Social Foresight Lab
Societal challenges such as demographic change affects rural areas in particular. The Social Foresight Lab is an innovative participatory approach towards rural development and technology transfer to address these challenges. It combines foresight, needs assessment and strategy development. Rural areas benefit, as it takes into account regional characteristics, initiates new cooperations among regional stakeholders, and integrates technological and social innovations into regional development.
Societal challenges such as demographic change affect rural areas in particular. Young people migrate to urban areas while often only elder people stay leading to a destabilized local community, to vacant houses and stores in the centers and affecting the local supply of food and services.
The Social Foresight Lab is an innovative participatory approach towards rural development and technology transfer, which address these challenges. It combines methods of social and technological foresight, needs assessment and strategy development. Its central principles are the combination of social and technological innovation, engagement of multiple stakeholders early in the innovation process, experimentation with future solutions in real-life settings and learning from these experiences.
Facing the complexity of societal challenges, systemic strategies that combine new solutions are necessary, for example in the field of mobility, working and living. Experts of rural development cannot develop such strategies on their own. It requires participatory processes, which incorporates knowledge, experiences, and experts of all stakeholders involved in rural areas.
The social foresight lab provides such processes. It starts from taking into account regional characteristics, initiates new co-operation among regional stakeholders, and integrates technological and social innovations into regional development. Thus, the lab combines knowledge about possible futures of rural areas with local needs and characteristics. Furthermore, it also empowers people to engage in processes of rural development in a meaningful way.
The first version of the social foresight lab has been going on for two years. In an iterative process between technology foresight, societal foresight, and needs-orientation, the lab team developed three future visions of rural areas, which framed three workshops in rural areas. In these workshops, around 70 lay-people experimented with speculative future solutions to articulate their needs. These needs are transferred to both local and national stakeholders of regional development, as well as to national research and technology organizations.
To realize this social foresight lab, we combined established social science methods (such as interviews and quantitative data on rural areas) with methods from design (in particular participatory design methods and speculative design). These methods allowed persons to articulate and bring in their perspectives. Confronted with speculative objects that materialized future solutions, they were empowered to think and talk about their most pressing needs.
So far, the social foresight lab has been tested in three regions in Germany. In these regions, the lab is part of the processes of regional development. While the German Federal Ministry of Science and Education funded the lab, these regions use local funding or funding from other external sources to sustain the local processes initiated by the lab and to implement ideas generated there. Furthermore, a network of innovative rural areas has been formed to transfer the knowledge produced in the lab and to identify further interested regions.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The social foresight lab incorporates local knowledge of rural areas into innovation processes and supports stakeholders to develop regional development strategies. Therefore, it takes into account regional characteristics, initiates new cooperations among regional stakeholders, integrates technological and social innovations into regional development and strengthens regional innovation systems
The social foresight lab is innovative in various ways. First, its process, which combines social and technological foresight, needs assessment and strategy development. This three-step approach towards strategies and the comprehensive foresight approach is new compared to other foresight activities, as well as state of the art approaches to rural development.
New to what has been tried previously is the combination of innovation and technology transfer with rural development.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Currently, the social foresight lab as a whole is in its implementation phase. Two out of three stages of the lab process (foresight and needs assessment) have been completed, strategy development is in progress. Although not fully completed, parts of the project have already undergone some evaluation, which is reflected in some scientific journal articles, book chapters and conference presentations, which are now in its review process. As a central requirement for the success of such lab, local stakeholders who govern the process in the pilot regions have been identified.
Right now, the lab team presents the results of the needs-assessment workshops to stakeholders in rural areas. The first two stages of the project resulted in a tool to develop rural development strategies, which are now tested within the presentation process. The tool is disseminated among local, regional and national government officials, representatives of companies and their associations.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Researchers from Fraunhofer CeRRI are responsible for the management and socio-scientific supervision of the lab. They developed future scenarios, designed the workshops and conducted the lab based on the input from citizens. Fraunhofer INT conducted a technology foresight based on the input from citizens.
Citizens co-created future scenarios and developed local development ideas. As part of an expert panel, government officials and companies discuss and expand upon the results of the lab.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens benefit from the innovation as they get a forum where they may develop new ideas for the development of their regions. Government officials benefit from the lab as it provides them with tailor-made solutions. Companies benefit from the lab as they have the opportunity to knit local networks. Research and technology organizations benefit as they identify new needs for future technologies and innovations.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The social foresight lab has led to several results so far:
First, local stakeholder initiated new cooperation in one of the pilot areas. A local hotel company cooperated with the local administration to organize a participatory rural development workshop. While there has been an ongoing local activity to strengthen cooperation to make this region more attractive, both the lab activities in the region as well as the workshop gave momentum and broad together new local innovation stakeholders.
In a second pilot region, the results of the needs assessment are going to enter into a new project-proposal on digital rural areas. Furthermore, the results are used to inform the upcoming regional development planning activities.
Third, as a tangible result, within the social foresight lab, a tool to support participatory regional development has been developed. At this time, the lab team distributes the tool among stakeholders of regional development on a local and national level.
Challenges and Failures
Most challenging was the identification of pilot regions and access to local stakeholders. We coped with this challenge by announcing a call for innovative pilot regions. In a two-step selection process, we selected three regions. Each region provided us with a local contact point, which served as a gatekeeper to local stakeholders.
Second, methodological challenges occurred. Central was to empower people to discuss future societal developments and technological solutions as well as to develop ideas of regional development. To respond to these challenges we developed an innovative future workshop: first, in future parkour throughout their hometown, people experienced futures and were empowered to understand how future development may affect their regions. Second, in a gaming format, they were enabled to discuss these experiences and to express needs for the future. Particularly these design-based methods helped to cope with this challenge.
Conditions for Success
To make this innovation successful, at least the following aspects may be supportive:
-Leadership and guidance: for the lab, guidance, and leadership of the coordinating organization is necessary. This organization needs to manage the whole process, coordinate all actors on the local and national level. It needs to provide clear guidance to all actors involved. On the local level, the leadership of key stakeholders is required.
-Human and financial resources: to conduct this lab, financial resources of either a sponsor or local stakeholders are necessary conditions. The lab is a modular approach. Thus, it is possible, to adapt it to the financial resources at hand.
-Personal values and motivation: without the commitment and motivation of our local partners in the pilot regions, it would have been impossible to conduct the lab. In particular, the mindset of local stakeholder is a central requirement for success.
The social foresight lab has been replicated in our organization to develop strategies for municipal cooperation. As the lab is a modularized approach, chances are that local governments of states as well as national governments will use parts of the lab to develop regional strategies.
Based on the experiences made so far, for large companies may also apply some instances of the lab or it as a whole, so they develop participatory strategies.
- When setting up such lab, intensive and good contact to local 'gatekeepers' and 'implementers' in rural areas is necessary: as holders of key positions in local government and regional development bodies, they have the capacity to translate the outcomes of the social foresight lab into practical implementation at a local level.
- Design-based methods are central to motivate local stakeholders, to translate between the different stakeholders - especially between lay-people and experts – and to empower citizens to engage with future developments.
- The process is highly iterative, one needs to take into account that it requires resources for coordination and management.