large room with flexible seating arrangements.
  • Plenty of flipchart paper, pens, post-it notes etc.
  • Enthusiastic researchers with interesting ‘props’ or activities to showcase, and of course an area of research that is of interest to young people but broad enough to raise plenty of potential issues.
  • Grown-up catering (the pupils appreciated being treated as ‘adults’, in one case even involving mocktails at the VIP celebration session!).
  • Excellent time keeping, use of mixed facilitation methods and where possible moving between different seating arrangements / rooms to maintain energy.

Top Tips

  • From the beginning treat the event as an ‘opportunity’ for all involved (rather than a chore or ‘just another event’). Audience recruitment was particularly strong when the young people had to apply to attend and it was billed as a competitive process with prestige attached to attendance.
  • Young people can be very cynical about whether their opinions will be listened to – in a dialogue event such as this one it’s important to have a ‘real’ output that they respect. The Parliamentary Seminar was a tangible output that provided motivation and stimulated their interest.
  • Make no assumptions about the background knowledge of different partners – it is important to enter into partnerships between science centres and universities with an open mind and a willingness to question assumptions or ‘normal’ modes of operating.


Name: Karen Bultitude

Name of Organisation: University of the West of England


Telephone: 0117 328 2146