STS - conferences, IST2012

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States, tipping points and change in societal debate on new technologies
Eefje Cuppen

Last modified: 2012-03-27


Sustainability transitions rely on the alignment of sustainable technologies with their socio-technical context, for example in terms of policies and regulation, support from local and larger socio-political communities or embedding in the value chain. Societal debate on new technologies can be seen as a vehicle to create alignment within the socio-technical context.  

Societal debates on new technologies help to articulate the potential impacts and risks of a technology and the values at stake. This requires a sufficiently open dialogue. An open dialogue means that actors with diverse perspectives are willing and able to learn, listen and exchange knowledge and viewpoints. Societal debates are dynamic processes in which different states may be identified. Not all of these states involve ‘open dialogue’ and contribute equally to alignment with the socio-technical context.

Drawing on insights from dynamic system theory we distinguish between gradual change in societal debate and tipping points between different states of societal debate. A tipping points is a relative rapid change to a different state that is hard to reverse. A tipping point may concern a shift to a situation where there is e.g. broad societal support for a technology, but it may also concern a shift to a situation of deadlock or polarised controversy.

In this presentation we will explore 1) to what extent we can understand the dynamics of societal debate in terms of shifts between different states of ‘openness of dialogue’, and 2) investigate ‘early-warning signals’ that indicate that the debate will shift to a state in which the ‘openness of dialogue’ is seriously decreased. This may help policy makers to develop interventions in time for facilitating societal debate.