Six creative ways to engage the public 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. After this, the organisers ususally produce a report which they email to everyone they want to influence, or if it was commissioned directly by a research funder or a public body, there is usually a response detailing how they are going to act on the views of the public.

What's wrong with this standard format of public dialogue? Through our 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

Beyond the standard format of the public dialogue, organisations around the world are experimenting with more creative methods of public engagement. For anyone thinking about applying for our small grants programme to support creative engagement in innovation policy (Deadline 9 March) here is some inspiration.

1. Games - Scenario Exploration System

Science and innovation games that have a serious purpose are becoming more and more popular. One recent analysis of digital games found 87 serious science games. However, there are very few digital games that seek to involve people in the design or planning of policy and research. It's a different story when it comes to board games. One impressive example is a board game designed to get people thinking about the future, from different viewpoints (policymaker, citizen, business or civil society organisation). The Scenario Exploration System, designed by the European Commission, has two iterations, sustainability and food safety. The idea is to create an entertaining environment which allows players to think creatively about the future.

2. Meet the people - Pint of Science

Pint of Science is an annual festival designed to bring scientists out of their labs to meet ordinary people in pubs. It was designed to challenge the idea that the public is not interested in engaging in discussions about science and also that you need vast resources to reach lots of people. The events combine talks with stand up comedy and other forms of entertainment. The festival now takes place annually in 21 countries.

3. Art and stories - Dreams of a Low Carbon Future

Innovation is about coming up with a vision and then working towards it. But whose visions do we prioritise? 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.” This interaction helped the children learn about science and technology and the researchers get a fresh perspective on their work.

4. Social media analysis - Public perceptions of the use of virtual reality in healthcare

A lot of public engagement is used as a way to find out what the public thinks about a certain topic. In the past, it was difficult to do this, and so focus groups were the default option. But now researchers can access a staggering range of public opinion on the internet and particularly on social media. Researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles analysed over 2,400 comments on a video on Facebook about the use of VR in healthcare. They found both many innovative ideas about how VR should be implemented in health care and also many concerns, primarily about costs and equality of access to this new treatment, but also about our increasing dependency on technology as a society.

5. Digital debate - vTaiwan

Public dialogues on science usually aren't open to all who want to participate. For example the recent quantum computing public dialogue involved workshops with a number of selected participants, but anyone else who wanted to take part would have no way of doing so. Online platforms are changing that. The vTaiwan platform is based on, an open source, online survey tool designed to engage the public in large-scale deliberation. In 2015, the platform organised a debate on the regulation of Uber in Taiwan, attracting 1,737 participants. The platform uses a number of innovative tools to improve debates on complex issues. For example, it tries to build consensus by visually clustering groups of people who agree and disagree on an issue, and then prioritises statements that get the most votes from different groups, meaning that supporters of a particular idea have to modify it to make it acceptable to the different participants in the debate.

6. Assembl - combining artificial and collective intelligence to drive online debate

In 2017 the AI initiative launched an online debate about governing artificial intelligence. The software it uses is unique in it uses algorithms to structure and organise participant contributions, making it easy for organisers to analyse feedback. On top of this, the platform blends artificial intelligence techniques with the collective intelligence of people: the platform requires individuals to take on different roles, from a Knowledge Manager, who fuels the debate with ideas, to a Synthesizer, who writes up regular summaries of all of the content received so far.

Nesta’s Everyone Makes Innovation Policy programme is looking to fund creative ideas like the ones above that demonstrate new ways to engage the public in innovation research and policy. The deadline for applications is the 9 March. Find out more and apply here.


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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