Liege Workshop 2016

Producing and Experimenting with Publics in New Political Economies

Date: 28-29th June 2016
Location: Universite de Liege, Belgium
Organizers: Pierre Delvenne and Nathan Charlier


Many disciplines investigate how research and innovation (R&I) contributes to socio-economic development. Yet most mainstream studies tend to focus rather narrowly on R&I as a resource to be mobilized instrumentally to address grand challenges: first and foremost economic growth, but also increasingly climate change, food security, low-carbon economy, social welfare, and the ageing societies.  Often, these goals are framed with a loose reference and appeal to ‘the public’ as important agents in these issues.  An alliance of scientists, entrepreneurs and the public is increasingly emphasized by policy-makers and innovation actors, developing alternative pathways in science, policy and industry. This agenda has attracted interest also from more critical scholarship, generating an appetite for meaningful movement towards new, sustainable socio-material transitions. Yet the translation to (public) action remains a challenge.  A crucial question here concerns understanding of the public – more precisely, publics – and their role in the changing political economy of R&I, where these issues of substantive R&I trajectories and their political economic conditioning and effects are too often neglected.

This workshop seeks to explore how publics and their knowledges, practices and processes as political-economic phenomena transform R&I – actually and potentially – within and across changing contexts and evolving geographies (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Mirowski 2010, Tyfield 2011, Birch 2015).  Publics have always been an important topic in science and technology studies (STS), with studies of public engagement in, and/or public understanding of, science problematizing scientific authority with regard to lay individuals’ opinions (Wynne 2007) and the emergence of “counter-publics” (Hess 2011). However, the various ways that publics have been mobilized or given roles in R&I processes often overlook issues of political economy that are themselves also changing dramatically: the continued prevalence of programmes of austerity are changing the very institutions of the ‘public’ political economy including of R&I. Moreover, it is critical to unpack issues of political economy in light of proliferating new discourses like Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) or promissory imaginaries such as the “creative economy” (Howkins 2013), the “sharing economy” (Wood and Scantlebury 2014) and the “3rd industrial revolution” (Rifkin 2011), which invoke publics in diverse and possibly novel ways, both descriptive and normative. Furthermore, an array of new situations involving publics in R&I are also emerging; from participatory design in decision-making processes and public value mapping, to Living Labs or FabLabs, to public protests against particular innovations. In ‘techno-nature-society’, thus, ‘publics’ and their changing meaning, forms, socio-political roles and responsibilities, and normative cultural valence thus sit at the heart of changing relations of scientific research, innovation and political economy; and vice versa, regarding investigations of publics as a constructed or imagined contributor to R&I and its governance, as a produced audience and recipient of the outputs from R&I, and as performers in situated experiments of new social forms (Laurent 2010).

The workshop focuses on four substantive and overlapping issues that address the co-production of publics and the political economy of research and innovation:

  1. The future role of publics in processes of government: the involvement of publics in participatory decision-making processes (regarding R&I) today is meant to guarantee enhanced democracy and stronger, more robust and more legitimate decisions.
  2. Empowering publics in new innovation processes: today the proliferation of new experiments with publics are often accompanied by an empowerment rhetoric that – ostensibly – profoundly challenge the dominant intellectual property-intensive, global model of science-based innovation.
  3. Public participation as a luxury: the context of multiple and overlapping (economic, ecological, social) crises has often led to the fabrication of imaginaries of scarcity (of competitiveness, of sustained growth, of natural resources, of qualified workers, of public monies).
  4. Publics and political economic crises: the lack of economic growth is often used to justify cutting public services and institutions, or for introducing new performance indicators and new public management and governance tools. This contributes to enforcing neoliberal dogmas and channelling public and private investment away from what does not directly contribute to short-term economic performance. In R&I, the economization (Popp Berman 2013) of policies is a term coined to highlight the pervasive idea that the main purpose of government is to affect positively the larger economy with R&I as central vehicle. This process happens against the backdrop of mounting social protest and an intensification of “Occupy-movements”/organised publics across the globe, whereas even mainstream economists today denounce continuing neoliberal and austerity politics that are reshaping the ‘public sector’ and public investment.

Workshop Programme


Session 1

  • Harro van Lente (Maastricht University, Netherlands), Publics in space tourism: a case of technology and novel needs
  • Samantha Vanderslott (UCL, UK), Are we helping you effectively? Effective altruism and its publics
  • Christoph Schneider (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany), Digital making: experimenting with public technologies

Keynote speech 1

  • Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna, Austria)

Session 2

  • Sebastian Pfotenhauer (Technical University Munich, Germany), Joakim Juhl & Erik Aarden, A Solution Looking for a Problem? Interrogating the “Deficit Model” of Innovation
  • Stevienna de Saille (Sheffield University, UK) & Fabien Medvecky, Responsibility vs jobs and growth? Tensions in policies shaping innovation towards ‘the public good’

Session 3

  • Kean Birch (York University, Canada), Rent-seeking, rentiership and publics in (scientific) knowledge economies
  • Michiel van Oudheusden (Liege University, Belgium), Catrinel Turcanu, Ine Van Hoyweghen & Go Yoshizawa, Citizen science in the nuclear field: An exploration of its potential in governing nuclear incidents, accidents, and post-disaster situations


Session 4

  • Les Levidow (Open University, UK) & Theo Papaioannou, Inclusive Innovation: Competing Normative Models of Inclusion versus Exclusion
  • Mélanie Antoine, Nathan Charlier, Pierre Delvenne, Hadrien Macq, Benedikt Rosskamp (Liege University, Belgium), Fast and not furious: an inquiry into the current low-risk/high gain configuration of public participation
  • Lotte Krabbenborg (Radboud University, Netherlands), Emerging technologies and the public sphere

Keynote speech 2

  • Dr. Johan Söderberg (University of Gothenburg, Sweden)

Session 5

  • Kean Birch (York University, Canada) and Margaret Chiappetta, Responsible innovation, public acceptance and the bio-economy: Or, how responsible research and innovation policy embodies rentiership
  • Pierre Delvenne (Liege University, Belgium), The rise of farmers’ epistemic authority: shifting roles in the networked agricultural production in Argentina
  • Barbara E. Ribeiro (Nottingham University, UK) & Kate Millar, Publics and public engagement in the bioeconomy

Session 6

  • Neil Stephens (Brunel University, UK), & Brian Salter, (Counter) publics, (counter-hegemonic) markets, and the divided political economy of biomedicine
  • Saheli Datta (King’s College London, UK), From regulation to information. A patient-side approach to stem cell tourism.