All posts by Robert Meckin

Innovation and STS in Torun: The EASST Conference as a Generative Object

The editorial in the last edition of the EASST Review took us from fireworks to fire objects to archives (Farías 2014, p.3). Creating an “overtly incomplete archive” was suggested as a way to review the multiple practices of the EASST conference in Poland. The making of an archive highlights another characteristic of fire objects alongside their complexity – their generative quality.

“… Fires are energetic and transformative, and depend on difference—for instance between (absent) fuel or cinders and (present) flame. Fire objects, then, depend upon otherness, and that otherness is generative.”

(Law & Singleton 2005, p.344)

On this view, an archive of multiple accounts is one pattern of absence and presence created from otherness, from difference. My original proposal had been to write about futures – I presented in the “Synthesising Futures” track. However, reading back over my notes months later the productive quality of objects seemed like a more interesting motif to organise my partial account.

The production of patterns brings to mind the notion of another metaphor: diffraction. Waveform diffraction patterns depend, much like fire objects, on difference and are formed of creative and destructive interference (Barad 2007, p.78). Bringing the concept of fire objects to bear on my notes is a way of making a new pattern, new spots of bright and dark, new instances of understanding and further questions to be asked.

By way of background, Torun was my second STS conference. I attended my first in Denmark, at Copenhagen Business School, in the first month of my PhD. That was a thrilling experience. To me, with a background in laboratory bioscience and science education, it was a whole new way of looking at the world. Torun was different. Partly because I was presenting a paper and partly because the conference itself was smaller, somehow more intimate, the event moved on my thinking in important ways, which I’ll return to towards the end.

I attended six sessions from four tracks and two plenary sessions. The tracks were:

• Conceptualising responsible research and innovation in practice

• Crossbreeding STS with innovation studies

• Non-concerns about science and technology and within STS

• Synthesising futures: analysing the socio-technical production of knowledge and communities

My thoughts draw on many of the excellent papers in these tracks, but also on the bits in between – the breaks, long lunches and discussions. And, while a conference can be understood to produce many things including prizes, hot meals, book launches, advertisements, coffee, economic transactions, conversations and so on, I focussed my selection on how otherness is productive of questions and for developing early career academics.

Generating questions

Difference was notably productive in Harro van Lente’s meta-analysis of narratives often used in theories of innovation. His paper argued that it was possible to classify eight theories of innovation into Hayden White’s narrative genres. As romance, tragedy, comedy or satire. For instance, the ideal simplicity of the linear model of innovation is a romance characterised by ‘progress’ and a ‘struggle to happiness’. The ‘Social Construction of Technology’ is a comedy. Tales of misunderstanding and complication, but like romance, comedy ends happily. The presentation moved on to argue that because the authors could only find evidence for satire in literature, Huxley’s Brave New World being one example, there may be an absence of satire in STS scholarship. Thus, bringing together different things created a possible new direction for STS and IS research. Is there a new satirical future in the making? In the discussion following the paper, Robin Williams commented that, perhaps, different groups find it hard to write together because they have different ideas about what makes a good story. This raises other questions to ponder: What are the implications of choosing any single genre? What is included and what is not?

General discussions about what role STS scholarship should, or could, play in innovation featured in both the “conceptualising responsible research and innovation” (RRI) and “crossbreeding STS and innovation studies” sessions. One presentation proposed that STS could operate in the service of innovating new products. This opened up a familiar conversation – see Nina Amelung’s review about early career researchers in the last issue (Amelung 2014) – with some delegates putting forward the idea that other scholars might be uncomfortable with an instrumental conception of their research. This follows the idea that the role for STS is one of explanation (e.g. Bauchspies et al. 2006).

An alternative to this viewpoint is for researchers to be more involved in the processes of innovation. One form this could take, specific to RRI, is to think of researchers and innovators as caring for their work and that STS scholarship might mean:

“… both asking and helping to answer questions about the specificities of what kinds of care their knowledge and technologies invoke, where it will be practiced, and by whom, who it will reach and who it might miss or avoid? This kind of caring also requires STS scholars and scientists to attend to the consequences of care, when particular kinds of care are absent or backfire, when they interfere or disrupt other kinds of care, when they are presented as care but experienced as rejection or punishment.”

(Kerr 2012)

The notion of care presented here suggests prudence, awareness of emotions and a focus on process. This means on-going responsibility for the things STS generates, as well studying the practices of responsibility by scientists and innovators, and a willingness to be involved (Bijker 2003). However, the theorising about these roles tends to be abstract and general. For some researchers their involvement in a project can shift from explanation to engagement and back again – the roles emerge alongside the research and relationships. Mattering is a process. The different positions researchers can take raises a further question: would it be useful to focus on conceptual tools that deal with the changing roles of STS throughout cases and projects, as well as arguments spanning a whole field or area of inquiry?

Moving on practices

In a discussion following one presentation on RRI, a senior academic said the challenge of RRI was about relocating
responsibility from where it had classically resided, in individuals and in groups, to the process of innovation. Yet, the senior academic said, it was not clear whether the presenter had shifted back to individual entities because the presenter did not like the challenge, or because it was an error. The presenter stalled. It was one of the trickiest questions I heard at the conference, yet I did not note the answer. I mention it because I too had a similar moment. My paper’s focus was on synthetic biology and part of my argument involved conceptualising synthetic biology as having the characteristics of an epistemic object (e.g. Knorr Cetina 2005). In the discussion, I was questioned as to whether synthetic biology could be an epistemic object because I had also demonstrated it to be political. I realised my mistake. In earlier drafts I had referred to a partial object but at some point had switched back to the more restricted word ‘epistemic’. However, as I considered the question and my oversight on the plane home, I came to understand that I needed to develop my own framework. The months since the conference have been stimulating for me on this issue – it will be a chapter in my thesis.

The conference was not only about tidying up reasoning and learning from mistakes. Conversations with other students also brought to my attention that many were approached by more senior academics who were interested in their concepts or empirical data, and who suggested staying in touch or embarking on some kind of collaboration. The coming together of experienced scholars and new scholars, the differences in their academic ideas and social connections, creates possibilities for research relationships in the future.

Lastly, my most memorable paper was Detecting Security Politics in the “non-concerns” track. It was a ‘comedic’ tale, filled with rich detail and humorous insights, of developing a new international border technology which had to meet many different ideas of success. The main point was that the multiple actors in the project broke up a large risk, that of detecting biological, chemical, radiation, nuclear and explosive materials at border crossings, and ‘disaggregated’ it to many smaller technical problems. But, for me, it was the not findings that resonated: it was a style of delivery and a presentation of a necessarily absent project to which one could aspire. Less experienced scholars were moved on, then, by practices that developed the specifics in the formulation of their arguments, their academic contacts and their inspiration.


In this account I used the generative quality of fire objects to create a pattern of interference and a way of thinking about how different practices of the conference are productive. From this view, of objects as a generative pattern of absence and presence, the conference produces theory, directions for research, interdisciplinary interactions and changes the practices of students and early career researchers.

Between Fashion and Storylines of Science, Technology and Innovation. Cross-Breeding STS and IS a Process Under Construction

Diana Velasco

The Science and Technology Studies (STS) field is interdisciplinary. That is why situating solidarities with other disciplines and research fields should not be, at first glance, a complex process. However, as usually happens in the exercise of intellectual activity, reality does not track with estimations and so cross-breeding an already cross-disciplinary field such as STS, with another eclectic and evolving area of study such as Innovation Studies (IS) can be challenging. This was the transversal topic of the track cross-breeding science and technology studies and innovation studies. Three sessions were held reflecting on diverse topics from fashions in science and innovation policies, and variants of epistemic capitalism, to open innovation and deconstructing bioeconomic innovation narratives. The track was full of reflections on the research fields themselves and specific cases where STS and IS have intersected and benefited from each other.

Figure: Liger. Hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger. Both parents are from the Panthera genus, but from different species.

It was the second day of the conference, Thursday September 18th 2014, 9:30 a.m. The track convenors were ready to start another exciting day. Arie Rip, convenor and first presenter opened the track talking about fashion. The title of his presentation was: ‘Fashions in science and innovation policy’. I never thought of this before, but as the presentation advanced, it becomes quite clear that even in science and innovation policy there are fashionable theories to use – and to sometimes even abuse. What come next? Wait until a new trend shows up to forget and leave the previous theory in limbo? Following Downs (1972), Rip presented to the audience the issue-attention cycle to explain how a new scientific approach or discovery evolves through time having as a correlational variable the visibility and plateau of productivity of the so-called discovery. The stages of the cycle are: 1. The pre-problem stage; 2. Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm; 3. Realising the cost of significant progress; 4. Gradual decline of intense public interest; 5. The post-problem stage (or prolonged limbo). Parenthesis: By that point, I was thinking about my own research and the paper my colleagues and I would present at the end of the day. Based on the innovation studies arena, the National System of Innovation approach (NSI) has been widely used (and abused) by policy-makers around the world. Policy practitioners need ideas to mobilise actors and resources, whilst having a justified base to choose some alternatives over others. This is how the NSI approach as an open, evolving and flexible explanatory and action device became popular from the 1950s onwards (Lundvall, 1992). It is true, this approach became fashionable also during the 1960s for developing countries and keeps being used as a normative and discursive device. Going back to the presentation: After transiting through big science and mode 2 of knowledge production as diagnosis tools and focus artefacts for understanding on-going transformations; open innovation as a label to characterise a current phenomenon in firms to integrate internal and external capacities to innovate; and Grand Challenges (GC) and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) as buzzwords used in the European Union driven by the need of desirable transformations through strategic S&T policies; Rip closed his talk saying that fashions are there for a reason, but that every now and again scholars should have a critical view at what has been accumulated.

We were just starting the track, and there were already some tones of tragedy in the environment, following Harro van Lente’s presentation: ‘Genres of innovation: Storylines of theories of technology’. Van Lente reviewed eight theories of innovation immersed within economic, socio-historical and management perspectives: neo-schumpeterian economics, innovation systems, path-dependency/creation, social construction of technology, large technological systems, multi-level perspective on technological transitions, technology cycles, and user innovation/diffusion. These perspectives present tensions between micro and macro forces that shape the innovation pathways within firms, industries, technological fields, countries, and global value chains. They also present different narratives to describe and explain reality. From this point, van Lente brilliantly exposed how these perspectives have an interpretation or narrative plot that can be classified in different genres (using an analogy to genres of theatre), following Hayden White (1973) who uses the prose discourse to define the historical work and John Staudenmaier (1985) who, building on White’s work, documents the emergence of the history of technology using storytelling narratives. The romantic plot is composed of the linear model, the NSI, and the user innovation, exemplifying the idea of progress through S&T. Then, there is a transition to the tragedy, where the failure of a heroic struggle to achieve progress is well explained by the path-dependency/creation. The comedy genre can be exemplified by SCOT and MLP bring up the complexity of interaction between micro, meso and macro levels where innovation takes place and the several misunderstandings between actors in their interactions to socially construct knowledge and technology. Finally, satire emerges as a reaction to the romantic view of S&T as the main engine of the modern progress, as in the work of Ellul (1980) about the technological system as a surrounding mediator in human relationships.

My attention was caught by these fascinating storylines of theories of technology, and with mixed feelings I discovered that my favourite genre is the romantic comedy, even when it comes to research. I would present later about the misconceptions about the NSI approach when applied in different political settings. The presentation would emphasise on broad perspectives for building collaborative innovation policies (romantic view). In our paper, we highlighted the importance of relationships of cooperation and trust between market and non-market organisations and the use of Doing, Using and Interacting (DUI) approaches to stimulate competence-building at different levels of aggregation (Nelson and Rosenberg, 1993; Lundvall et. al., 2009). However, there are always misunderstandings, shortcomings, and politics of policies mediating in the policy building processes (comedy). After all, neither the linear model of innovation nor the systemic view is sufficiently powerful to capture the essence of innovation processes. So yes, innovation happens after all, but with many negotiations in the middle.

Analytical possibilities are countless. The use of technological artefacts is natural in human activity, which means that social actors innovate locally, creating or adapting technologies to solve everyday problems. There are also global technological solutions supported by an extensive network of actors co-constructing innovations. I am going to refer to two specific examples presented in the track. Sampsa Hyysalo showed how the dynamics of dispersed peer-innovation can be seen in the use and adaptation of the kararat vehicles. I did not even know about the existence of these strange and flashy cars before the conference. These are cars built to skate or swim given variable weather conditions. Equipped with huge smooth wheels, there are unlimited configurations and varieties of such cars in eastern Estonia and Russia. Karakats are mostly used by low-income users who need them to cope with bad weather conditions and to support their economic activity. This has resulted in a process of collective innovation through pooling of competence and effort and has prevented manufacturers from taking over the market. This was an excellent case study of low cost innovation niches where there is a bricolage construction of an artefact from available technologies. The other example I will refer to here is the one presented by Lotte Asveld concerning bio-economic innovation narratives. This is an example of a technological system that has become very popular, or in Arie Rip’s words, a fashionable narrative. Asveld contrasted the neoliberal techno-scientific narrative supporting top-down measures for the adoption of biofuels as a low complex and easily compatible technology, with an agro-ecological narrative held by farmers and activists supporting the bio-based economies as alternative sources of income and energy production from a bottom-up approach. However, the relative advantage of proposing a sustainable source of energy has not been directly observable, neither has it been simple in terms of adaptability as was originally thought. This case showed how successful diffusion of innovation (DoI) of the biofuels concept has gone through a dynamic change in public perception and has been shaped by competing narratives. It was clear from these two examples that innovation emerges and is constrained by multiple socio-technical configurations and narratives where political and economic spaces play a key role.

By this point of the conference, being a presenter myself who is bringing together theories and approaches from both STS and IS, I was positive that there is enough space to situate solidarities between scholars who from the beginning have been close in their intellectual background. My optimism was reinforced by the presentation of Robin Williams. He portrayed STS as a mongrel discipline with multiple shifting boundaries and engagements. However, everything comes at a cost, which means that cross-disciplinary collaboration does involve costs and risks. The extension of focus from design and implementation to appropriation and use of technology and the sociological focus on governance of terrains, sites and groups where innovation is being shaped and reshaped, is indeed a needed cross-breeding area. Nonetheless, the analytical focus of both fields (STS and IS) may become blurry progressing to a shapeless interdisciplinary arena where identities can be lost. It can be risky to breed different precepts, methodologies, political commitments and narratives, but if it is true that multiple engagements have proved to be a differential and outstanding feature of the development and vibrancy of the STS community and that IS have overcome the normative, positivist, non-problematic pro-innovation view, then the best of both worlds can result in exciting research possibilities with further academic and practical implications. As Williams started and closed his presentation, this is still a process under construction that is growing at an accelerated pace.

It was Friday September 19th 2014 and the conference was coming to an end. I was at the same time excited and sad. Sharing such vibrant conversations and discussions with experienced and new researchers that are constantly moving the knowledge frontier made me feel motivated and energised. More than ever I felt I belong to this intellectual community that is continuously re-shaping and re-inventing itself. I could expect nothing less from this vibrant group. Being myself an anthropologist and systems engineer doing a PhD in Science and Technology Studies with a research topic based in Innovation Studies, I could finally breathe easy that I was not alone in the world.


Downs, A. (1972) ‘Up and Down with ecology – the “issue-attention cycle”’, Public Interest 28(1972:Summer): 38-50.

Ellul, J. (1980). The technological system. (New York: Continuum Publishing Corp).

Lundvall, B. (1992). National systems of innovation: towards a theory of innovation and interactive learning. (London: Pinter).

Lundvall, B, Joseph, K.J., Chaminade, Cristina, & Vang, Jan (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of Innovation Systems and Developing Countries. Building Domestic Capabilities in a Global Setting. (Cheltenham: Edwarg Elgar).

Nelson, R. & Rosenberg, N. (1993). ‘Technical Innovation and National Systems’. In R. Nelson (Ed.), National Innovation Systems. (New York: Oxford University Press).

Staudenmaier, S.J. (1985). Technology’s storytellers: reweaving the human fabric. (Cambridge Mass: MIT).

White, H. (1973). Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins).

Author information

AUTHORDiana Velasco is a doctoral researcher at the science and technology studies department at the University of Edinburgh. Her research centres on the coevolution of factors that lead to different innovation pathways and the construction and evolution of science, technology and innovation policies in developing countries.

Roads Less Travelled. Exploring New Connections Between Media Research and STS

The workshop ((An international workshop at the University of Siegen, 5th & 6th February 2015. Organised by Cornelius Schubert and Estrid Sørensen as a cooperation of the DFG Research Training Group Locating Media (University of Siegen) and the Mercator Research Group “Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge” (Ruhr-University Bochum).)) was set up partly as a follow-up to the track “STS and media studies: Empirical and conceptual encounters?” at the EASST conference in Toruń in September 2014. The aim of both workshops was to trace the growing links between STS and Media Studies. The workshop in Siegen reported here was specifically targeted at looking beyond the mainstream of STS / media research encounters which, bluntly speaking, often consist of importing ANT vocabulary into Media Studies and of STS scholars looking at internet phenomena (cf. Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2008; Wajcman and Jones, 2012; Thielmann et al., 2013; Gillespie et al., 2014). We wanted to question this division of labour and to look for connections less travelled, besides the beaten tracks.

Conference venue: the Artur Woll-Haus in Siegen

Conference venue: the Artur Woll-Haus in Siegen

Over two days, speakers and participants from Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK discussed such diverse topics as media theory, the aesthetics of amateur photography, government IT infrastructures, credit cards, web videos and issues of surveillance and conflict in new social media. The heterogeneity of the cases and approaches highlighted the fact that Media Studies seem to occupy an even more diverse field than STS. Trying to bridge the two fields is thus a difficult, if not impossible task to undertake. It would force singular identities onto polyphonic fields. Instead, the workshop revealed that STS and media research overlap in certain areas of interest, both conceptually and empirically, such as in studies of infrastructures and media technologies. Paolo Magaudda (Padova) elegantly showed how user studies in STS and media research share a common ancestor in domestication theory (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992) and the idea that the shaping of media and technology is hardly finished after they enter the user household (e.g. Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003). Yet both sides tend to obscure this shared history in favour of purifying their respective approaches.

Somewhat unexpected by the organisers the workshop gave in many presentations rise to discussions of relevant differences between STS and Media Studies . By comparing approaches of the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler with that of Bruno Latour, Judith Willkomm (Siegen) elaborated how Kittler was primarily concerned with the “logic” of media, whereas Latour is preoccupied with their “logistics”. Despite their common interest in media, processes of mediation, and inscriptions, they undertake different analyses and ask different questions.

Sergio Minniti (Milan) argued that media archaeology focuses on subaltern and artistic practices of media use rather than re-tracing the development of a successful technical or scientific innovation in STS. In a similar vein, STS studies of innovation failures, like that of Aramis (Latour, 1996), usually do not take the subaltern position as a starting point, but argue from the perspective of (forestalled and unsuccessful) powerful actors. One theme that followed from this was that STS is often seen as only following dominant actors while at the same time not taking clear political sides in favour of suppressed minorities. This critique has been levelled at STS from Media Studies in the tradition of Cultural Studies. While usually tiresome to STS scholars, who feel this critique is utterly misplaced the exchanges at the workshop revealed that the discussion more than anything is about what counts as political, and in what contexts STS and Media Studies scholars can be granted political relevancy. STS scholars mainly argue with respect to the (sometimes invisible) levels of ‘doing politics’, i.e. of enacting decision making or making media technological changes. Media Studies scholars, on the other hand tend to count as political in a more distanced diagnostic sense – pointing out power differences in media technological arrangements. It became clear in the course of the workshop, that if we force both tendencies to their extremes, we risk creating the ‘essential’ differences between STS and Media Studies we sought to overcome, and which are hardly warranted given the internal diversity of both fields. Yet different perspectives remain and we should be sensitive to their boundaries.

Another striking difference between STS and Media Studies is the engagement with issues of war. In the evening keynote Erhard Schüttpelz (Siegen) articulated two divergent positions: On the one hand Media Studies were primarily born out of Communication Studies occupied with propaganda related to warfare. Kittler and McLuhan shared a common interest in military media technology. In STS on the other hand we find very few empirical studies on war and on military technologies (except for some prominent cases such as MacKenzie, 1993; Law, 2002), but indeed the proliferation of military metaphors along with a strong political rhetoric in order to draw attention to the conflictual nature of science and technology. The most obvious example of this is the science wars rhetoric.

The preference for asymmetries in media studies and symmetries in STS was mirrored in the presentations of Adam Fish (Lancaster) and Diletta Luna Calibeo (Brisbane). From a Cultural Studies background both engaged with visibilities in social media. Adam Fish analysed how Anonymous video producers see themselves in a war with Scientology and government agencies and how they are at the same time inextricably linked to commercial video platforms. Diletta Luna Calibeo elaborated how environmental activists may be framed as eco-terrorists in their struggle to create visibility for corporations’ environmentally damaging activities. These presentations also hinted at another difference between STS and Media Studies: the latter prefer situating their cases in a “bigger picture” of capitalism, whereas the former tend to look more closely at individual cases, and draw more modest conclusions.

That our attempt at exploring new connections between STS and Media Studies also brought their differences to the fore was one of the most insightful and unexpected results of the workshop. It showed that the search for novel links in many cases occasioned a re-tracing of boundaries between and homogeneity within STS and Media Studies. No simple equation can be made between STS and Media Studies. Yet, the distinction between perspectives is productive in focusing and specifying our discussions of science, technology, and media. If we look beyond the beaten tracks of collaborations between STS and Media Studies a plethora of new questions arise concerning media, technologies, and science, along with variations of more or less disciplinary ways of answering them. Despite the differences common themes and ancestors of STS and Media Studies came to the fore. They warrant their continued engagement, among others with issues of power and subversion, materiality and meaning, mediation and cooperation, design and use. STS and Media Studies undoubtedly (have to) share empirical fields and conceptual perspectives and both benefit from manifold cross-fertilisations. Continuing on the roads less travelled we need simultaneously to engage in purification work and in work of hybridisation: looking for the similarities as well as the differences between STS and Media Studies, for homogeneities as well as heterogeneities within and across their boundaries (some of which may be fluid), and from there to identify productive ways of collaborating and ways of fighting.

Reflecting on Shifts in Socio-Technical Production of Knowledge and Communities

In line with the title of the EASST 2014 Conference ‘Situating solidarities’, many conference presentations addressed the idea of ‘better together’ and multiple associated questions, including the ones related to the diversity of modes of togetherness, matters of inclusion and exclusion, and what is lost in not allowing ourselves to be together. One track ‘Synthesising the futures’ systematically analysed related shifts in the production of technoscientific knowledge and communities. In the multitude of changes in organization and processes of knowledge-making the track convenors and participants highlighted two: a move to large-scale programmatic research organization forms and an increasing emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinarity. In what follows I reflect on several kinds of effects, stimulated by these two moves, which were identified by participants of this and other tracks.

Working across boundaries: making identities and (not)making futures

Several papers demonstrated how in the transforming policy environments actors engage in work across disciplinary and professional boundaries, redefining their identities and formulating new ones. For instance, in their paper ‘On the emergence of Synthetic Biology as a techno-scientific field’ Benjamin Raimbault, Pierre-Benoit Joly and Jean-Philippe Cointet showed the centrality of a new breed of actors, ‘institutional entrepreneurs’, to the formation of the synthetic biology field. The authors described in detail how institutional entrepreneurs go beyond scientific community and participate in creating institutions that stabilize rules in the field; establish relations with industry through patents; and become involved in political and legal bodies through, for instance, membership in ethics committees and thematic reports. Through such extensive networking and interacting these actors support the formation of the synthetic biology field.

At the same time in the paper ‘Exploring a sticky future: Understanding the (non) emergence of synthetic biology’ Susan Molyneux-Hodgson warned that being an entrepreneurial agent (or institutional entrepreneur) comes at a price. Reflecting on the assembling of the same synthetic biology field in the UK, she exposed how, while funding and infrastructure continue to grow, synthetic biology is ‘sticking’ as scientists engage in hyper-networking and economic imperatives come to ultimately guide the decision-making. Correspondingly, questions arise regarding whether scientists who increasingly work across boundaries and assume new identities still have time to do science, whether infrastructure and organization now come before practice, and what these could mean for our understanding of what science is? Furthermore, the paper pointed that it is difficult to grasp what kinds of futures are being made by a field that is yet to stabilize. This ambiguity is reflected in ever-changing expectations discourse, from synthetic biology being a turning point in the evolution of science, to it being a platform technology for other fields to being an emerging industry. The ensuing session discussion highlighted an ambivalence regarding whether synthetic biology ‘boundary actors’ have then resources and opportunities to actually engage in future-building and what a failure to do so could mean for the further emergence and maintenance of the field.

Interestingly, Celso Gomes suggested in his paper ‘Synthesising communities: synthetic biology and (micro)biofuel production in the EU’ that simultaneously the reverse situation can be observed: a clearly envisioned future (low-carbon EU) and barely existent synthetic biology community to take up and realize this vision. In the example of synthetic biology field we see an uneasy and at times stumbling co-production of future visions and communities, with synthetic biology actors struggling to assemble the field and envision related futures, and wider socio-political environments continuously making futures and shaping knowledge-making communities to take up the produced visions.

Fluid communities: indistinct membership and undefined responsibilities

Some papers discussed transitions in building knowledge-producing communities, demonstrating their diffused nature and often disorderly inclusion and exclusion practices. Below I consider two examples that highlight how these features play out for two different kinds of technoscientific communities. One paper by Freeman Lan, Gordon Hoople and David Rolfe (‘Mapping the nanotechnology community and its responsibilities’) analysed formation and functioning of the nanotechnology community. As ‘nano’ is a technology facilitating work in other disciplines, the nanotechnology community is scattered across different disciplinary and organizational niches. The authors pointed out that nanotechnology researchers are very diverse and loosely interlinked, and there has been a lack of initiatives to integrate the community and to develop shared norms and goals. Such dispersed state of this technoscientific community, with everyone who have found ways ‘to understand, manipulate and/or create matter at the nanometer scale’ potentially being its member, raises multiple questions with no clear-cut answers. For instance, who and how should be responsible for agenda-setting and overall governance of the nano field? How to enable accountability? Who is to ‘own’ problems in case they arise?

The paper ‘Future Earth: visions and practices of integration in global environmental change institutions, knowledge and communities’ by Eleanor Hadley Kershaw demonstrated that active work on community integration and governance building adds new questions to the ones already mentioned. Through analysing practices of the ‘Future Earth’, an international research initiative on environmental change that aims not only to bring together diverse range of disciplines but also to engage non-academic actors in research in line with the vision of post-academic science, the author showed how messy the work of defining andengaging the Future Earth community is. Who exactly to involve and how? Who decides? How can individual institutions and groups relate to grand visions of the Future Earth?

Both examples suggest that knowledge-making communities emerging currently in the environment with much emphasis on programmatic large-scale research and broad engagement, are characterized by fluidity and absence of a straightforward membership criteria. They are faced with challenges of defining themselves, enabling members to relate to each other, finding ways to imagine futures together and, perhaps, rethinking what being a community could mean.

Negotiating futures

Many papers stressed the still growing importance of the work of imagination and promise-making for the emergence of and developments within technoscientific fields and communities. The shifts in knowledge-making, that form the background of this reflection (a move to big programmatic science and emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinarity), have gained momentum with an increasing recognition of a close intertwinement of science and society. Images of sciences working in and with society have been absorbed in policies, research funding instruments and governance structures. Correspondingly, knowledge production has extended beyond the traditional spaces of science, and research is increasingly expected to be reflexive about societal futures that come along with its processes and results. Against this background Stefano Crabu in his paper ‘The emergence of translational nanomedicine: Expectations, scientific narrations and materiality’ demonstrated how a biomedical device under development is being constructed and presented as a ‘promissory bio-object’. Conceiving a technoscientific object as a ‘promissory’ one brings in a reflection on potential futures into the research process and allows scientists to actively work on managing expectations alongside the research. Furthermore, the paper reaffirmed that imaginaries of (better) futures and corresponding promises are becoming more and more important for attracting attention, support and resources for the establishment and development of fields, technologies and individual projects.

Importantly, Thomas Völker in his paper ‘‚Futuring‘ in transdisciplinary sustainability research’ adds that in attempts to find new more inclusive and comprehensive modes of knowledge production and make them work, a diverse range of futures is being envisioned. Using the example of the proVISION programme, he demonstrated how in transdisciplinary research, involving collaborative research topic selection and formulation of questions, heterogeneous actors draw on distinct imaginaries of futures, which can lead to tensions in making choices. The paper conveyed the need to recognise the importance of contesting and negotiating futures in the transforming production of knowledge and communities, and support these processes through facilitating long-term connections between academic and non-academic actors, through thinking about what happens when research ends, and through allowing inclusive future-making with room for diverse visions.

Concluding remarks

The types of recent changes in the production of knowledge and knowledge-making communities briefly discussed above are not meantto constitute an exhaustive list. Multiple other processes are unfolding alongside and interfering with the ones that I teased out from the rich material presented during the EASST 2014 conference. What many conference papers made apparent is that doing things together both holds great promises and raises enormous challenges, which we still know little about despite of several decades of analysis and reflection.

Multiple Assembling: Some Reflections on the Assembling Cities Workshop

On January 21 and 22 we held the workshop Assembling Cities: STS concepts and methodologies in planning studies at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland.1 The workshop’s objective was to discuss the various ways in which Science and Technology Studies (STS) can inspire urban (planning) research, and potentially practice. In two days, four plenary sessions and six tracks the workshop offered eight invited speakers, 24 paper contributors and other participants an informal and interactive setting to share conceptual and empirical approaches to planning issues. The idea for the workshop originated from our own research project Rethinking Zones: A comparative study of planning cultures in which we adopt an STS perspective on the topic of land use planning. It is against this background and our particular interests, that we present (only) some reflections on the proceedings of the workshop.

A first observation is the diverse research community that was being assembled by the workshop. It brought together scholars with various backgrounds—architects, geographers, planners, sociologists, political scientists and many more—inspired by STS and intrigued by urban planning. Given this diversity, the focus of the papers ranged from issues of urban governance, design, participation, policy mobility, smart technologies, infrastructures, master planning and urban (re-)development. Although rather challenging to the organization of the workshop, the variegated ways of unpacking the planning of the city confirmed the central assumption of the workshop: the city is a multiple and relational entity that is continuously made through various situated practices (Farías 2011). As a result, the workshop made no attempt to ‘discipline’ urban issues and instead proposed to study the multiple trajectories of cities in the making.

Group picture from the city tour by Oliver Zenklusen.
See also

This proposal was already made ahead of the workshop in an experimental city tour guided by urban photographer, artist and lecturer Oliver Zenklusen. Accompanied by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1997/1972) the participants were taken on a literary and imaginative tour through Zurich. Wandering past brownfields, large-scale urban projects and gentrifying neighbourhoods, the sites and chapters did not depict one Zurich but rather illustrated that also Zurich can be read as a multiple and relational entity. This reading of cities and its implications for planning turned out to be a central theme of the workshop. A number of contributions took up this theme with the perspective of urban assemblages (Farías) and assemblage urbanism (Blok), or built upon this perspective with novel concepts like endostructure (Guggenheim). Others either referred to more traditional STS concepts such as Social Construction of Technology (SCOT; Hommels) and actor-network theory (ANT; Kärrholm), or emphasized the limitations of STS (Klauser, Söderström). Still, the variegated ways cities are being conceptualized, understood and planned remained a common interest.

On a conceptual level, many of the contributions were concerned with the ontological politics of the object of planning: urban territory. In studies of urban assemblages these politics were approached through the notion of cosmopolitics to refer to the task of building a common world together, and to engage a political project (Farías 2011). A fine illustration of cosmopolitics was Farías’ inquiry into master plans as cosmograms recomposing humans and nonhumans after a natural disaster. Also Blok referred to cosmopolitics and the situated practices of urban knowledge making and scaling around global climate risks. In spite of, or precisely because of, being theoretically compelling, the empirical illustrations of how cosmopolitics is being played out in actual urban situations were less clear in the contributions. Hommels changed the theoretical lens but carried on the theme of ‘disaster STS’ in a study of post-disaster city reconstruction. Taken together, the question could be raised why urban STS has such a strong interest in threats and disasters, and whether its concepts can also–so nicely–explain other, more durable and everyday planning situations. After all, disasters are extreme instances of disruption demanding for a reassembling of both nature and society.

Furthermore, a related question emerged as to what extent are these (disaster) situations specifically urban and whether their cosmopolitics are distinctly acted out in cities. Inversely, a discussion developed around what is the city and what qualifies as the urban. Guggenheim first raised this point in his demonstration to focus on buildings as mutable immobiles rather than technologies. From this perspective he also made the call to do ‘reverse STS’ for architecture critique by studying buildings in use instead of technologies in design. Accordingly, Guggenheim proposed a differentiated cosmopolitics in order not to prematurely close the city or categorize the urban as this would inhibit a full understanding of how cities come into being. The discussion that followed was divided between an issue of labeling and a problem of ontology. Consensus however prevailed, at least on the notion of the city not as a stable and bounded entity but a multiple and relational object enacted at specific sites.

While this sounds conceptually productive, several challenges as to how to operationalize this understanding methodologically were encountered. First is the empirical challenge to do territorial (planning) research on a relational object. The crux is that precisely by staying put the researcher is able to trace the trajectories of the relational city; i.e. relationality is studied through and in place. A second challenge we are particularly interested in is the implications for doing comparison. The takeaway here is that from a relational perspective cities are not compared with but through each other, turning comparison into an epistemological practice (McFarlane 2010a). While this might be evident within assemblage urbanism and its concern with urban policy mobility, we wonder how much this applies to planning technologies that are shaped more locally (e.g. zoning codes). In this light, it was also noted that although our studies attribute a certain enactment of the city to the practice of planning, the activity of research itself also participates in enacting the city. This calls attention to the role and position of the researcher in framing and relating to the object of study; any intellectual stance to problematize the city is a form of urban knowledge production already. It was thus welcoming to see that much of the discussions maintained diversity in concepts and methodologies used.

This diversity was most expressed in the contributions of Klauser and Söderström, both attempting to complement and move beyond STS. The former referred to Foucault to grasp a blind spot of power in the acting of the smart city, whereas the latter highlighted the more-than-mobile, the atmospheric and the discursive aspects of urban development invisible to ANT. The search outside the STS toolbox could also be found in the paper sessions. Consequently, the discussions culminated in a display of the politics of theory assemblages. This politics did include considerations of both compatibility and productivity. One productive ‘theory assemblage’ was presented by Kärrholm combining notions of ANT and territoriality to analyze public space. It was also one of the contributions most explicitly relating to planning practice by feeding the findings into public space design. As for the majority of the contributions, the relation between STS research and (planning) practice remained somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, it shifted between normative and critical research but generally came out of a descriptive approach. While this fits a STS based cosmopolitical proposal ‘to “slow down” reasoning to arouse a slightly different awareness’ (Stengers 2005: 994), it also resonates with phronetic planning research aimed at pragmatic, context-dependent judgement (Flyvbjerg 2004).

Finally, as organizers of the workshop we have asked ourselves what to make of the sharing of STS experiences with planning issues. In our study we analyze urban planning, viewed through the lens of zoning in five Western cities that are highly rated for their liveability. In doing this, we use a hybrid, material semiotic approach, which is based on the concepts of ANT and urban assemblage. Compared to McFarlane’s (2010b) approach to bring dwelling and assemblage together, our project aims at examining some of the ways in which assemblage and zoning might interact. That is, we consider zoning as a major tool of land use regulation that interplays with urban development. In other words, zoning is shaping and is being shaped by an assemblage of specific locally framed socio-material interactions, networks, practices and judgements. This distinct assemblage we call planning culture. In contrast to the traditional planning literature, planning culture is not used as an over-arching term for diverse planning approaches but refers to an analytical concept derived from comparative approaches of culture in STS such as epistemic and political culture.

Exploring the issues, actors, arenas and practices of zone based urban planning, we have used methods like participant observation in the planning offices of the analyzed cities, qualitative interviews with planners, and case studies of larger urban (re-)development projects. Based on fieldwork conducted in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich, we shed light on the situated, multiple and overlapping networks and practices of human and non-human actors that perform land use regulations. In our comparison of these assemblages as planning cultures, we are not so much following the cosmopolitan approach suggested by McFarlane (2010a), Blok and Farías. Thus, rather than identifying overarching global patterns of urban land use regulation, we are investigating the interaction between locally specific assemblages of territorial policy making, and ‘travelling’ concepts (Guggenheim 2009) like ‘sustainability’, ‘smart city’ and ‘new urbanism.’

Studying the Failures of Markets (for Collective Concerns): a Workshop Report

The workshop “Markets for Collective Concerns?” ((Program available here:, that we co-organized, was held at Copenhagen Business School last December 11th and 12th. These brief notes are not a summary. It is our attempt to start digesting the vertigo we still feel about the important questions and challenges for future social and STS inspired studies of markets that were posed during those two days. We will, hopefully, be able to produce a clearer statement of these issues in the expected edited publication collecting the contributions to the workshop.

Source: Breslau, Daniel. Workshop report: Markets for Collective Concerns – Copenhagen Business School, Dec. 11-12, 2014.4SOnline, February 22, 2015,

  1. Social studies of market failure

The title of the workshop referred to markets that are created not only to ensure economic exchange, but also to deal with specific collective concerns -e.g. poverty, energy supply, and global warming. Markets developed as policy instruments.

One such example is discussed in the paper presented by Liliana Doganova and Brice Laurent that compared the implementation of two different European policies. Interestingly, the comparative exercise showed a great deal of variety from a seemingly similar starting point, namely “realizing European sustainability objectives with markets”. Or, consider Peter Karnøe’s presentation of the successful growth of wind power within the energy sector in Denmark. Albeit cleaner, the fluctuating characteristic of wind poses problems to energy planning. In order to solve these problems (or more generally, to foster competition and increase sustainability) policy makers have introduced market exchange. However, as one of Karnøe’s students, Rasmus Ploug Jenle, nicely elaborates in his forthcoming PhD dissertation, energy planners in Denmark now face a double challenge: they need to simultaneously harmonize the equilibrium of electricity and of the market.

The ambition of the workshop, however, was not just to confirm the neo-liberal trend – of markets challenging bureaucracy as the favored mechanism by policy makers around the world – but to initiate a conversation about what happens when these “markets for collective concerns” do not work as expected.

Daniel Neyland, for instance, gave a presentation of the implementation of a recycling scheme in the UK, which did not only include a complicated array of private and public organizations, but also featured a pollution right exchange mechanism to coordinate them. The exchange, however, didn’t work as expected. Not only, it didn’t coordinate well but it brought its own side effects. Notably, the speculative behavior of some of the exchange parties jeopardized the whole arrangement. Neyland argues that more empirical attention should be paid to the practicalities of market failure, to study the ways in which markets are evaluated and the arguments that are mobilized to repair and eventually cancel them. In the language of recent ‘valuation studies’, it is not only that market agents and goods are continuously valued and re-qualified, but markets (for collective concerns) themselves are made objects of valuation. But, such valuations do not refer only to ‘economic efficiency’, but also to the collective concerns to which they have been attached. The key question here is then how, and by whom, are markets for collective concerns evaluated?

  1. The failures of market failure

Consider Daniel Breslau’s work on the energy sector in the US. Unlike many other countries, where electricity was provided by state owned firms, in the US electricity generation and distribution have for long been on the hands of private companies clustered on geographical regulated monopolies. The liberalization reforms carried out in the last decades, which introduced market mechanisms to challenge existing monopolies, in turn created new challenges. However, unlike Neyland’s case study where the exchange was eventually canceled, Breslau illustrates how the failure of market oriented reforms has led to the emergence of an active field of market experts in competition for providing the official version of the market’s problems – not to mention the futures they may provide. Breslau’s research shows a case where the failure of a market policy does not lead to a non-market mechanism, but instead to market repair, thus consolidating the role of markets as mechanisms to deal with collective concerns. During the workshop many of us (when considering our respective empirical sites) agreed that the situation just described is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Explaining how and why this is happening is no doubt one of the main empirical challenges for the study of markets for collective concerns.

Fortunately, Phil Mirowksi (2013) has already studied some of the intellectual and political roots of this movement. Historically, the notion of ‘market failure’ has been used by neo-classical economists to justify political or regulatory interventions in markets: taxes to deal with externalities, anti-trust regulation to avoid monopolies, or regulated monopolies for public goods. This view, however, was seriously challenged by the work of Ronald Coase (and of other Chicago School economists more generally). The most radical example is, of course, C02 markets. Here, instead of introducing taxes or directly banning some particularly harmful activities, the collective concern of reducing C02 pollution is dealt with through the introduction of markets where pollution rights are exchanged. However, Mirowski explains, the consolidation of markets as social policies is not only related to right wing or conservative economists. For sure, relatively left wing economists, such as Stiglitz, have openly criticized unregulated marketization. However, what economists like Stiglitz (or to name another more recent example, Alvin Roth) initiate when they are asked to participate in policy making, is not necessarily a move toward a non-market arrangement or policy, but rather – as Breslau showed for the electricity industry – to compete for providing their favored solution.

As Mirowski noticed some years ago, the turn to market repair and design has been one of the most relevant, although not always noticed, transformations in economics in the last decades. In his words: “One of the great challenges for intellectual historians of the future will be to explain how it came to be that a professional academic orthodoxy that had eschewed most considerations of the specificity of markets […] then neatly negotiated a 180º turn, and managed to convince a broad array of outsiders that they possessed special expertise to construct all manner of actual usable markets, tailor-made for their narrowly specified purposes” (Mirowski 2007: 218).

  1. The failures of the social studies of market failure

As readers of this newsletter probably know very well, markets and market failures are not new research topics within STS. The most influential available formulation has been developed by Michel Callon. We, certainly, do not deny the huge influence of Callon’s work, but we believe the failures of markets for collective concerns open at least three important challenges to the ongoing research agenda on markets in STS.

a. Market expertise

In the introductory chapter of The Laws of the Markets, Callon suggested that economic knowledge does not only represent markets, but frames them. Economics is performative. Callon’s performativity thesis is presented as a change of the epistemological relationship between social scientists and economists. It is not only that economists describe things differently (and probably wrongly), but they practically act in making markets. Rather than observing the economy from an outside vantage point, economists – like any other technician – participate in the practical construction of their object, becoming therefore, very good objects for STS attention. We argue that in the face of an increased professionalization of market design, performativity simply loses its radicalism: instead it seems to repeat what economists, like Roth and other know very well
((See, namely that they repair and design markets. Therefore, if the description we (as social scientists) provide is that economic knowledge perform markets (for collective concerns), we seriously risk being redundant. The question is therefore: how should we approach experts in markets for collective concerns?

A reflection in this direction was formulated by Annelise Riles. Riles’ ethnographic objects are not economists but lawyers. Lawyers, like economists turned market designers, do not need to be told they practically make and organize markets. It is in their job description. What can social research focusing on their work then add? In her presentation, Riles explored one possible solution when she talked about her recent experimentation with fieldwork where the fiction of informant / informed is replaced with collaborative platforms ((More specifically, Riles talked about This type of method is, of course, not free of new challenges. As Riles elaborated in her Q&A, collaboration can be associated to both the hype of the collaborative economy (and its related issues of non-recognized unpaid jobs or dubious commercial strategies) and the collaborateur that loses any critical distance. A more classic alternative was offered by Nicholas Gane. In the context of his recent work on the entangled history of economic and sociological thought, Gane’s presentation described the intellectual history of the notion of competition. Gane not only defended the need to learn what classic social thinkers such as Simmel and Weber taught us about competition, but also to rescue the rich but sometimes forgotten tradition of social thought that directly address and challenge economic reasoning. Thinkers, like Weber, were not only arguing against some of the most influential economists of their time, but were also greatly influencing or opening issues that needed to be dealt with by the economists that followed them. Gane urges us to learn from their experience.

b. Are markets for collective concerns ‘calculative devices’?

In Callon’s original piece, markets are understood as a particular type of outcome: markets are situations where calculative agents can choose among passive goods and clearly distinguish future states. However, as Mirowksi compellingly showed in his talk, economists seem to have an appealing ability to use the same term meaning radically different things with it. Take the market as an example; to neo-classical economists, markets efficiently coordinate the circulation of existing goods through competition, whereas the market of Hayek was a knowledge making mechanism based on price signals. The market for someone like Roth does not even require prices, but two sides willing to accept a centralized mechanism enabling them to choose. These and many other notions of markets are mobilized when evaluating or repairing markets for collective concerns. But, rather than settling for one definition, market makers and designers seem to deliberately keep the ambiguity. A new challenge for STS scholars is therefore to follow the specific notions or conceptions of markets that are mobilized or eventually compete in a particular market controversy (Frankel 2015). In this context, perhaps rather than associating the market with a particular type of social interaction (calculative agents and so on) as Callon does, markets for collective concerns can be approached, as another STS scholar Annemarie Mol has done in her work, as arrangements that are differently enacted by different experts and practices.

c. Are markets for collective concerns civilized?

In the closing chapter of the Laws of the Markets, Callon blurred the distinction between well-functioning markets and market failures by introducing the framing/overflowing couple. In an article published eleven years later, Callon suggested that arrangements such as CO2 markets can be understood as part of collective hybrid forums where undefined issues are problematized in economic, political or technical terms. In this context, Callon introduced the notion of “civilized markets” to suggest that markets can be turned into quasi-democratic forums, where different types of concerns are heard

and internalized. As it was discussed in the workshop here reported, that markets are increasingly attached to collective concerns does not necessarily mean that they are being turned into increasingly democratized forms of participation. On the contrary, there seems to be an increasing ‘techno-cratization’, where markets for collective concerns are granting economists or expert market designers the responsibility of reformulating public concerns and suggesting their solution.

For further elaboration see the podcast interview with Riles here:

Editorial – For Members Only?

This is one of your benefits as an EASST member: you receive an email with a link to the new issue of the EASST Review, click on it and access a pdf file containing these lines, as well as a good number of original reports and reflections about recent activities and developments in STS. This seems to be the standard benefit you receive for being a member of an academic association, as the physical copies of Anthropology News piling up in my office attest, with the only difference that EASST is not sending you a physical, but a digital copy. But, of course, the digital reconfigures everything: from copyright restrictions to member benefits. This pdf cannot just be copied infinitely, but it can actually be downloaded by anyone, whether an EASST member or not.

An economist might imagine this as a win-win situation, in which we simultaneously attain two otherwise mutually exclusive goods: open access and member-only access. But things are a bit less straightforward. Strictly speaking, the benefit you get for being an EASST member is not member-only access to the EASST Review, but to the link that leads you to the newsletter. The benefit consists then in giving you ‘privileged information’ and letting you decide what to do with it. You obviously have already used that privileged information to download the pdf, but you could also pass it on to friends and colleagues, who are not EASST members, but might be interested in the articles or in becoming members. We could then say that member benefit is reconfigured as giving you the possibility of deciding whom to include in the conversation.

This, however, is a configuration lasting only for a few weeks until the EASST Review is published on the EASST website and announced through various channels. When that happens, one could argue, it becomes an open access newsletter, joining so many current STS open access initiatives, such as the newly launched journal Demonstrations or Mattering Press, where open access does not refer just to the possibility of accessing content if you know where to find it, but to its active public promotion. But, still, there is the temporal gap, this delay in making it open, which suggests that the EASST member benefit would end, once the EASST Review becomes publicly accessible.

Things are indeed complicated: whereas the digital mode of existence of EASST Review makes its becoming open access unavoidable, the aspiration to provide an exclusive member benefit leads to a rather complicated construction. The underlying assumption seems to be that open access is not a member benefit, that both goods are antithetical.

But things could be seen differently: having an open access outlet to learn and reflect about current activities and developments in the field, to discuss matters of common concern and to make visible research agendas and political commitments might indeed be seen as a major benefit for a community of scholars committed to the democratization and public engagement with science and technology

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. You can write me an email or use the ‘comments’ function available in the website from the moment we upload this issue.