Author: Carlos Cuevas Garcia, TUM

Studying co-creative activity that brings science and society closer to each other is a challenging task, even in normal days. Getting access to people involved in interesting projects happens only after intensive engagement and ongoing discussion to establish trust and rapport. Additionally, these activities happen everywhere. A project that intends to produce a clear picture of co-creation activities in Europe requires social scientists to move fast, be present where important activities are happening, report back to the wider team, discuss preliminary findings, and decide what direction to go next. 

In the first phase of SCALINGS, we had been interviewing people involved in individual projects across Europe. This year, in what we call the Phase 2 of SCALINGS, we have transitioned from conducting individual interviews to creating a more engaging dialogue between research participants and ourselves. In these activities, we exchange thoughts and ideas about what has and hasn’t worked to co-create innovation and scale up, while doing so responsibly.

Since last autumn, the different groups of researchers involved in SCALINGS have been planning Phase 2 activities focused specifically on co-creation instruments (living labs/test beds, co-creation facilities, public procurement of innovation), and technological domains (urban energy, robotics, autonomous driving). Some of these activities took place before the COVID-19 travel and meeting restrictions were implemented, but many others had to be unfortunately postponed. From the events that did take place, I had the chance to make it to a number of events: to three workshops at the European Robotics Forum 2020 in Malaga, a workshop about public procurement of innovation in Copenhagen, at the Technical University of Denmark, and a workshop at the École de Mines in Paris about test beds for autonomous driving. These multiple experiences led me to think about some of the ways in which our work was affected by the spread of the virus and the measures that followed. 

The events that occurred suffered a number of modifications to adapt to the situation. The three workshops that we conducted during the European Robotics Forum were a success despite the fact that many participants cancelled their attendance. The organisers of the Forum had to increase the amount of video conferencing equipment to enable the remote participation of a larger number of people. In our case, one of our colleagues, a key organiser of a workshop focused on challenge-driven robotics innovation, had to stay at home. She was able to follow the discussions online, but her participation was limited, and she wasn’t able to share her most provocative thoughts from her years of work with our participants.

Picture 1. “Towards better robotics innovation policies” Workshop. European Robotics Forum, Malaga.

In Copenhagen, we brought together facilitators of public procurement and pre-commercial procurement of innovation initiatives from Spain and Denmark. However, nearly one third of the attendants cancelled at the last minute. People facilitating these projects had well-developed technical expertise and many years of experience working for or with city councils and they tended to be above 60 and were therefore in COVID-19 high-risk group. One of the guests who couldn’t attend physically, joined us virtually, and stayed with us for the entire day as she was carried around on a laptop to contribute to build up a graphic representation of the project she worked on, pointing to the challenges that emerged at different stages, and so on.

Picture 2 and 3. Public procurement of innovation workshop, DTU, Denmark.

During the morning of the Paris workshop, we all kept an eye on the door and our watches as one of our researchers waited in his hotel room for a phone call from a family member he had met recently, who in turn was waiting for the results of the COVID-19 test. There was a high chance that she tested positive. Luckily, eventually, the door squeaked open and our colleague stepped into the room with a very contagious smile. He had received good news from home so he didn’t have to quarantine in his hotel room. The workshop continued with our colleague’s most up-to-date research about legal frameworks for autonomous vehicles’ testbeds. Should they work as zones of exception, as regulatory sandboxes, or does experimental law provide other alternatives? His presentation triggered an enriching discussion among researchers and practitioners involved in autonomous driving projects in Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. 

My experiences described above made me think about the challenges in conducting research about co-creative innovation during a pandemic. The situation is no doubt unusual and maybe not much co-creation will take place during the lockdown, at least not initially. However, it is in these precise situations when the more innovation, either social or technological, is needed. And, we need to direct these innovations to be more ethical, responsible and democratic. Learning from other projects and documenting them will continue and will be key in these situations, hence the importance of giving some thought to the work we do in SCALINGS. 

Any type of work has become more challenging during the pandemic. Yet, co-creation and its study face particular difficulties. First of all, by necessity it involves people from very different types of organizations and sectors including academia, the public sector, citizens, and companies of different sizes. Often they are located in different countries and are therefore subject to different national and organizational measures and restrictions. Coordinating co-creation activities during “ordinary” times is difficult and additional activities with the social scientists are even harder to coordinate. Secondly, since some of these projects are put on standby because technological devices cannot be tested in real-case scenarios, our chances to follow them decrease. A third challenge is, with the pandemic, the priorities of individuals and organizations change, so we need to be empathetic if the access we gained previously to research sites is put on hold.   

To conclude with a more positive thought, the current situation shows the need for research on science, technology and society interactions even more evident, and hopefully, organizations will become more willing to look at what other sectors are doing to address their current challenges. In that light, co-creation is more needed than ever, and our learnings from engagement activities will be more valuable to the world.