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UK OFFICE : +44 (0)1260 273 802
BRUSSELS OFFICE : +32 (0)2 895 5709

S Kulkki

Residential RDI


Seija Kulkki writes about the need for cities to use sociology to inform inclusive and participative RDI functions


We may start with some reflections about the role of social sciences and humanities in overall societal development. Irwin Neil1 questions in his article in  The New York Times why only a few social scientists are the advisors of policy makers, and why all such positions are held either by economists or business people and natural scientists related to technology development? Why do policy makers seem to be interested only in GNP growth, inflation rates, productivity and employment, taxation, public spending and fiscal policies, and not in their social and human impacts on people’s lives such as lost identities and health, lack of work, economic uncertainty, growing tendencies of discrimination, inequality and their diminishing hopes for the future, as well as their deteriorating trust towards the political system and institutions? Why are we not really addressing the social and human issues related to economic or technological development, even though they may produce uneven value and wealth creation, loss of jobs and future prospects, especially in the case of the working and middle classes?

The New York Times article further argues that we have a tendency to interpret societal challenges as economic problems or crises; consequently, we shadow away and deny seeing the underlying social problems and crises. However, Michèle Lamont,2  a Harvard sociologist and president of the American Sociological Association, argues that economics is only a piece of a broader societal problem. Lamont discusses ways in which context matters in that economists have a tendency to see reality through economic lenses and recognise the economic problems, while technology providers see reality as technological problems or opportunities.

Neil’s article is a timely public opening to a highly relevant discussion in the US where science, technology and innovation policies have traditionally been driven by the corporate sector and (natural) sciences and technology. However, we argue that this discussion is relevant here in Europe and globally.

Europe’s role

One may argue that the expectations relating to Europe’s contribution to human and social development are even higher; Europe has a science, research and innovation policy and consequent funding for solving societal challenges through RDI (research, development and innovation, Horizon 2020, Third Pillar), corporate RDI (Second Pillar), and science and technology (First Pillar). By definition, Europe should be better positioned to address in a balanced way the major societal challenges of our time, many of them caused by overemphasising the role of finance and technology in globalisation. That is why European commissioner Carlos Moedas3  is opening Europe towards a wider perception of science, research and innovation policies, including open and citizen science, which is welcomed in the RDI community.

Furthermore, we propose that we should go a couple of steps further and aim at open and citizen innovations that incorporate all-inclusive and participative RDI where people, developer communities, social networks, academia, cities, and public agencies take the initiative and even the driver’s seat in collaborations with firms and technologies in solving societal challenges.

This implies that cities open their own RDI functions and invest in related infrastructural, organisational and funding solutions. They also need to develop related skills and capabilities. Universities should reinterpret their perception and portfolio of sciences to include open and citizen sciences and related innovations. This is a major change in an ongoing ’trajectory’ within universities; we have seen social sciences and humanities lose their position in the competition with natural sciences and technology. However, this also means that we interpret the content of social sciences and humanities to include open and citizen science and innovations, and even large-scale experimentation for piloting and validating new solutions for societal challenges with citizens and other stakeholders. Universities themselves may need to become participative in social and economic development, and learn to apply and develop participative methodologies, means of action research that is transformative by nature, and the methodologies of societal challenges-driven research designs and processes. Universities – perhaps with cities and regions – may even need to invest in new and interactive digital platform-based RDI infrastructures for interaction with citizens on a large scale for data collection, pattern building and even for the discussion of RDI outcomes. Perhaps we even need to interpret the role of the media; it may participate in the interactive co-creation with citizens.

However, we argue that this type of strategic and visionary RDI leadership for the inclusive transformation of our societies and economies is what is expected from Europe.

The next industrial revolution

This is more than timely and imperative as the World Economic Forum4  proposes that the next industrial revolution builds on and benefits from digital platforms, but deals specifically with the information of human beings. The World Economic Forum also proposes that the new development phase will be created on top of digital platforms, and in a way that the technology is used to relate directly to quality of life and to human beings themselves. The prognosis is that the new development may integrate physical, digital and biological spheres of life as it builds on, develops and integrates digital technologies with findings of social and human sciences, as well as with neuroscience, bioinformatics, gene editing, medicine, medical, wellbeing, health analytics and other branches of sciences wherein the human information connection may be created with the globally interactive and complex digital platform technologies. The World Economic Forum foresees that this transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

The next bold steps

As Europe already has participative RDI networks (with experience in and knowledge of collaborative and open innovation ecosystems with cities, citizens and regions), we propose that Europe takes the next bold step with participative, open and citizen science and innovation, as Finland, for example, already has as a part of its scientific, technological and economic policies. To start with, Europe may gather the experiences of its RDI networks, such as the European Network of Living Laboratories (ENoLL), innovative regions, smart cities, future cities and others whom have developed approaches and methodologies of human-centric public engagement.

However, we may need a major transfer of resources and capabilities towards city-driven, citizen-driven, media-driven or science-driven all-inclusive and collaborative RDI around societal challenges. This participative and all-inclusive RDI process may imply over time a new potential as a major transformative process within societies – perhaps even as a core process for societal transformation or preparing the related issues for public policy making for such a transformation. This may demonstrate how to substantiate the role and nature of human-centric participative democracy. This means that with the co-creation, processes of knowledge creation and innovation may become the core processes of societal transformation, and we can finally deliver the promise of a knowledge society after investing mainly in the digital technologies of an information society.


1          Irwin, Neil (2017): What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? The New York Times, Economic View by Neil Irwin March 17, 2017

2         Lamont, Michèle (2017): About the role of social sciences in policy making in Neil Irwin’s article in The New York Times on What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? The New York Times, March 17, 2017

3         Moedas, Carlos (2017): Europe can build on scientific intuition, Nature, Column World View, March 21, 2017,

4         Schwab, Klaus (2016): ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond’. World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Thursday 14 January 2016

Professor Seija Kulkki (Emeritus)

Founding Director of the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research (CKIR)

Aalto University School of Business

+358 50 584 9070

This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Smart Cities 1, which will be published in May 2017.