How can research meet contemporary societal challenges? Event summary



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In order to solve the major societal challenges, there must be collaboration between researchers, civil society, industry, the public sector and the public during the whole of the research and innovation process. The concept of Responsible Research and Innovation, RRI, was launched by the European Commission as a key element of the Horizon 2020 research programme. But what does it mean in practice, and how do we achieve it in Sweden?

RIFO-RRI seminarium

A large number of delegates gathered in the First Chamber of the Swedish Parliament to attend a seminar on 24 February 2016, organised by Rifo (the Society for MPs and Researchers) and Vetenskap & Allmänhet, VA (Public & Science), to discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding RRI in Sweden and Europe.

Rifo’s chairman, Thomas Strand, welcomed everyone and the seminar’s moderator Cissi Billgren Askwall, Secretary General of the VA, promised the audience that they would get to hear about a broad selection of good examples of RRI during the afternoon.

Tools for responsible research and innovation

”RRI is actually not something new, but rather a repackaging of a global trend towards greater openness and including society in the research and innovation process,” began Karin Larsdotter, Business Development Manager at VA and the Swedish coordinator of the EU project RRI Tools.

The idea of ​​RRI took root in 2009 during the Swedish Presidency of the EU. The result of the conference New Worlds, New Solutions in Lund, the so-called Lund Declaration, stated that Europe needed to focus on the grand challenges of our time.

”A challenge-driven focus on research was something new and it requires collaboration between scientific disciplines and with different stakeholders in society”.

The Lund Declaration formed the foundation of the EU research programme Horizon 2020, the world’s largest programme for research and innovation. The programme focuses on seven major challenges: health, food security, energy, transport, environment, inclusive societies and secure societies.

In the Rome Declaration, which was agreed in 2014 during Italy’s EU presidency, it stated that everyone must now work to implement RRI. But what is RRI?

Karin Larsdotter explained that RRI is an umbrella term. It is partly an approach in which the various stakeholders work together and have an on-going dialogue throughout the research process to ensure that research meet society’s needs and values. But RRI is also about the process itself.

”The process should be transparent, interactive, and include a mutual responsiveness between participants. Ethical aspects are of particular importance,” stressed Karin Larsdotter.

To help stakeholders to implement RRI, a major EU project, RRI Tools, has developed a range of tools. As part of its role as a partner in the project, VA (Public & Science) mapped the needs and requirements of Swedish stakeholders and collected good examples of Swedish RRI. The end result, the RRI Toolkit, was launched on 7 March.

Karin Larsdotter demonstrated a beta version of the RRI Toolkits website, which includes tools for RRI, a self-assessment tool, where users can evaluate their own activities from an RRI perspective as well as inspiring practices. The Swedish examples include Vinnova’s Challenge Driven Innovation programme; the research centre, Mistra Urban Futures, and Diversi, an innovation to create a more inclusive computer games industry, all of which were described in more detail by subsequent speakers.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Sweden’s innovation agency Vinnova’s research and innovation programme Challenge-driven innovation (CDI) was started in 2011.

”CDI is about how we can turn societal challenges from threats into opportunities,” said Charlotte Brogren, Director General of Vinnova.

To get funding, projects must meet the same requirements, as those of Vinnova’s other programmes: The project must create future business opportunities, be of benefit to society and consist of interesting research. The difference is that CDI is based around four Swedish societal challenges, identified in consultation with a large number of Swedish stakeholders: Sustainable Attractive Cities, Competitive Production, Future Healthcare, and the Information Society 3.0.

”The challenges require a lot of multidisciplinary work. For this to happen, incentives, a carrot and stick approach as well as catalysts are needed. The challenges must be addressed in the next government research bill; we must turn the pyramid upside down and start with the challenge instead of the scientific content,” said Charlotte Brogren.

Daniel Rencrantz, Programme Coordinator for CDI at Vinnova, explained how the programme works in practice.

”Instead of funding long-term projects, Vinnova provides a relatively small amount of funding at the beginning but takes much of the risk. If a project looks promising, it is then granted a larger amount.”

He showed an example, a language tool, which can instantaneously alternate between different languages and subtitles. The challenge that the project addresses is preventing lifelong exclusion by quickly helping children, who have recently arrived in the country, to integrate at school.

CDI has particularly delivered results in two distinct areas, explained Daniel Rencrantz.

”The first is the capacity to innovate: Many more people are now working on concrete societal challenges. The second is in terms of innovations: 90 percent of those who are rejected at stage 2 continue to work on their projects regardless.”

Working multidisciplinary to create sustainability

MISTRA Urban Futures is an international research and knowledge centre, which aims to promote the transition to sustainable cities and societies. The Centre has four local platforms in Kisumu (Kenya), Cape Town, Manchester and Gothenburg. David Simon, a Professor at Chalmers University of Technology, is Director of the programme.

”Working in a multidisciplinary way with researchers from academia together with researchers and practitioners from other organisations as equal members of a team is much more effective than the traditional approach, whereby a researcher does some research and delivers a report to the practitioner,” explained David Simon.

”These kind of reports often end up on a shelf because the recommendations are not useful in practice. They can for example be politically unfeasible, too costly or have a perspective that is irrelevant to the user.”

Mistra Urban Futures now runs more than 70 projects, involving a total of over 600 people in the four cities.

”A project starts with discussions to identify the problem, whereby any partners who think that the problem is relevant, come together and the team assigns a representative. The problem is defined, the research methodology is developed, the results are analysed and finally the team will come up with a suitable solution,” explained David Simon.

Obviously, it is not always as easy as it sounds. In some projects, it has been a major challenge to persuade decision-makers that the solutions are worth implementing.

Among the projects, David Simon highlights KAIROS, which focuses on the social aspects of sustainability; The Urban Station Communities, which wants to increase understanding of urban planning around railway stations and create conditions for the development of station communities; Divided City, which is centred on the relationship between the urban environment and segregation/social sustainability

An organisational innovation for the gaming industry

Milda Rönn holds a PhD in Scandinavian languages ​​and is CEO of Praxikon, a research and production company. Her project, Diversi, was aimed at responding to the societal challenge in Horizon 2020 called inclusive, innovative and reflective societies.

“In the computer games industry, the challenge is translated into: How can we get more groups to feel included in the games themselves, in gaming and the creation of games,” said Milda Rönn.

Computer games today have a large influence in society. The sector unfortunately suffers from problems of inequality, gender discrimination and xenophobia.

”Players and game developers have been harassed because they are women. And programming, one of the most important professions of the future, has become a male profession, although it originally was a female profession”.

To take on such a big challenge and make the gaming industry more inclusive in a responsible way required more than just research, Milda Rönn realised. ”We could not stop at simply analysing the problems. We needed to make a change.”

The result of the project was a kind of organisational innovation, a way to organise diversity work within the gaming sector.

”It is easy to think that an innovation must consist of a technical component, but there are also process innovations, educational innovations, organisational innovations. We are not used to thinking in that way, but perhaps in a few hundred years’ time, we will drop the fixation on it being technical”.

When Milda Rönn started to collaborate with the trade association representing the gaming industry, they realised that exclusion in the industry is dependent on the relationship between gaming companies, their products, training, and the players. The solution was to create a new organisation, which used the relationships between stakeholders to increase inclusion instead. The project has now come to an end and, over the past year, Diversi has continued to be run by the various stakeholders.

”Of course, social and humanities scientists do not always need to collaborate or create innovations. But we do welcome more of that, especially if we are to use research in the social sciences and humanities to tackle societal challenges. They are too complex to solve by just continuing to carry out analyses,” concluded Milda Rönn.

Political voices on RRI in Sweden

The inspiring examples were followed by four MPs, giving their views on the concept of RRI.

”From an business policy perspective, RRI is music to our ears”, began Jennie Nilsson (S), chair of the Committee on Industry and Trade.

The concept can result in more goods and services reaching the market,” she said, and called for an analysis of Sweden’s strengths and weaknesses in the field.

Hans Rothenberg (M), also a member of the Committee on Trade and Industry, stressed the importance of the participants in the RRI process being responsive in their work. ”You have to have respect for each other’s views.”

Betty Malmberg (M), a member of the Committee on Education, quoted VA’s latest barometer, in which 90 percent of respondents believe that public participation in the research process is important, and 60 percent would be interested in participating themselves.

”Who would be against RRI?” she asked, stressing the need for more research and knowledge to be put to use, for example, in schools and in healthcare.

Thomas Strand (S), also a member of the Committee in Education, was positive about the focus that RRI has on research opportunities. ”We need to strengthen the links between research, politics civil society and the public to meet societal challenges.”

The seminar concluded with Cissi Billgren Askwall asking ‘what is the most important thing that will help us realise RRI in Sweden?’, giving each of the speakers 20 seconds to answer:

Charlotte Brogren (Vinnova): New types of processes that don’t follow the same old paths. And for this we need the help of politicians.

Milda Rönn (Praxikon): RRI must reach the heart of the organisation. And we must move away from bibliometrics.

Karin Larsdotter (VA): Authorities and politicians need to introduce requirements for RRI. And everyone who should be involved needs to know that they can be involved. Civil society organisations, for example, should be included in research and innovation processes that affect their areas of concern.

Betty Malmberg (M): That science-society interaction is rewarded.

Hans Rothenberg (M): To clearly define the challenge, thereby giving it a clear mandate.

Jennie Nilsson (S): Clearer instruments for science-society interaction from government.

Thomas Strand (S): Attitudes, multidisciplinary meeting places and real-world opportunities, and for the latter, signals and stimuli need to come from government.

Original Swedish text: Fredrik Brounéus

Photos: Mika Nitz Pettersson

For further information about the RRI Tools project in Sweden, contact Karin Larsdotter at VA (Public & Science)

Public & Science Sweden

Areas of interest


Helen Garrison

[email protected]

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