Research & Innovation

Of “Lighthouses’, ‘Living Labs’ and the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ - Social responsibility beyond research and teaching (an NGO perspective)

Norbert Steinhaus

There is a broad consensus that research and innovation (R&I) must be steered towards socially desirable ends, ensuring that science and technology are the driving forces behind social progress. This puts the current R&I system under increasing pressure to become more inclusive and responsive to current and future societal challenges. Although the critical issues of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) have been gaining academic awareness and political support as tools to move European R&I governance forward, there is broad recognition that the engagement of civil society organisations and citizens has been suboptimal in defining R&I priorities. Here it needs to rethink the role of higher education institutions and their contributions to society in a context of rapid transformations and world crises. Citizens all around Europe are already showing increasing interest in participatory activities: their engagement in social movements and voluntary associations as well as science-related activities such as Citizen Science are clear signs of their willingness to be active players in the field. This paper introduces and reflects on the different concepts of co-production of knowledge, knowledge exchange and knowledge mobilisation, such as Community Based Research, Citizen Science or Science Shops.

Keywords: Research & Innovation, RRI, community engagement, stakeholder consultation, Science Shop, CBR, European Commission, Horizon 2020, community of practice, barriers, constraints, research needs, collaboration, structural change, public engagement, higher education


It is the well-known story of the ivory tower. Scientists have locked themselves in, high above the rest of the population. Nearly unreachable and isolated. But even when they leave their ivory tower, they remain misunderstood and disconnected from the rest of the population. Civil society does not see their problems taken seriously. A lack of transparency, poor communication and a lack of skills or opportunities for cross-cutting cooperation ultimately lead to the population's denial of scientific facts.

But isn’t the spherical-supernatural incomprehensibility of science a cliché? Scientific research is, of course, not necessarily compatible with the everyday consciousness of most people anywhere. But neither is the job of a logistics manager at a large department store chain or the investment planning of a savings bank. So, where does the special feature of science come from? From its fundamental function for the community (Ossing, 2018).

Democratising Knowledge

If we want to promote not only excellent but also socially desirable science and technology, it is vital to align the objectives of research and innovation with the needs and values of the societies that support them. This means to involve the whole of society in decisions about the development of science and technology.

James Bovard (2016) once said “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”. This is a nice picture when thinking of the stakeholder groups to work with in engagement activities: Research, Industry and Civil Society/Communities.

By following the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of knowledge as “Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education” (Lexico, 2021), we cannot leave the sole focus on the academic as an ‘expert producer of knowledge’ –as those who pass their knowledge downstream to various communities who absorb it and put it to practical use.

Not all knowledge can be found on Google Scholar. Grey literature, clearly devalued in the scientific, at least university context, contains knowledge that sometimes never makes it into major publications. From newspapers to podcasts, Instagram, meetings and demos - knowledge can be found everywhere (FSR Admin, 2021).

As a consequence, we can move to a much stronger focus on ‘collaborative knowledge processes’, which actively involves diverse knowledge systems, including:

  • Individual local knowledge, drawing on the experiences of an individual in a place.
  • Collective cultural knowledge, for example, the indigenous peoples’ understanding of natural resource management approaches.
  • Political knowledge, encompassing a broad concept of those in positions of power who are able to influence decision-making processes.
  • Scientific or expert knowledge, peer-reviewed knowledge produced through scientific research.

Consequently, we cannot have a ‘western’, ‘European’, or ‘global north’-centric vision of science and knowledge. Involving diverse knowledge sources in knowledge production process is challenging; however, each source can contribute something to a problem, making the whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Thus, co-creation of knowledge and creating value from knowledge not only relates to and facilitates building communities or developing literacies but also eliminates barriers and grants access to information to spread new ideas. All stakeholders seeing each other eye to eye. Wolves and sheep.

Responsible Research and Innovation

Decisions in research and innovation in a European context must consider the principles on which the European Union is founded, i.e., respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of minorities. This was embedded in the Lund Declaration (Swedish Presidency to the EU, 2009) and has served as a clear inspiration for Horizon 2020.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) was and still is an attempt to achieve conceptual and practical ways to transform the R&I system in this direction. RRI requires that all stakeholders, including civil society, are responsive to each other and take shared responsibility for the processes and outcomes of research and innovation. This means working together in science education, the definition of research agendas, the conduct of research, access to research results and the application of new knowledge in society, fully respecting the ethical and gender dimension (Italian Presidency of the Council of the EU, 2014).

Although the concept of RRI and its key issues have been gaining academic awareness and political support as efficient tools to move forward in addressing the challenges for European R&I governance, as can be seen from various sources. RRI practices are not yet consolidated across Europe’s R&I sector (La Caixa Foundation, 2017; MoRRI consortium, 2018).

Open Science

In 2014, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation took the wind out of the sails of the RRI concept and introduced Open Science as a new approach to the scientific process  - based on cooperative work and new ways of disseminating knowledge through digital technologies and new collaborative tools. The idea captures a systemic change to the way science and research have been carried out for the last fifty years; shifting from the standard practises of publishing research results in scientific publications towards sharing and using all available knowledge at an earlier stage in the research process (European Commission [EC], 2016). However, Citizen Science as a concept and term is increasingly seen as an integral part of both RRI and Open Science.

 All in all, it is about creating value from knowledge, and we have a variety of strategies for participatory ways of knowledge creation, which have emerged in the last 50 years based on specific research contexts and experiences.

From education to engagement - A variety of strategies

Practical project experience and theoretical work have increased opportunities for citizen (or public) engagement, especially in the last two decades. This was done through active involvement in scientific practice (Research and Agenda Setting), discussions about scientific findings and their impact on policy and society (Policy & Social Dialogue) and a better understanding of the scientific process (Education).

In the following paragraphs, different approaches will be described which have stepped into the spotlight of public and policymakers’ interest in recent debates on Science and Society relations.

Project-based learning (PBL)

The PBL format is a student-centred pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem. Students learn both thinking strategies and domain knowledge. The goals of PBL are to help students develop flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills, self-directed learning, effective collaboration skills and intrinsic motivation (Edutopia, 2021).


As an educational approach to balance formal instruction and direction with the opportunity to serve in the community, Service-Learning provides a pragmatic, progressive learning experience. Service-learning offers pupils and students immediate opportunities to apply classroom learning to support or enhance the work of local agencies that often exist to effect positive change in the community (Knapp et al., 2010).

Both methodologies have their advantages and limitations, having in common that their initial problem setting, or service offer is driven by the educational institute. Nevertheless, they offer opportunities – depending on the level of engagement of the teaching staff and the frame of the respective curricula – to answer requests expressed by civil society organisations or problems they might have addressed.

Public Engagement with Research

Public engagement describes the many ways in which the activities and benefits of higher education and research are shared with and informed by the public. There are already many ongoing inspiring public engagement activities involving universities, research institutes, NGOs and Civil Society Organisations. Much of this work is still under the radar and vulnerable to shifts in funding.

To capture the wisdom of the crowd is at the core of public engagement, the collective knowledge of a group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. In this context, online communities have become an important source of knowledge and new ideas. However, the potential of crowdsourcing as a tool for data analysis to address the increasing problems faced by organisations and institutions in trying to deal with “Big Data” is still not fully explored (García Martinez & Walton, 2014).

Figure 1. TeRRIFICA Crowd Mapping in Minsk

  1. Image 1

Science Shops

The most common definition of Science Shops describes them as entities that provide “independent, participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society” (Leydesdorff & Ward, 2005; Living Knowledge, n.d.). This support often takes the form of collaborative research and/or innovation projects to respond to civil society (mostly Civil Society Organisations, CSOs) needs (Mulder et al., 2006). Science Shops first emerged in the seventies and are perceived as an organic way of involving society in research, because they generally follow a bottom-up approach and support research between CSOs, academic research groups and students. Science Shops around the world have several operational models, but they have a deeply rooted society-driven and bottom-up approach in their DNA and the commitment to direct community involvement into their processes (Steinhaus, 2014).

In their original framework, Science Shops would either receive questions directly from CSOs or gather questions through public engagement activities. However, there are many other channels, and all other stakeholders may be able to express concerns experienced by civil society. For instance, the Education Community can identify concerns through community service learning, Business and Industry often identify social concerns through their Corporate Social Responsibility activities, the Research Community can engage in needs assessment to identify concerns that have not been expressed previously, and so on. Moreover, Science Shops themselves are often active in identifying societal concerns and then engaging with stakeholders to shape the Science Shop processes (Urias et al., 2020).

By bridging different scientific and social knowledge components, Science Shops can significantly improve the effectiveness, quality, acceptance, impact and sustainability of solutions for complex societal problems. Building on approaches of mutual learning that bridge roles and positions of multiple stakeholders is a promising entry point to goal-oriented participation. Science Shops are seen to provide an inclusive and safe space for participatory dialogue, citizen science and co-creation with a variety of actors.

Community-based participatory research (CBPR)

Community-based participatory research can be defined as a partnership approach to research that equitably involves community members, organisational representatives, and academic researchers in all research process aspects. It enables all partners to contribute their expertise, with shared responsibility and ownership; it enhances the understanding of a given phenomenon and integrates the knowledge gained with action to improve the health and well-being of community members, such as through interventions and policy change (Israel, et al., 1998, as cited in Detroit URC, 2021).

The strengths or advantages of CBPR are that it allows for the innovative adaptation of existing resources and explores local knowledge and perceptions. It empowers people by considering them agents who can investigate their own situations. Community input makes the project credible, while the approach as such provides a forum that can bridge cultural differences among participants and helps dismantle the lack of trust in research shown by some communities.

Citizen Science

    Citizen Science can be understood as scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. The core issue of citizen science is the participation of non-regular scientists in knowledge generation. The methodology is also known as crowd science, civic science, community science, volunteer monitoring, participatory monitoring or participatory action research (Engage2020 Consortium, 2014).

    As there is no universally accepted definition of Citizen Science, special attention has to be given if the term is used to describe either a method (allowing traditional scientific research practices to reach larger scales) or a movement (that democratises the scientific research process by for example restoring public trust in science, re-orienting science toward societal challenges, and installing democratic governance of science), or a social capacity (as a knowledge-producing capacity of society and a path to evidence-based decision-making).

    A suitable approach is to categorise Citizen Science according to its openness, along the prototypical steps of a scientific process from formulating research questions to the actual conduct of research and the subsequent analysis based on the research. Who is actually designing the study? Who is collecting the samples? Who is analysing them? And who interprets the data?” These questions represent the steps of a classical scientific process.

    Depending on the responsibilities for these steps, the models are classified with an increasing degree of participation by the community in the research process. The ‘community consulting model’ follows the basic idea of ‘Science Shops’. Under this model, the community defines a problem and research task, while the research itself is conducted by professional scientists. The “community workers model” encompasses various collaborative settings, from public data-collection, through to a collaborative analysis. The ‘community-based participatory research model’ describes projects where all tasks are conducted by the community, equivalent to participatory action research approaches (Schrögel & Kolleck, 2019).

    The strength of the method lies in the rapid collection of large amounts of data, observations and/or ideas for problem-solving. Besides this “functional” benefit for research, citizen science can help strengthen ties between science and society and raise awareness about scientific work in the wider public. The direct involvement of citizens in research, which can help make people learn about what research implies in terms of methods, skills and reasoning, is another strength of the method.

    It can be criticised that the method does not usually imply the influence of laypeople on project design and is not per se tailored towards engaging people in problem definitions and setting research objectives. However, it might be possible to include these as well in the case of research done on socially defined problems.

    The White Paper on Citizen Science, therefore, demands an educational plan on key aspects of Citizen Science that encompasses all phases of the life-long learning process, from early childhood to continuing adult education, which should also provide educational strategies for Citizen Science actors and address, among others, scientific procedures, technical issues, community management, sociological aspects of learning methodologies, as well as specific training on Citizen Science methodologies (Serrano Sanz et al., 2015).

    The politically important question to answer is how does citizen science actually strengthen ties between science and society? To do so, it would have to reach out to less educated and more sceptical circles. To all appearances, it has hardly succeeded in doing this so far. Although there is only scattered information on the sociodemographic characteristics of the researching citizenry, everything indicates that up to now, older people with a higher level of education have formed the majority. Meanwhile, citizen science projects for school classes are striving to connect with the younger generation. A far more difficult task for science and education policy will be to reach other target groups outside the established middle-class educational milieu (Krischke, 2021).

    Lighthouses and Living Labs

    The perception of social responsibility is a process and does not function 'top-down'. It must be understood as a dialogue process, which should ultimately serve to repeatedly compare one's own approaches with university-internal and external actors and adapt them to needs as necessary. To improve this, it needs guidance and support – lighthouses or beacons as devices designed to overcome challenges, show a way forward or simply attract attention to a specific location or activity.

    Living Labs

    Living Labs are defined as user-centred, open innovation ecosystems based on a systematic user co-creation approach, integrating research and innovation processes in real-life communities and settings. Living Labs are both practice-driven organisations that facilitate and foster open, collaborative innovation, as well as real-life environments or arenas where both open innovation and user innovation processes can be studied and subject to experiments and where new solutions are developed. Living Labs operate as intermediaries between citizens, research organisations, companies, cities and regions for joint value co-creation, rapid prototyping or validation to scale up innovation and businesses. They involve user communities, not only as observed subjects but also as a source of knowledge, creating value by contributing to the co-creation and exploration of emerging ideas, breakthrough scenarios, innovative concepts. They have common elements but multiple different implementations (European Network of Living Labs [ENoLL], 2021).

    So what? What do we need in the future?

    In all our activities, starting either from the academic context or from a non-academic environment, we must learn from models that already worked with an interactive, joint-learning and co-creative approach. We must look out for “lighthouses” as seeds for replication. By establishing networks of “lighthouses” or “living labs” for different Sustainable Development Goals, national research strategies or local needs, we can develop positive environments and encompass multidisciplinary research to bring together citizens and heterogeneous stakeholders to co-create solutions, share knowledge and develop skills.

    Figure 2. The Wisdom of the Crowd: Diversity and Independence of Opinion

    Image 2

    A CBPR, Science Shop or Citizen Science project can help empower groups and actors that have been marginalised or excluded from the decision-making process by giving a voice to their perspectives and knowledge. Through these projects, communities become aware of the benefits of research, increasing their trust in research and interest in participating in the research process.

    In order to further develop the understanding of science-society relations and the exchange of knowledge, it is important to involve both students (what do they expect from their socially responsible university?) and non-university institutions (what R&D needs do they have, what topics or problems are on their agenda?) and not to determine internally first and then go public with service offers. There are suitable participatory formats with which all actors, both university -internal and external, can be involved in the development of scenarios and their implementation. Citizen engagement should be inspired and facilitated in a bottom-up manner and not organised top-down. It is crucial to let it gradually grow as a true and robust civil society movement to secure a sustainable future by itself, for itself and future generations.

    For this, we need events, projects and mediators to offer time and space for people to connect and develop trust and relationships. And we need NGOs and CSOs (or from the NGO perspective universities and researchers) that dare to establish new collaborations and approaches.


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