There are numerous approaches to technology assessment but it is essentially a systematic method for exploring technology developments and assessing their potential societal effects. It was typically implemented as a strategy to inform policy decisions within government and industry but now includes a growing body of scholarly research in science and technology studies (Herdman & Jensen 1997; Hill 1997; La Porte 1997). As a research strategy, technology assessment is best viewed as a pragmatic arrangement of theory and method emphasizing one or more concerns: the design and development of an emerging technology; a known technology-related social or environmental problem; or the introduction of a new technology into society (Porter 1980, 51).
Constructive Technology Assessment
One influential approach that attempts to combine all three concerns is known as constructive technology assessment (CTA). This approach was first developed by the Netherlands Organization of Technology Assessment (NOTA), now known as the Rathenau Institute, along two major paths: by introducing public participation in the technology assessment process, and by the funding of several key studies looking at the value of introducing technology assessment in the early design stage of a technology project.
CTA represents an important contrast with the so-called “early warning” approach of technology assessment as it developed in North America during the middle of the twentieth century. Whereas proponents of early warning technology assessment, such as the United States Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), tended to adopt an exogenous model of technology development for their research projects, the CTA approach was conceived within a participatory endogenous model of technology development (Eijndhoven 1997). Whereas an exogenous model anticipates a finished technology that enters into and creates effects in a society (Edge 1995), practitioners consider CTA to be a “new design practice” wherein technologies are socially constructed by numerous stakeholders acting within and attempting to influence a social and political context. Technology projects are viewed as highly contingent undertakings open to a range of alternative development paths and an opportunity for “societal learning” (Schot & Rip 1996, 255).
Following the tradition of constructivist science and technology studies, proponents of CTA view technology assessment as an active contribution to the shaping of technology as opposed to an independent program of ex post impact analysis. In other words, CTA is an approach that studies the design process itself in order to understand the potential effects – both positive and negative – of technology projects well before they become entrenched or “locked-in” to society.
The Collingridge Dilemma
Any effort to anticipate future effects of a technology project must address what has come to be known as “the Collingridge dilemma.” This term describes the methodological quandary that confounds attempts at technology forecasting and efforts at social shaping. According to Eijndhoven (1997, 279), “the Collingridge Dilemma points to the fact that the early warning function of technology assessment has severe limitations, because either the knowledge or the power are missing to change the direction of technological development, leaving quick adaptation to new technology as the only way society can react.” In other words, the social and environmental effects of a technology are sometimes difficult to anticipate until it is widely deployed. Yet once deployed, it may be impossible to effect substantial change to a technology because of previous investments made in its development and deployment, as well as the network effects it might have created.
It has been suggested that a solution to this dilemma can be found in developing highly flexible technology designs capable of multiple configurations. CTA proponents claim that this is a conceptually flawed strategy because “entrenchment is necessary to implement a technology” (Rip et al. 1995, 7), and argue that we should accept this inevitability as integral to technology design while asserting that development can be positively directed to the extent that social actors understand the implications of and participate in choosing a pathway from among a range of alternatives – one of which might be the outright cancellation of a technology project.
Strategies For Technology Assessment
In terms of implications for public policy, three generic strategies for action have been defined within the CTA approach: technology forcing, strategic niche management, and reflexive deliberation. Technology forcing is described as a demand-side strategy where a social actor with some measure of authority, often a government or regulatory agency, stipulates desired impacts and directs technology development toward those ends through regulations or other incentives. One example of this strategy in action is the mandatory unbundling of telecommunication networks as part of a government-led market liberalization strategy.
Strategic niche management is a supply-side strategy where industry stakeholders orchestrate product development through setting up a series of experimental settings where designers can learn about user needs and other social aspects of the technology. Aspects of the free and open source software movement might be considered to fall within the definition of this type of technology assessment strategy. Finally, reflexive deliberation is a strategy that seeks to build relationships between users and developers through consensus conferences or special workshops. Government-sponsored public proceedings on, for example, the reform of radio spectrum management policy might, under certain conditions, be regarded as an example of this type of intervention strategy.
Since its introduction in the Netherlands, CTA has been adopted by numerous organizations across Europe, including technology assessment groups in Denmark, Germany, and Norway, as well as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Schot & Rip 1996, 254). In addition, various European Union programs in research and development have recognized CTA as having contributed to improved technology policy and development (Berloznik & van Langenhove 1998). While CTA has become a recognized approach in much of Europe, in North America its presence is less evident. This may be a result of the OTA dominating the field until the mid-1990s, when it was disbanded. Despite this, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the normative principle of CTA has taken root in a number of selected areas of science and technology policy research in both Canada and the United States (see, for instance, Loka Institute 2004).
Worldwide, there is also a growing body of technology-assessment-based research involving information and communication technologies (ICTs). Early technology-assessment-inspired work on innovation in telecommunications services was undertaken by the Danish Board of Technology Assessment in a series of experiments to examine user demand for early telematics services, such as video calling (Cronberg 1992). Today, the Centre for Studies of Science, Technology, and Society (CSSTS) at the University of Twente manages a research program that draws on CTA to conduct research on projects involving e-government, open source software, privacy and security aspects of ICT in healthcare, and innovation in telemedicine (www.bbt.utwente.nl/kennisinst/cssts).
The concept of “social learning” has been adapted from the technology assessment literature and applied to a study of the Digital City project based in Amsterdam to overcome the descriptive limitations of the social shaping approach and to provide “a more prescriptive or normative position” on the role of research in addressing emergent socio-technical practices (Lieshout 2001). In this respect, technology assessment has provided a foundation for action research that attempts “on-the-spot” adjustments of the social shaping process in ongoing ICT projects. Similarly, CTA has been used in research on the dynamics of telecommunication networks and the role of stakeholder intervention related to disaster management and public safety communication (Gow 2005).
Research on emerging ICTs and their potential environmental, social, and health effects has also referred to principles and methods associated with technology assessment. This work is particularly concerned with risk management and the precautionary principle in the context of a future scenario involving ambient intelligence (Som 2004). This principle states that if an action like the introduction of a new technology might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, but there is no consensus in science, the burden of proof falls on those who are in favor of taking the action. The problem of path dependency and the associated Collingridge dilemma, both formulated in relation to CTA, are regarded as core issues in this work.
CTA has been cited within the community informatics literature, in relation to the development of a community-oriented technology assessment processes model (McIver 2005). In this context, the normative principles of CTA are brought to bear in developing an approach for community involvement in ICT development, which is intended to offset some of the shortcomings of other technology assessment methods developed within corporate settings and often dominant in ICT policy research. Several essays dealing with the social shaping of information technology have also appeared in a CTA-informed volume on modernity and technology. Notable examples include Lyon’s (2003) chapter on surveillance technologies and Slater’s (2003) case study of Internet development in Trinidad.
The journal Poiesis and Praxis is devoted to studies in technology assessment and includes articles that examine information and communication technologies. Eggermont et al. (2006), for example, adopted a participatory technology assessment method combined with foresight and scenario-building exercises to look at design issues related to the elderly and their use of ICTs. The results of that study are intended to provide policy recommendations for future policy to address aging populations and access and use of future ICTs.
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- Eggermont, S., Vandebosch, H., & Steyaert, S. (2006). Towards the desired future of the elderly and ICT: policy recommendations based on a dialogue with senior citizens. Poiesis and Praxis, 4, 199– 217.
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- Loka Institute (2004). Loka’s original vision statement. At www.loka.org/vision.htm, accessed May 21, 2004.
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- McIver, W. J., & O’Donnell, S. (2005). Community-oriented technology assessment. Paper presented at the Community Informatics Research Network 2005 Conference, Cape Town, South Africa, August 24–26. At http://iit-iti.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/iit-publications-iti/docs/NRC-48292.pdf, accessed July 29, 2007.
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- Slater, D. (2003). Modernity under construction: Building the Internet in Trinidad. In T. Misa, P. Brey, & A. Feenberg (eds.), Modernity and technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 139– 160.
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