Category Archives: easst review

Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society – Enacting Southern Perspectives on STS

In August 2017 Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society was launched. This is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal affiliated to the Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Tecnología (ESOCITE) and the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S), and published by Taylor & Francis. The word “tapuya” was used, on the one hand, by the Tupi in Brazil to designate people who do not speak the Tupi language as the Tupi do. On the other, some anti-colonial theorists have used the purported identity of this group as cannibals to articulate their own practice of “swallowing” northern practices and transforming them into something uniquely Latin American. By holding two differing definitions, the betrayals of translation and the productive tensions of simultaneously being part and not part of a specific community are concerns of this innovative new STS journal.

Tapuya was born more than a year earlier. In May 2016, a workshop titled “Postcolonial and Latin American STS,” organized by Tiago Ribeiro Duarte and Luis Reyes-Galindo, took place at University of Brasilia. After that, Sandra Harding and Leandro Rodriguez Medina, current Editor-in-Chief, started to think about creating a new journal, based in Latin America but with a global scope. The goal was to productively intervene in the colonial institutional structure of periphery social sciences as well as to contribute to increase the visibility of high quality Latin American scholarship in Science and Technology Studies. Rodríguez Medina and Harding spent several months interviewing editors and managing editors of other journals, securing the generous advice of a number of senior 4S and ESOCITE scholars, and making inquiries of leading English-language publishers. After positive feedback, a contract with Taylor & Francis was signed in June 2017.

In order to reach the widest audience, we made two difficult decisions. First, the journal would be published in English. Without ignoring the epistemic and political effects of the lingua franca, we decided that the need to engage in productive dialogue with other communities in the global South was a significant priority. Yet we also decided to continue to reflect on the language issue in STS. Future publications and clusters in Tapuya will be devoted to this topic. Secondly, the journal would be published by a global publisher, situated in the North. We believe that synergy can be produced between Tapuya and Taylor & Francis as long as they both recognize what they can provide. T&F has a long, successful tradition of publishing top quality journals, including five hundred in the social sciences. It has the technical capacity to deal with the entire process of publishing, from submission to marketing of articles. It also has experience in getting journals indexed in the most relevant scholarly databases, which has become a crucial, though controversial, requisite in many countries in Latin America and abroad. Tapuya, on the other hand, can provide a group of Latin American scholars committed to STS research, high quality scholarship, and a long tradition of reflection on science and technology, as our first published article makes evident (Kreimer and Vessuri 2017). Moreover, Tapuya is willing to become a node in a global network that can provide resources to begin to balance the long-unbalanced structure of the academic world. It will do so by shedding light on neglected subjects, topics and methodologies, thereby strengthening STS.

Tapuya aims to bring together Latin American and international researchers to focus on issues such as center/periphery relations, the dynamics and organization of scientific fields, connections between science, technology and social problems (e.g. poverty, social exclusion or inequality), the uses and modes of production of knowledge, including indigenous knowledge, the national, regional, and international mobility of scientists and engineers, their ideas, and normative systems, the relationships between universities, private sectors and the state (firstly theorized by Jorge Sábato in the 1960s), and the roles of STS within diverse Latin American societies. Accordingly, we expect to publish research articles, literature reviews and book reviews, as well as interviews and non-textual pieces (e.g. videos with authors’ comments). For literature and book reviews, we will encourage scholars to review scholarship originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese. If possible, reviewed pieces in other European and non-European languages will be particularly welcome.  This entanglement of thematically-related works is an important way to make Tapuya the realm where provincializing STS, now reclaimed even by Northern scholars, can take place.

Thus, Tapuya has three interrelated missions. One is to engage diverse social, economic and political actors in debates around science, technology and analyze their influence in the future of Latin America. Secondly, it intends to be a gathering place to enact STS networks of scholars across the global south; it will strengthen what global northerners think of as “periphery studies”. Finally, the journal intends to foster global, wide-ranging dialogues between centers and peripheries. Yet Tapuya wants to problematize to what extent these last-mentioned categories are useful in current STS thinking. It will do so by focusing on how STS strategies in the global north have effects in Latin America and the global south, and how STS strategies in the global south have effects in the global north. In these several ways Tapuya will reposition Latin America as the conventionally disallowed subject  of thought about science, technology and society—not as the object of others thinking.

To achieve Tapuya’s goals, we have set up two academic boards: the Editorial Board and the International Advisory Board. Half of the Editorial Board, whose members were invited in August 2017, are made up of Latin American scholars, including one official ESOCITE representative, while the other half are from outside the region. For the International Advisory Board, appointments initially went to a small number of the many significant STS scholars, half Latin Americans and half from around the globe. Both boards will give advice to the journal and shepherd to Tapuya  appropriate manuscripts, books and book reviewers.

Tapuya has received funding support from generous institutions and scholars. Donations of start-up funds for Tapuya’s first five years have been provided by three University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) units, for which the journal is most grateful: the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, the UCLA Luskin College of Public Affairs, and the UCLA Latin American Institute. Meanwhile, Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP) is contributing resources to the Editor-in-Chief and Taylor & Francis is partially funding an editorial office in Puebla, Mexico. Further donations from within the STS community have helped to support the launch of the Journal.

Three editorial principles are especially important. First, Tapuya is a rolling, open access journal that always, in every case, prioritizes the quality of submissions over authors’ ability to pay the Article Publishing Charge (APC) that cover publication expenses. Authors of all accepted papers, regardless of background, will be able to request a fee-waiver, which will then be judged on its merits, with oversight from the Editor-in-Chief. Financial issues will never influence editorial decisions.  Secondly, Tapuya is a peer-reviewed journal. All non-commissioned submissions will be double- blind peer reviewed. Commissioned submissions, such as book and literature reviews, will be reviewed by the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, with the expectation that they will be accepted if they meet the journal’s publication standards. Thus, all submissions must meet international standards for high-quality American English. Yet we want to make clear that Tapuya does expect submissions from scholars who are not native English speakers; so the journal commits to embrace this diversity within the review process. Finally, Tapuya intends to have transparent processes and prompt communication with authors. The editors intend to make each manuscript’s journey through submission and review processes as quick as possible, and to keep authors informed of where their submission is in this journey.

Finally, we want to invite artists, scholars and readers to be part of Tapuya in another, but challenging, way. Every year, we want to change the two pictures that are on the cover of the journal. This year, the photo and painting were provided by Luis Reyes-Galindo, researcher at University of Campinas and one of the Associate Editors. As you can read in his introduction to the cover ( both images are connected to the origins of Tapuya, in Buenos Aires (2014) and Brasilia (2016). We want Tapuya’s cover to show how Latin American science, technology and society can be variously depicted and can illustrate the diversity of this region.

In conclusion, we hope you will enjoy joining us in this scholarly and socio-political adventure that is Tapuya as much as we are enjoying  bringing the journal to you.


Processing Citizenship. Digital registration of migrants as co-production of individuals and Europe


The “Processing Citizenship” project was funded in late 2016 as a Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). Launched in March 2017, it is interested in how migration enacts Europe. As the project’s homepage goes (, this question can be legally and politically answered, as most policy-makers, sociologists and journalists do, or technically. How do data infrastructures for processing migrants and refugees co-produce individuals and Europe?

The project aims to extend to non-European citizens the study of how the digital circulation of data assets about populations and territory is re-enacting European governance along new boundaries (Pelizza, 2016). Historically, data infrastructures on populations and territories have contributed to the formation of the most powerful techno-social assemblage for knowledge handling – the nation-state (Agar, 2003; Foucault, 2007; Mitchell, 1991; Mukerji, 2011). The project asks how contemporary data infrastructures for processing migrants and refugees at the border, as well as inside Europe, shape the European order. As such, the project aspires to contribute to technology studies on the infrastructural construction of Europe (Misa and Schot, 2005).

“Processing Citizenship” is hosted by the Science, Technology and Policy Studies department (STePS), Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Science at the University of Twente. As such, it is deeply embedded in the STS core tradition of the department, while it addresses a new research field in governance by technologies under a mid-term transnational perspective.


Fig. 1: Early members of the Processing Citizenship team. From left to right: Chiara Andreoli, Annalisa Pelizza, Stephan Scheel, Annalisa Bacchi


Between summer and fall 2017, the Principal Investigator, Annalisa Pelizza, will be joined by an interdisciplinary team of five, including anthropologists, computer scientists and sociologists. Despite (or, more likely, thanks to!) the differences in background, the common goal has become to re-articulate the two main approaches to migration studies – i.e., ethnographic interest in migrants’ own experience and political science’s focus on policy challenges – by stressing how technological artefacts and infrastructures for “processing alterity” mediate the co-production of migrants and polities (Pelizza, Under review). Indeed, with “processing” we refer to the set of bureaucratic procedures through which the individual Other and institutional actors (i.e., as loci of power, be they Member States, Europe or incipient hybrid networks of agencies at different scales) are co-produced through the mediation of data infrastructures.

Drawing upon the “Vectorial Glance” research framework that conceives of government digitization as an entry point to detect incipient transformations in the order of authority (Pelizza, 2016), “Processing Citizenship” looks at data infrastructures as interfaces that can reveal transformations in late modern governance. Following the STS tradition, infrastructures as interfaces are conceived of as crystallizing relational processes. Therefore, they are both methodologically and theoretically relevant. Methodologically, recognizing data infrastructures as interfaces allows conceiving of them as analytical sites in which broader, heterogeneous processes become visible. Theoretically, it introduces a performative understanding which is missing in mainstream explanations of information technologies as causes of state disassembling.


The measure of alterity

The project is meant to throw light on how three types of identity are co-produced: migrants’ identities, polities and territory. The first set of questions asks which aspects of migrants’ life are measured, filled in the systems and come to constitute their digital identity when dealing with European actors.

Early evidence reveals the proliferation of databases, not only at European borders, but at any stage of alterity processing. Diverse information systems are run by diverse organizations (e.g., international organizations, national and local reception facilities, NGOs, medical organizations, European agencies), support diverse policies (e.g., contrast to trafficking, prevention of illness outbreaks, asylum), underpin diverse identity-building techniques. European Commission’s databases Eurodac and Dublinet, for example, deal with asylum applications and contain asylum seekers’ fingerprints. However, they record slightly different data: while Eurodac is a hit/no hit system and records only minimal data like name and fingerprint, Dublinet contains also more ‘soft’ data about a person’s life.

Different databases enact migrants in different ways, as individuals or as populations, as members of a family or as potential workers, as vulnerable persons or as potential perpetrators. While it is only by comparing data models that such differences become relevant, our team has encountered an unexpected lack in contemporary literature on the analysis of ontologies as texts (Bowker and Star, 1999), and is thus working towards developing new analytical methods in this field.

In this first stage of investigation, we are also interested in the chain of artefacts deployed at Hotspots that translate previous identities into new European-readable ones. This line of investigation is key in light of recent developments in the European migration landscape. The goal of the so called “Hotspot approach”, introduced in 2015, is to operationally support frontline Member States (i.e., Greece and Italy) in “swiftly identify[ing], register[ing] and fingerprint[ing] incoming migrants” (Commission, 2015a: 1). Hotspots are thus the first step in the procedure of sorting migrants into three alternative paths: “relocation” or “resettlement” to another Member State (for those identified as in clear need of international protection), or “return” to the country of legal residence (for those who are not deemed in need of protection). They can be conceived as “routers” that create “early entrenchments” (Star and Lampland, 2009) in sorting individuals, liminal situations in which past identities are assessed and translated into proto-decisions.

It is evident that routers do not work in a vacuum. Which material devices “speak for” the previous identity of the individual, and which database categorizations are decisive to be granted a future European identity are crucial questions that recall the material nature of such decisions. While EU policy documents mention specific criteria for relocation, resettlement and return, they might be partially “lost in translation” when it comes to embed policy into the different materiality of digital information systems, or vice-versa that new technical rigidities be introduced. For “Processing Citizenship”, there is a need to keep trace of similar trans-material shifts.

A further interest concerning how migrants’ identities are shaped deals with migrants’ own “dis-inscriptions” (Akrich and Latour, 1992). How do migrants interact with officers and data infrastructures? This point raises a series of questions about the status of migrants. What information would migrants need in order to behave in the new context? Which possibilities are foreseen for individuals to define, protect and release their digital identities? The way identities are crafted can allow or conversely restrain migrants’ potentialities to action. As Schinkel (2009) has noted, identities forced onto groups can also have empowering effects. “Processing Citizenship” thus asks which – if any – potentialities to action are enabled by the way migrants interact with their identities “inscribed” in information systems.


Novel orders of governance

The second set of questions investigates how European polities are shaped by alterity processing. According to studies on IT-enforced borders, biometrics has marked a shift from border management to identity processing. Nation states are said to have lost retention of control over physical borders. Access to welfare and redistribution rights has replaced territorial access, and become the bone of contention (Engbersen, 2003). As Amoore and De Goede (2008: 176) have put it, “the physical jurisdictional border seeps into data and databases.”

On the other hand, border studies have contested universalizing arguments about the disappearance of state boundaries (Paasi, 2005). By acknowledging the cultural and sociological “thickness” of boundaries, they have recognised state borders as important devices to attribute meaning to state institutions. Especially after 9/11 and the war of terror, state borders are seen as retrieving a key role in political studies.

For “Processing Citizenship”, however, the point is not so much establishing whether nation states retain more or less control over their physical borders, but to investigate which loci of power are constituted by bureaucratic practices of data circulation. As historians of technology have recalled, the construction of infrastructural Europe was characterized by the proliferation of new, non-governmental actors (Schot and Schipper, 2011). Which loci of power are emerging from practices of alterity processing? A revised version of the nation state, maybe with sub-national units been granted new powers? A more centralized configuration of Europe? Or even a novel distributed techno-social network made of public agencies and private contractors at different scales? Understanding how data about migrants and refugees are collected and circulate across European, national and local agencies is one way to answer these questions that reveals unexpected de facto geographies. As these latter are not easily representable on maps, Processing Citizenship plans to develop new forms of visualization of such geographies.

Current European responses to migration are indeed not only sorting migrants out, but activating multi-level institutional dynamics. On one hand, European institutions are asking for common standards, protocols and classification systems by Member States. The rationale is that if Europe wants to keep the Schengen system going, then it has to strengthen its outer borders, and data gathered at those borders should be standardized and made available Europe-wide. On the other hand, Member States might try to resist technical standardization. For example, in September 2015 the European Commission adopted 40 infringement decisions against Member States who did not register migrants at EU borders (Commission, 2015b). Here, the definition of “registration” is crucial, as at the European Commission level it usually refers to registration on European databases, but in other contexts it might also well refer to national databases, which are not always interoperable with European infrastructures. This evidence suggests that access to databases is an important aspect that defines new types of boundaries that do not necessarily coincide with existing political and administrative ones.


Conclusion – A history of the present?

All in all, by looking at itself as a new chapter in the studies on the infrastructural construction of Europe, “Processing Citizenship” eventually aims to conduct a history of the present. In order to explain this ambition, let us conclude with a quote from Foucault:

“History is a given way for a society to acknowledge and process a bunch of documents from which it cannot separate anymore […] Traditionally, history tried to memorise past monuments into documents. […] Today, history is that activity that transforms documents into monuments” (Foucault, 1969: 15)

We suggest that analysing alterity processing as part of Europe building is a way to keep track of how documents are transformed into monuments. While histories of technology can methodologically rely on that form of textual reproduction of memory which is the archive, in the case of Processing Citizenship – dealing with not yet stabilized developments – the methodological function of archives is fulfilled by oral memories (collected through interviews), practices (accessed through observation), legislative and design document and data logs.

The reason to keep track of the transformation from documents into monuments is suggested by the fact that data infrastructures are mainly developed by contractors who, not being bound to public service duties, are not likely to see value added in creating archives, not even when it comes to practices of population ordering that are expected to have a say in how Europe is going to be built. In this sense, we suggest that “Processing Citizenship” and other similar projects that look not at data per se, but at the architecture for data collection, translation and circulation, are attempting to conduct “histories of the present”.

Constructive Technology Assessment – STS for and with Technology Actors

Over the years, STS has more and more moved from a predominant analytical gaze to engaging with the very fields and processes it is concerned with. At the University of Twente, STePS researchers have early on embarked on this road, with a key strand having evolved under the heading of Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA). While the core ideas were developed 30 years ago (Schot and Rip, 1997; Rip et al., 1995; Rip et al., 1987), the practical approaches and specific aims have clearly developed over time and – we expect – will continue to do so in the future. In what follows, we want to briefly explain the key characteristics of the approach, report on some recent projects and discuss our current attempts to move CTA from the field level to the work floor of researchers and technology actors, and close with an outlook on further directions for developing the approach.

Core Characteristics and Socio-Technical Scenarios

Constructive Technology Assessment emerged on the one hand from a concern to turn insights from STS actionable in the development of technologies. On the other hand, it builds on the field of technology assessment – as the term indicates – and aims to mobilize insights on co-evolutionary dynamics of science, technology and society for anticipating and assessing technologies, rather than being predominantly concerned with assessing societal impacts of a quasi-given technology. In addition, it shifts the focus from policy advice to (soft) intervention in the ongoing construction and societal embedding of technologies (see Rip and Robinson, 2013 for an analytical overview). Thus, CTA approaches involve stakeholders and typically include a step of analysis of ongoing processes and dynamics in a specific technology field, which draw on varying conceptual perspectives from science, technology and often also innovation studies. There have been extensive studies of social experiments with electric cars in the 1990s (Hoogma, 2000), some limited studies of micro-optics, and concerted work on nanotechnology (Rip and van Lente, 2013). Which conceptual lenses are used and which (scope of) processes are considered – innovation dynamics, use practices, governance interventions, developments within a field or its context, whether a whole technology field is addressed or a specific artefact – differs from project to project. This analytical step is often also an important base for studying the socio-technical dynamics in their own right.

Forms of intervention can differ, and here is not the space to expand on the full breadth. One form which has proven both doable and appreciated in various cases, includes the development of socio-technical scenarios as an input to stakeholder workshops. These scenarios typically start with the analysis of current and recent developments and then expand into the future, exploring different directions how the observed dynamics may further unfold, but also, how strategic and governance actions may play out and interrelate, or how different actor groups may react -as a means to stimulate reflexive consideration of broader developments and their interrelations than actors in the field would consider in their day-to-day concerns (Parandian and Rip, 2013; Rip and Te Kulve, 2008). In the CTA workshops we then aim to convene stakeholders from different backgrounds, who often enough turn out not to be familiar with many of the perspectives and considerations of other parties (so the workshops are occasions to let them probe each other’s worlds), and discussion is geared towards issues at stake and dilemmas that emerged from the preceding analysis.

By way of example, a project on nanotechnology-based sensor technologies in food and water explored directions for application and user requirements, but also the past and possible future processes which led and may lead to the emergence and further specification of user needs. It clearly turned out that user needs were not ‘given’, but rather that ‘demand articulation’ was an ongoing process, depending not only on dynamics on the use side, but rather on processes across the sector (Te Kulve and Konrad, 2017b; Te Kulve and Konrad, 2017a). More specifically, a stronger early-stage involvement of regulators was identified as a possible way forward.

This study approached the subject at the cross-section of a technology field with sectoral dynamics, and resided largely in the world of businesses. Other CTA studies were more concerned with the different perceptions and assessments of roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and in particular patients of new medical devices that in different shades provide opportunities and requirements for patients for increased self-management. These examples also focused in more detail on (the design of) specific products, rather than a whole field (Maathuis, 2014; Krabbenborg, 2013).


Socio-technical scenario


Mainstreaming CTA to the work floor

The CTA approach in the forms described so far, poses quite some requirements, in terms of research time, STS expertise, workshop preparations, and engagement of participants. Accordingly, many of the projects have been part of PhD or postdoc projects. In the context of recent ambitions to broaden and enhance the consideration of the societal role of science and technology as a regular element of research and innovation processes, largely emerging related to initiatives under the heading of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), a new challenge arises.

The general rationale of CTA strongly resonates with the ambition of RRI (Fisher and Rip, 2013). However, for integrating CTA elements across a wide range of research and innovation projects and in a way that it closely involves the technical researchers themselves creates new and challenging frame conditions. This has been exactly the situation we faced in the Dutch nanotechnology research programme NanoNextNL where the ambition has been, clearly stated by the chairman of the programme, to have all researchers involved consider the societal impact of their research themselves (Walhout and Konrad, 2015; Volkskrant, 2011). While the mentioned CTA project for sensor technologies was part of the NanoNextNL programme, the same approach could not be applied to all (hundreds of) projects in the programme. As a way forward, the team of researchers in NanoNextNL who were conducting risk analysis and technology assessment projects set up a course targeted at the PhD students in the programme, which aimed at making the researchers aware of relevant potential risks, societal and ethical implications and prerequisites of their work. Ideally, PhD students were then supposed to dedicate a part, e.g. a chapter, of their thesis to further addressing the identified topics an early attempt to do so is (den Boer et al., 2009). Making in particular the latter happen and providing for the necessary supervision, was surely a challenge, as this had not been provided for in the original set-up of the programme and not all main supervisors were supportive of this type of activities; hence, in practice it wasn’t followed as widely as indicated by the initial ambition. Still, several of the PhD students did so, conducting for instance CTA-inspired workshops, in which they explored with different types of actors potential applications of their research work and the prerequisites and implications thereof (Schulze Greiving et al., 2016). One of them decided to follow this route further, and embarked on a postdoc project in the STePS department. The main aim of this project was to further develop a ‘CTA toolbox’ that builds on analysis and methods derived from STS and innovation studies, but presents and tailors these in a format which is easier accessible, understandable and doable for technical researchers (Schulze Greiving and Konrad, 2017).1 In the meantime we have applied these ‘tools’ in diverse contexts, from bachelor students to senior researchers exploring future research directions.


Courtesy of Gijs van Ouwerkerk


This move towards a ‘mainstreaming’ of CTA-type activities to the work floor of researchers is much in line with the overarching CTA rationale, but does not come without tensions, as supposedly all of the many colleagues involved in similar endeavors will know all too well. On the one hand, we have recently seen quite some openings for these activities; the activities in NanoNextNL were one of them, another is the recent educational policy of the University of Twente to include a substantial element of ‘reflective education’ throughout all the (largely technical) bachelor programmes. Similar approaches in different shades have been adopted by other technical universities, and the number of research and innovation projects which require a broadening up is expected to increase. At the same time, this development is also contested, particularly at the work- and lab-floor, and does not always go along easily with a number of the practical and disciplinary structures of technical researchers. Thus, tailoring our approaches to the real-world constrains what these openings can do in practice, and requires a constant balancing and experimenting to what extent and in which ways we can and want to adjust concepts and methods to achieve the goal of soft intervention for broadening technology development in a meaningful way.


The situations and forms described are not meant to offer a comprehensive overview of the different conditions CTA may need to be again and again tailored to. Further challenges to situate the approach of CTA arise when CTA is to be conducted productively in different global settings, taking due account of local political and discursive cultures, and possibly different sociotechnical dynamics, an issue which becomes more and more salient also for us as STePS researchers, as we are increasingly working in globally dispersed and connected projects.

Engaged Science, Technology and Policy Studies – The Twente Approach

Fig. 1: University of Twente, Netherlands. ©UT, Evelien Bonte


Short account of a seminal legacy

Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) generate sites for articulation, contestation, navigation, negotiation, and change in modern (and other) societies. STS aims to understand and conceptualize the material, social, intellectual, political and moral dynamics of STI in society. Some STS groups also get involved in the active shaping of technology and innovation. Our department of Science, Technology, and Policy Studies (STePS) at the University of Twente (UT), the Netherlands, ventures to combine theory, critical analysis and active intervention in real-world spaces for articulation and negotiation. While contributing to the institutionalization of STS, STePS (and its predecessors) has also ventured to ‘extitutionalize’, focusing on “opening up provisory spaces for establishing new connections.” 1

This ambition builds on a tradition rooted in the young, technically oriented UT (est. 1962). In 1975 a ‘Centre for Studies of Science, Technology and Society’2 was formed, focusing on issues of technology in society (such as nuclear energy), increasingly also analyzing and engaging in actual development processes of technologies (e.g. health technology and renewable energy technology). When Arie Rip assumed the chair ‘Philosophy of Science and Technology’ in 1986 he linked efforts at UT with other Dutch and international sites of early STS.3
Soon he, together with a growing group of ambitious young scholars in Twente, developed seminal concepts for a constructivist, intervention-oriented understanding of STI in society, such as ‘post-modern research systems’ (with B. van der Meulen)4, modes of ‘Constructive Technology Assessment’ as a response to the “Collingridge Dilemma” (with J. Schot),5 and the roles of ‘socio-technological regimes’ and options for ‘transition management’ (with J. Schot, R. Kemp, F. Geels).6
In 1995, Rip’s chair was complemented by a chair in ‘Science and Technology Studies, with a focus on gender and technology’. Chair holder Nelly Oudshoorn made seminal contributions to the STS community’s understanding of the co-construction of technologies and users, particularly in relation to medical technologies and information and communication technologies, based on thorough ethnographic research.7
During the same period historians of science and technology also joined the group; Lissa Roberts, whose work traces the historical evolution and transgressions of the boundaries between ‘science’, ‘technology’, and ‘society’, was made chair for ‘Long-term Development of Science and Technology’ in 2009.8
In 2005 the current department STePS was established, now including a chair ‘Knowledge and Public Policy’, held by Robert Hoppe, exploring the governance of problems and the role of scientific expertise in policy-making.9
Upon Rip’s retirement in 2006, Stefan Kuhlmann joined the group and soon became head of department. With his background in political science and the governance of technology and innovation, Kuhlmann places emphasis on the study of and intervention in the politics and policies of technology and innovation in society.10 During the last ten years STePS has focused its work on “Navigating Technosciences and Innovation in Society.

Linking governance studies, innovation studies and STS, the STePS group covers quite a broad scope of conceptual perspectives and empirical fields. Our research and teaching are strongly interlinked with other disciplines, particularly with technological domains at the UT (nanotechnology, ICT, health technology). While our critical, constructivist and interventionist approach is welcomed by many partners, it can also produce tension. Mostly, though, such tension has fostered mutual learning and enhanced creativity.

STePS’ approach has also led to strong involvement in major international collaborative research projects, often funded by the EU; projects that are not per se STS oriented, but where we aim to introduce STS perspectives and insights into ‘mainstream’ research. The same can be said about our considerable engagement with public policymakers in STI, on national, European and international levels: senior STePS scholars have been playing influential roles in setting new policy agendas.

Consequently, the interdisciplinary mission and engagement of STePS, its study of the dynamics and governance of STI, have been praised by international evaluation panels (2009; 2015) as excellent, highly relevant and internationally leading.


Fig. 2: STePS meeting October 2017
©UT, Evelien Bonte


Current focus 

We take the emergence (past and future) and politics of science, technologies, and innovations in globally diverse societies as our vantage point for research and teaching. Consequently, STePS acts as a cross-disciplinary go-between of social sciences, humanities and techno-sciences. Research and related education link analytical and normative perspectives, and consider innovations in governance alongside technological innovations. Currently STePS is active in three inter-linked research areas (see graph). They are concerned with a better understanding of STI vis-à-vis societal challenges, related change, and the (potential) contribution of ‘non-traditional’ actors such as Civil Society Organisations and ‘users’. And they explore modes of experimentation and learning, informed by theory-driven empirical research, with the help of a broad spectrum of qualitative (e.g. ethnographic) and quantitative methodologies. Below we briefly introduce the areas and illustrate them with examples of recent and current work.


Fig. 3: STePS’ research focus and main themes.



Navigating Technosciences in Society: Analysis, Anticipation and Assessment

We are particularly interested in processes at the meso level, such as technological fields, sectoral dynamics, and innovation journeys. We combine analysis of ongoing dynamics and the ways in which socio-technical futures are imagined and acted upon, with approaches as Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) that turn these insights into starting points for scenario-building and engagement with stakeholders.11 Key contributors in this research area are Kornelia Konrad, Stefan Kuhlmann, Klaasjan Visscher, Katrin Hahn, Verena Schulze Greiving, Ellen van Oost.

A recent set of projects has been conducted as part of the Dutch nanotechnology research programme “NanoNextNL” (2006-2016). We investigated visions and requirements around the use of sensor technologies in the food and water sector, with a focus on how collective processes at sector level contributed to ‘demand articulation’ – rather than addressing mainly the dynamics in user communities, or user-producer interactions more common in STS research so far. We used these insights to develop scenarios and discuss and assess future perspectives with suppliers, users and regulators. A similar approach was taken for nanobased technologies in lighting. In a further project, we tailored and used our approach of CTA in a way that it becomes applicable at the level – and under the constraints – of technical research projects, which we consider an important prerequisite towards ‘mainstreaming’ of broader social considerations in technical research – as one form of responsible research and innovation. A third project investigated how diverse anticipatory practices played out in the governance and the impressive rise of technoscientific fields as graphene and 3D printing. (Main contributors are K. Konrad, V. Schulze Greiving, C. Alvial Palavicino, B. Walhout, S. Kuhlmann, H. te Kulve)

“Industrial Innovation in Transition (IIT)” (2015-2017) was the subject of a major EU H2020 project. With four international partners we studied the practices and processes of how companies innovate and anticipate their future environment by making use of and strategically shaping extended innovation ecosystems. The study builds on a dataset of qualitative interviews of almost 700 high-level managers of European companies, and considers in how far the rationales of common innovation policy instruments correspond to the actual innovation practices currently used in the companies. (K. Konrad, K. Hahn, K. Visscher, S. Kuhlmann)

The NWO funded project “Community Innovation for Sustainable Energy: Aligning Social and Technical Innovation” (2016-2019) studies how new local oriented energy innovations like smart microgrids and local energy storage can empower local energy communities and strengthen their transformative capacity towards a sustainable and resilient energy production and use. We aim to gain insight into how techno-moral issues like privacy, inclusion, autonomy, and ownership of energy are co-shaped in these dynamics. (E. van Oost, B. Koirala)

Governance and Politics of STIS

Science, technology and innovation are both key resources and causes for concern in society, the economy and public policy. Research on the politics and governance of knowledge and innovation analyzes transformation processes of research and innovation systems, the various modes of governance and policy making in this transformation and the processes by which expert knowledge contributes to policymaking and innovation. Beyond academic analysis we are also involved in the design and implementation of governance and policy initiatives in national, European and international arenas. Key contributors in this research area are Stefan Kuhlmann, Annalisa Pelizza, Peter Stegmaier, Gonzalo Ordonez-Matamoros.


Fig. 4: Stefan Kuhlmann and colleagues
©UT, Evelien Bonte


  • “Res-AGorA. Responsible Research and Innovation in a Distributed Anticipatory Governance Frame”, a EU-funded project with eight European partners (2013-16), took the fluid and contested nature of ‘responsible’ research and innovation as a starting point. Res-AGorA developed a framework to guide the process of governing towards higher levels of responsibility in research and innovation (“Responsibility Navigator”), where the normative content is negotiated by the actors themselves as part of a continuous process of reflexive, anticipatory and responsive adaptation of research and innovation to changing societal challenges. (S. Kuhlmann, B. Walhout, G. Ordonez)
  • “Governance of Discontinuation of Sociotechnical Systems (DiscGo)” (2012-2017). This project funded by Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) with four international partners aims at a better understanding of the governance of the abandonment of socio-technical systems: What does discontinuation mean as a problem of action for policy-makers? (P. Stegmaier, S. Kuhlmann)
  • “Processing Citizenship: Digital Registration of Migrants as Co-production of Citizens, Territory and Europe”. How does migration enact Europe? Intensifying migration waves are changing not only EU policies, but also the way knowledge about individuals, institutions and space is created. This is the point of departure of an ERC Starting Grant five-year project (2017-2022) involving a team composed of sociologists, ethnographers, software developers and policy analysts. 12 (A. Pelizza, S. Scheel, A. Bacchi, C. Andreoli and others)
  • Several PhD projects are investigating “Politics and Governance of STI in Emerging Economies”, currently focusing on Colombia. The emerging ‘post-colonial’ perspective will enrich STIS both on the Global South and North. (G. Ordonez, S. Kuhlmann)

Long-term Development of STIS

This research theme has two interactive aims. Stretching out from past to future, the first aim is to trace out the long term development of STIS in ways that reveal both the specific peculiarities and broader patterns that inform its dynamic character over time. As such the intention is not simply to provide background and context for contemporary and future-oriented research carried out within the department and the study of STIS more generally. It seeks to demonstrate that the phenomena and processes we study and which are subject to policy consideration, can only be properly appreciated and governed when their combined temporal and spatial character are understood. The second aim is to understand the very categories we use to organize our research – science, technology, governance, innovation, (o)economy and so forth – as historical phenomena whose definitions and implications have changed (and will continue to change) over time and across space. Key contributors in this research area are Lissa Roberts, Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, Adri Albert de la Bruheze, Andreas Weber.

  • “Technologies in Use: Infrastructures, Maintenance and Labor from Early Industrialization to Tomorrow” is a two year (2017-2019) international research network co-funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and a number of international partners. It is directed toward producing a narrative that explains the dynamic relationship between technology and societies around the world since the late eighteenth century, based on the understanding that innovation actually constitutes only one aspect of that relationship. (L. Roberts, A. Albert de la Bruheze)
  • “The Cultural Politics of Sustainable Urban Mobility, 1890-Present” (2015-2018) is an international research network co-funded by NWO and a number of international partners. By drawing on cases of long term development, it seeks to contribute to current debates regarding how urban mobility can transition into a sustainable system. An important outcome is the much acclaimed co-edited volume Cycling Cities: The European Experience – Hundred Years of Policy and Practice (2016). (A. Albert de la Bruheze)
Fig. 5: Lissa Roberts and colleagues
©UT, Evelien Bonte


  • “Making Sense of Illustrated Handwritten Archives” (2016-2019), is a Digital Humanities project co-funded by NWO and Brill Publishers. In partnership with internationally leading specialists in AI and cognitive engineering it has two aims. Concretely, it involves developing an advanced and user-friendly online service for searching digitized illustrated handwritten collections. Simultaneously it examines the potential of such collaborations to increase both our research capabilities and understanding of the interface between artificial intelligence, processes of interpretive cognition and preservation of heritage. (L. Roberts, A. Weber)


Fig. 6: STePS group.
©A. Weber collage based on image Rijksmuseum Amsterdam



STePS (and precursors since the 1970s) has the mission to teach the dynamics, governance and options for shaping science, technology and innovation in society on an interdisciplinary basis, particularly for the UT technical faculties. In the ‘Twente Model’ for undergraduate education students are trained as researchers and designers, with an eye for the societal embedding and implications of their work. STePS is a key contributor to this ‘reflection education’. We are also strongly involved in UT’s University College ATLAS, an honours programme for talented students, bringing technology and society together. We further offer the course ‘Governance and Ethics of Technology’ at UT’s international ‘CuriousU’ summer school.


Fig. 7: Campus life, University of Twente.
©UT, Evelien Bonte


In graduate education STePS and the Philosophy Department jointly offer a two-year international Master’s programme ‘Philosophy of Science and Technology (PSTS), meant for anyone who is interested to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of and become involved in guiding the role of technology in broader social contexts. The PSTS programme is designed for students with technical, philosophical and social science backgrounds. Further graduate education is offered for the Master programmes Nanotechnology, Chemical Engineering, Industrial Design, Public Administration, and Business Administration.

As part of the Twente Graduate School, STePS runs the programme ‘Governance of Knowledge and Innovation’ for Master and PhD students. Also, STePS is a key contributor to an (emerging) ‘Global PhD Platform’, an effort for attracting and supervising PhD students from the Global South.

As of 2018, the UT and STePS will host and lead the Dutch national PhD school ‘Wetenschap, Technologie en moderne Cultuur, WTMC’, internationally much acclaimed as a role model. STePS scholars and their predecessors have always played active roles in WTMC, a collective effort based in the Netherlands to study the development of science, technology and modern culture from an interdisciplinary perspective. In 2016 WTMC received the 4S Infrastructure Award and in 2017 an international evaluation panel rated WTMC “one of the few most influential graduate schools in the world within the field of science, technology and innovation studies (STIS).”

International Collaboration

STePS scholars are highly engaged in the international communities of STIS, through numerous collaborative research projects, multiple publication efforts, and active contribution to academic and professional associations, among them the “European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST)”, the “Society for Social Studies of Science (4S)”, the “European Forum for Studies of Policies for Research and Innovation” (Eu-SPRI Forum), the “Society for the Studies of New and Emerging Technologies (S.NET)”.

The international standing and appreciation of STePS scholars is emphasized by their leading roles in important academic journals such as »Research Policy«, (Editor S. Kuhlmann), »Tecnoscienza« (Editorial Board A. Pelizza) or »History of Science« (Editor-in-Chief L. Roberts).


Fig. 8: Some STePS colleagues.
©UT, Evelien Bonte



As claimed at the start of this short account of STePS’ pedigree and current work, the Twente Approach aims to combine engaged STIS and Governance Studies and intervention in the development of technology and innovation in society.

We anticipate that this critical and interventionist mission in the future will become even more important and appreciated in a university of technology as the UT. In the Netherlands, in Europe and beyond we see a growing number of academic sites engaging in social challenge and needs-driven experimentation, co-design and co-development of technology and innovation in society. At the same time, in public policy arenas there is increasing demand for transformative policy and governance concepts.13

Conceptually, we envisage a further integration of concepts and lenses from STS, innovation studies, governance, and long-term perspectives, in order to sharpen our understanding of technology from research and innovation to its integration into societal practices and structures, its governance and governance effects. A phenomenon like digitalization can hardly be grasped, other than by considering its actual manifestation in practice, from industry to e-health, and from the politics of code to policies.

We expect the Twente-borne CTA-approach14 to be further enlarged in scope – e.g. geographically or from technical to service innovations, requiring at the same time a need for further situating and tailoring of our methods to different conditions.

Most importantly, such future interventions will have to draw on capacities for a long-term analysis of socio-technical configurations, both from a historical perspective and with advanced foresight methodologies and procedures.

Not least, this analytical-interventionist work will be developed with a global perspective, acknowledging the mutual interdependencies of former “first” and other worlds, reflected especially in emerging global socio-technical infrastructures.15


1 Farias I (2017) O EASST Review lovers, where art thou? On STS as extitution. EASST Review: Volume 36(2) July 2017.

2 For a short history of the “Boerderij“ see

3 E.g. Callon M, Rip A and Law, J (eds). (1986) Mapping the dynamics of science and technology: Sociology of science in the real world. Springer.

4 Rip A and Van der Meulen BJ (1996) The post-modern research system. Science and public policy, 23(6): 343-352.

5 Schot J and Rip A (1997) The past and future of constructive technology assessment. Technological forecasting and social change, 54(2-3): 251-268. Collingridge D (1982) The social control of technology.

6 Rip A and Kemp R (1998) Technological change. In: Rayner S. and Malone L (eds) Human Choice and Climate Change, Vol. 2, Resources and Technology, Washington DC: Battelle Press: 327-399.

7 Oudshoorn N (2003) The male pill: A biography of a technology in the making. Duke University Press; Hyysalo S, Jensen TE and Oudshoorn N (eds) (2016) The New Production of Users: Changing Innovation Collectives and Involvement Strategies (Vol. 42). Routledge.

8 Roberts LL, Schaffer S and Dear P (2007) The Mindful Hand. Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation. History of Science and Scholarship in the Netherlands (9).

9 Hoppe R (2011) The governance of problems: Puzzling, powering and participation. Policy Press.

10 E.g. Smits RE, Kuhlmann S and Shapira P (eds) (2010) The theory and practice of innovation policy. Edward Elgar Publishing; Kuhlmann S and Ordóñez-Matamoros G (eds) (2017) Research Handbook on Innovation Governance for Emerging Economies: Towards Better Models. Edward Elgar Publishing.

11 See Konrad et al, Constructive Technology Assessment – STS for and with Technology Actors, this issue of EASST Review.

12 See Pelizza A, Processing Citizenship. Digital registration of migrants as co-production of individuals and Europe, this issue of EASST Review.

13 Kuhlmann S and Rip A (2017) Next Generation Innovation Policy and Grand Challenges. Science and Public Policy (paper accepted for publication).

14 See Konrad et al, this EASST Review.

15 See e.g. Pelizza, this EASST Review.

Invention is not Intervention

In the last two issues, we had the first installment of our new section ‘STS Live’ dedicated to discussing the notion of alternative facts. We would like to thank the amazing group of colleagues that were willing to contribute to this conversation! The ‘STS Live’ section is not a fixed, but a recurring feature of the Review – we plan to curate at least one ‘STS Live’ conversation per year. The aim is to practice response-ability, to open up dialogical spaces where we can collectively reflect and respond to pressing matters of concern. We haven’t decided yet which issue to invite colleagues to address in 2018, so your ideas are extremely welcome (you can always reach us at:

STS’ capacity to respond to current political developments in ways that are attuned to those who are also challenging the ‘reasonable politics’ of our ‘guardians’, as Isabelle Stengers calls them, is an old concern in our field. Notably, the last years have seen an interesting development towards more ‘inventive’ engagements in science and technology often based on collaborations with activists, artists and designers and aimed at prototyping alternative infrastructural arrangements and aesthetic articulations of techno-scientific worlds. Think of the success of the Making and Doing events at 4S conferences ( or the renaming of Goldsmith’s CSISP into CISP: Center for Invention and Social Process ( There are indeed dozens, if not hundreds of examples. But looking back a bit, I think it is fair to say that Bruno Latour’s exhibitions at ZKM have made a major contribution to open up STS towards such inventive engagements.

Here I would like to report on my attending to Bruno Latour’s lecture-performance Inside ( and reflect on the challenges of STS inventions. Inside, staged by the French scenographer Frédérique Aït-Touati, with whom the Latours wrote the radio play Kosmokolos (, was presented last September in the context of the Festival Der Maulwurf macht weiter. Tiere / Politik / Performance [The mole keeps on going. Animals / Politics / Performace] at the beautiful theatre HAU, a true temple for experimentation in the contemporary performing arts in Berlin. My first surprise happened upon arrival to the theatre: I met only one STS colleague in the audience. The place was not packed with STS friends and colleagues, as I somehow imagined when heading to HAU, but with a mixed audience, whose exact provenience I cannot quite tell (although see below).

The second positive surprise was to see what Latour is up to these days. Long done with the writing of a non-modern Constitution and the staging of Gaia, Latour is now experimenting with the visual representation of a new cosmology. How to literally redraw the cosmos? Which alternative visual imaginaries are necessary to remap and represent our entanglements within and beyond the ‘critical zone’, which broadly equates to the ‘biosphere’? Latour’s project reminds me of the kind of intervention Alexander von Humboldt did with his drawings of the Chimborazo volcano and how these drawings were crucial for advancing his reinvention of nature and the cosmos. Indeed, Latour’s Inside lecture-performance achieved something that has been so difficult to achieve in the various ZKM exhibitions: engaging in the production of aesthetic forms that cannot be reduced to an illustration of theoretical propositions and that actually challenge the audience to come up with a different language.

Or so I thought… until the lecture was over and the Q&A began (not included in the video). It was a short, but catastrophic Q&A marked by three interventions. The first one was a confession of not having understood much and a request to explain what is a vortex – the key topological figure that Latour used to articulate this new cosmo-graphy. The second was a long rant about the lack of effort by “professors” to relate the broad public, by making interventions one could not just politically, but even discursively relate to, in the sense of understanding what it is actually being said. The third one was a rant about not allowing the previous person to continue her rant, for after she was given a response someone else took the microphone to ask something different – a meta-rant moment that led the chair to call it a night and invite everyone to continue the discussion over some drinks at the bar of the theatre.

The more general question, of course, is what are we aiming at when embracing invention as a mode of STS scholarship. Oftentimes STS’ inventive engagements are celebrated as a form of political intervention in public controversies and current affairs. But the difference cannot be overstated. When composing songs, writing poems, programming bots, designing board games, writing play scripts, curating exhibitions or drawing ethnographic comics, STS scholars do certainly address non-academic audiences. But to think that such inventive engagements can only be a means to articulating matters of public concern, to make things public, would involve underestimating both, the capacities of publics to engage with standardized forms of knowledge and, most problematically, the role of inventive engagements as a research method.

Indeed, the most interesting statement during the Q&A was none of the above. Asked about what kind of political intervention he expects these visual experiments to have in current climate policy, Latour, demonstrating his difficulties understanding the question, said something like: ‘What? This? No. I don’t expect it to have any impact whatsoever’. If we consider this statement problematic, the question is then whose problem that is, for equating invention with intervention seems dismissive of how different these research methods are (cf. Zuiderent-Jerak 2016).

News from EASST Council

The new EASST Council met towards the end of May in Lancaster UK. This was the official handover to our new President Ulrike Felt. There has been a large turnover of Council members so this was also an opportunity for council members to get to know each other, to review what EASST has been doing in recent years and to decide which areas of responsibility to take on.

A main part of the agenda related to our forthcoming EASST conference in 2018. Council had the opportunity to view the extensive facilities and to discuss with the local team their ideas for both the organisation of the event and for the theme and approach. Council were impressed with the level of commitment and enthusiasm for this important conference. Further details and an initial call will be available very soon. Check the EASST website and Eurograd posts for further details.

The EASST fund has now been launched for events taking place in 2018. Council will meet again at the beginning of November and will take forward a range of other issues including the next round of EASST awards for collaborative activity which will be awarded at the conference.


Sensor Publics: Report from a workshop on the politics of sensing and data infrastructures

Invested with ideals ranging from ‘the smart city’, ‘evidence-based policy’, ‘algorithmic governance’, ‘citizen science’, or ‘hack-tivism’, sensors have been widely foregrounded in contemporary debates about the role of digital technologies in addressing the big political challenges of our time. The idea of a workshop on the politics of sensing developed in discussions with our colleagues at the Munich Centre for Technology in Society (MCTS) about the need to take on the political and ethical challenges emerging in data-driven approaches to dealing with public issues and to challenge narrowly reductive and positivist accounts of ‘big data’ and informational politics.

The workshop was developed with three broad motivations: first, to address theoretical questions about how concepts of sensing might be used to freshly problematize recent political debates about the shape of public space and ‘data power’ in digital societies? Second, to bring together researchers in security studies together with participatory and environmental researchers to explore opportunities for collaboration between these fields. And, lastly, and somewhat opportunist on our part, to invite a diverse range of researchers and engineers who themselves are experimenting with sensors to Munich to explore with them whether and how the ‘proliferation of sensors’ might open up inventive approaches to social research.

Through invited keynotes given by Geoffrey Bowker and Jennifer Gabrys, we aimed to put into dialogue two leading figures in the social study of digital devices and data infrastructures. Both speakers engaged with the ways in which sensors not only produce ‘raw data’ but also often problematise the relation between epistemic practices and their environments. Addressing the politics and ontology of data infrastructures, Geoffrey Bowker turned to a provocation from a Business Week article claiming that “the earth will don an electronic skin”, mobilizing this fantastic-sounding proposition as a critical resource for attending to controversies around the uses and abuses of personal data. Rather than reducing the politics of personal data to issues about the rights of private individuals, Bowker proposed that researchers engage with how such controversies can also provoke reorderings between politics and its environments. Attacking the ‘misplaced concretism’ of epistemologies of ‘big data’, Bowker argued against falling into the trap of naturalising relations between digital infrastructures and particular forms of social and political order. In her keynote on environment data and data citizenships, Jennifer Gabrys discussed her work in the “CitizenSense” project by prototyping two devices, the dustbox and frackbox, and working with groups of activists to deploy them in particular environmental controversies. Highlighting problems around the calibration of many ‘off-the-shelf’ sensors, she drew attention to the complex data landscapes in which professional and amateur sensing practices take shape and intervene. Outlining a Whitehead-inspired conception of “environmental data”, Gabrys argued that the instrumenting of the planet with sensors not only brings environmental issues into politics but can also repose citizenship as an environmental problem.

Over two days, presenters engaged with a range of issues implicating sensing technologies and politics. The city as a setting where sensing projects are publicly tested, was explored by Nona Schulte-Roemer, Sara Degli Esposti, Claudio Colletta, Alexander Pólvora, Leslie Mabon and Gerard Jan Ritsema van Eck. A range of these papers addressed the role of sensing technologies in processes of public experimentation, in which urban infrastructure become sites for demonstrating the “eco-city” or “smart city”. Many highlighted that experiments with sensors can, in different ways, provide occasions that problematize the urban environment as a setting of political engagement; often indirectly resonating with Gabry’s proposal to understand citizenship as an environmental problem. Schulte-Roemer, for instance, highlighted the ways in which urban sensing projects can perform infrastructure such as street lights as multivalent in their relation to public space and not only mere instruments for governing it. Indeed, a similar point was made by Coletta who discussed an experiment with a sensor-network deployed in Dublin, highlighting – in contrast to reductive accounts of urban experiments as mere ‘scalable’ procedures – that the such experiments rarely domesticate infrastructure in the ‘low-cost’ way city authorities envisage and can effect the “accidental” emergence of unforeseen urban problems and publics. The provocation of urban publics was proposed as an active participatory design strategy by Claudia Mendes and Hannah Varga in their workshop on ‘prototyping publics’, in which they tested a workshop method to engage groups of citizens with the implementation of a ‘smart city’ sensor installation project in Munich. Pólvora too highlighted that ‘bottom up’ citizen science projects can not only be used to construct an ‘evidence-base’ for policy, but can stimulate broader engagements between art, design and technology in addressing issues such as urban air quality.

In contrast to such post-instrumental understandings of public experiment, a range of papers highlighted that urban sensing trials can in other cases perform more familiar modes of government and privatisation that have long been associated with the technocratic approaches of city management. Many of the presentations understood data produced in urban sensing projects as often highly biased and asymmetric in its political uses, highlighting how ‘data-driven’ initiatives can displace and marginalise issues such as urban poverty, community development or public ownership. Mobile apps encouraging users to report where and when they feel they are in an insecure or threatening environment, offer a powerful example for the manifold and contingent entanglements of sensors, publics and urban security. As Gerard van Eck has shown, this crowdsourced open-sourced content not only stigmatizes streets or neighborhoods (with all the socio-economic implications) but can be valuable for law enforcement agencies in deciding where to target resources. Raising questions on how to overcome what van Eck called an “evidence-based stigma”, Nikolaus Pöchacker also outlined how sensing in the field of predictive policing already assumes attributes connected to imaginations of (in)security where the data is given a specific voice through a complex apparatus of sensing and sense-making.

Questions about relations between ‘local’ sensing experiments and ‘global’ data apparatuses were addressed by several presenters. Christopher Wood´s work, situated at the intersection of artistic and scientific practices, focused on making geospatial infrastructures visible through experimenting with breakdown and infrastructural inversion in the built environment. Wood’s trails of satellite tracking apps with different collectives played with the personal relations of individuals to satellites orbiting above and the disruption of these relations as they individuals navigate through densely constructed urban settings. Moving from art to engineering, the following presentation by Godert-Jan van Mannen on “How to Hack a Satellite” step-by-step showed how it is possible to intrude a communication satellite and get access to radio or television streams using cheap and commercially available technology. This demonstration pointed to some of the often-overlooked vulnerabilities of techno-political infrastructures and the need for a much broader consideration of risk in discourses on sensing technologies. At the same time, it pointed to the manifold forms of resistance against forms of neoliberal sensory governance, e.g. when hackers used their capabilities to claim free access to television for all. Indeed, the ways in which security expertise are claimed and technical competences distributed was addressed by Becky Kazansky whose paper examined how activist groups are dealing with risks and threats of sensory surveillance. Adopting an engaged methodology in working with human rights activists, Kanzansky highlighted some of the different ways in which distinctions between technical and ethical responsibility get translated between what she termed ‘communities of security practice’.

Questions about how the construction of threats – digital or not – come to matter with sensors, their governance and in different forms expert practice figured prominently during the workshop. Ubiquitous sensor networks raised challenges for many participants about how we envision privacy, data protection and configurations of risks. Indeed, one of our central aims for this workshop was to connect the different engagements with sensors in STS, urban- or data studies, that are mainly focused on the level of ‘localized’ collectives to the foreign entanglements of sensors and their embeddedness in the global political economy and international relations. In an attempt to facilitate such a conversation between international security studies and STS, Philipp Olbrich discussed the politics of satellite observation of North Korea as the technologization of security governance. Here, the seemingly objective satellite´s view from above translates and black-boxes it into a socio-material mobile assemblage of satellite data, eyewitness accounts and other sources. In this way, satellite imagery closes off important controversies and political alternatives as it locks in a hierarchy of evidence that reifies an adversarial posture and discredits North Korea as a future dialogue partner in the context of international relations.

The relation between international sensing apparatuses and the politics of the ‘view from above’ was also addressed by Vera Ehrenstein in her presentation on the scientific and political challenges of producing epidemiological data about ‘African pneumococcus diseases’ caused by pneumococcus bacteria. Following the bacteria from international conferences to their collection by lab researchers and street recruiters in Burkina Faso to the offices of the European vaccine distributor that contract the lab workers, Ehrenstein described the challenges involved in translating bacteria from nasal swabs into data that can robustly represent a city population and its bacteria. Where epistemological treatments of epidemiology have long been described the role of this scientific field in making populations known and governing them, Ehrenstein argued that epidemiological measurement was much more a “patchy sensing” process than one of comprehensive surveillance. Ehrenstein’s appropriation of the concept of sensing to think politically about epidemiological measurement was a powerful example of what could be said to be at stake theoretically in choosing to foreground sensing technologies/practices and displace the priority of epistemology to sort out relations between data and politics.

Sensors are, of course, not new objects in STS research. Whether in the design of experimental apparatuses, the implementation of ‘large technical systems’ or the production of novel measuring instruments, sensors have been widely studied as ‘lively’ devices that detect, inscribe, capture and record; if not always as “sensors”. As workshop participants often reaffirmed, there are many good reasons we might want to be skeptical towards hyperbolic and positivist-sounding claims that sensors are now “everywhere” and that we live in an era in which almost anything can be turned into “data”. But the presenters at this workshop also highlighted sensors also offer opportunities for STS research to problematize and extend debates about data-driven politics and power in digital societies. As our MCTS colleague Tomas Sanchez-Criado (Tironi and Criado, 2015) has highlighted in his work on urban politics: even if we recoil at the corporate jargon of the sensor-equipped ‘smart city’, there may nonetheless be many reasons we might value the modes of “sensitivity” that can be occasioned in experiments to instrument cities with sensors. At the same time, the sense remoteness of the satellites that are orbiting above us, appearing as (re-)presenting facts from an allegedly neutral perspective, requires an enhanced sensibility towards the global socio-political, economic and cultural processes (as Witjes and Olbrich 2017) – or the foreign entanglements in Dewey´s sense – in which sensory networks and forms of their governance are embedded.

Journal “Sociology of Science and Technology”: 
a Russian Platform from Conventional Social Studies to STS

The Russian-based journal “Sociology of Science and Technology” (SST) aims at international visibility and welcomes contributions in social and interdisciplinary studies of science and technology worldwide. SST develops a network of authors and reviewers and often experiments with special issues and guest editors in order to facilitate international discussion accessible to both Russian and non-Russian readers. The journal follows current turns in Russian social studies to science and technology studies (STS) and represents both conventional and new research agendas.

The SST journal is a quarterly professional journal, published both in Russian and in English. It was established in 2009 by the St. Petersburg branch of the S.I. Vavilov Institute for the History of Natural Science and Technology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the “Nestor-Istoriya” publishing house. SST was designed as a platform for social scientists and researchers and to experiment with formats in addition to more classical types of publications. Despite its Russian-based origins, the journal strives for global recognition: the editorial advisory board includes scholars not only from Russia but also from European, Asian, and American countries. The journal collaborates closely, and develops partnerships, with related institutions and organizations, including international professional associations such as the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee 23 for the Sociology of Science and Technology. SST is now on its way to becoming an international publication platform following recognition in Russian journal rankings. It is experiencing a ‘rebirth’, in terms of technological changes and transfer to a new platform, in order to become more visible and appropriate for English-speaking audiences.

SST was intended as a platform for social scientists and researchers dealing with the issues of sociology, history, philosophy, and the anthropology of science and technology in general, and STS in particular. In order to serve the purposes and demands of the professional community and to remain on the cutting edge of STS trends, it is relatively flexible with formats and thematic issues. Traditionally, it collects theoretical and research articles, assembles topical issues and special editions, publishes conference papers, book reviews, conference reports, roundtables conversations, and interviews with scientists and researchers, as well as other open-ended contributions.

The major focus of SST is the social and interdisciplinary study of science and technology across a huge range of approaches, methodologies, and empirical results. The scope of topics includes problems of science and technology located in various areas, including: science, technology and society; science policy and science communication; science and education; technology and innovations; scientometrics and science governance; technological development and technology transfer; professional communities of scientists and academic mobility; gender issues in science and technology; social effects of technologies; the social role and status of scientists; and the sociology of knowledge and studies of expertise. The relatively recent (in Russia) turn to STS has facilitated the spread of interest in non-conventional and experimental writings, though the most frequent sections are still devoted to the history of science, science policy in Russia and abroad, scientific knowledge production, empirical studies, interviews with scientists, scientific life notes, and the first steps for young researchers.

The last special issue (No 4, 2015) gathered papers from the first St. Petersburg seminar which was organized by the Section for Sociology of Science and Technology at the St. Petersburg Association for Sociologists. The idea of the seminar was to bring together researchers from various institutions to represent the scope of studies and to facilitate future collaborations. There were eight articles devoted to information technologies, networks and flows, state and innovations, material objects in everyday interactions, comparative analysis of Latour and Lyotard, trust in science, and scientific boundaries. Other special issues have been devoted to “25 Years of Sociological Education in Russia” (No 2, 2014), “Russian-Chinese Seminar on the History of Science” (No 1, 2013), “Science, Technology and Social Processes in India: Sociological Discourses” (No 4, 2012), or the 100th anniversary of Robert Merton’s birth (No 4, 2010).

Our readers are students and scholars in STS, sociology, anthropology, history, and the philosophy of science and technologies; researchers dealing with various aspects of science functioning and technological development, governing of science and technology, and academic life and relationships with industry and government. Practitioners and policy-makers might also be interested in the journal articles, as they often represent the analytical and critical perspective of the current state of affairs in terms of science policy.

As the SST journal is on its way towards increased international visibility, it invites participation from a larger professional community of scholars working in the area of science and technology studies. The journal welcomes research in the areas of social and interdisciplinary studies of science and technology. Papers analyzing national aspects of science and technology development might be especially interesting in the framework of comparative studies. The SST journal seeks submissions that engage with traditional and shaping matters and welcomes participation in an ambitious plan – to construct a bridge between the global agenda in STS and its locally driven contributions with a Russian flavor.

Original manuscripts (either in English or in Russian) can be submitted via e-mail directly to the editor ( Author guidelines are available on the official web-site.

Five recent play dates

An advantage of the playground metaphor is that it comes with the activity of going out on ‘play dates’ and developing friendships. In such playful relationships, there is always something at stake, but the interaction is also fun and inherently exploratory. In the following, we take a tour of five recent collaborative projects that the TANTlab has participated in. The projects differ widely and testify to different experiences with collaboration and intervention – from a data print on obesity with other researchers to a Facebook-driven intervention in Aalborg municipality’s primary school reform. Thus, we aim to illustrate what we mean by TANTlab as a techno-antropological playground.

Re-tooling cultural research on Instagram

A visit to the playground inevitably entails that one kid that brought along a cool new toy. She or he will usually succeed in getting the attention of most of the playground – for a while at least. While new toys, or tools, may cause frustration as they inevitably disturb the way play used to unfold, they can also lead to experiments that merge familiar games with new ways of playing. In our introduction, this genre of laboratory play was given the headline ‘Re-tooling ethnography’.

An example of such work is a data sprint in 2015 where we worked with an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the Governing Obesity project at the University of Copenhagen ( on how to appropriate the social medium Instagram as a tool for cultural analysis. A theoretical point of departure was the notion ‘obesogenic environment’ as “the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations” (Swinburn et al. in 1999), which has led to researchers study which and how everyday settings and practices relate to obesity. We drew on a harvest of 82,449 geo-tagged instagrams from the five local authorities in England that reported the lowest average BMI, and five that reported the highest.

In a subsequent paper on the sprint (Munk et al, 2016), we presented three suggestions for how Instagram data can be of use for cultural research on obesity. The two first approaches entailed traditional ways of conceptualizing the obesogenic environment. The first by encouraging researchers to view ’Instagram as a camera’ – as a way of gaining visual information about the environmental factors that might influence individuals. The second by approaching ’Instagram as part of the environment’ – as part of user’s everyday practices, almost inevitably leading to field research beyond the medium to gain information on how Instagram gives and holds meaning in everyday life.

The third approach, however, suggests that it is impossible to understand Instagram and its users as separate from their environments. Practices such as composing photos, tagging and commenting are not just content production, but analytical practices performed by Instagram’s users, thus working with ’Instagram as analyst’. We therefore moved from an exploration of the productions of individual users to an exploration of co-occurring hashtags (that occur in the same post). In such an exploration, a network of hashtag relations was generated, where the tags were interpreted as part of different communities.

The figure above shows such a network of co-occurring Instagram hashtags in the five high BMI areas. Nodes are colored by local authority (grey nodes representing occurrence in multiple authorities) and sized by degree (representing volume of co-occurrences with other hashtags). The graph was spatialized in Gephi with a force vector algorithm, showing communities of hashtags frequently used together as visually clustered. Especially those hashtags that were ‘media-syncratic’, i.e. used across all ten areas, proved an interesting qualitative context that speaks to a difference in what is instagrammable (deserving of these tags) between geographic sites. The approach provided a promising alternative method for obesity research on Instagram in a cultural analytical context.



Making the value of fine art visible: A datasprint with The Royal Theater 

In August 2016, we did a one-week datas print with The Royal Theater of Copenhagen. The background of the sprint was that the theater experienced a shift in the way they could account for the worth of fine arts in negotiations with politicians and sponsors. Whereas stories and anecdotes had previously been sufficient, the employees found themselves increasingly challenged to ’show’ their value. For instance, it was no longer enough to claim that the Theater ”occupied a specific place in the culture landscape” and had specific ”emotional bonds to its audience”.


The aim of the data sprint was to experiment with new ways of datafying such claims. Since both claims are relational – they say something about The Royal Theater’s position in a broader landscape – we thought that digital methods might offer more interesting forms of visibilities than the focus group, which the employees had previously worked with. More specifically, we thought that a visualization of the way Copenhagen’ culture users interact with Facebook content on culture, would be an interesting foundation for seeing relations in new ways.

At the sprint we tried out different ways of crafting a dataset that could underpin such a visualization. One of the prototypes comprised all posts and user interactions (such as likes, shares and comments) from the Facebook-pages of 550 cultural institutions in Copenhagen. We turned these interactions into a network of posts connected by shared user activity (shown to the left in the figure below). Each node represents a post and are colored by the page they were posted on (e.g. all pages from the music venue VEGA are orange). Nodes are connected if the same user has liked, commented or shared them and are stronger connected if this is the case for more users.

When interpreting the network we found that the cultural users on Facebook seems to be fall into the six clusters of interest written on top of the map. We thought of these as ’post-demographic’ segmentations of these users because they are build on interactions – not demographic variables.

A central part of the sprint was to use this map to ask questions and use quali-quantitative methods to zoom in on other interesting aspects of the network. The close connection between the jazz audience and the maker-space was, for instance, surprising and required attention. It is in such ’conversations’ with data that new visibilities can stimulate new modes of thinking and new forms of valuation.

For instance, the interaction with data made it clear that the employees of the Royal Theater sometimes had diverging interpretations of the cultural scene. Such differences became visible in mundane practices such a s pointing to places on the map, where they expected a specific cultural institution to appear.

TANT-Lab Publications on this sprint and the link between digital methods and valuation

Munk, AK, Jacomy M and Madsen AK (2017) Thinking through the data body. In: Mäkitalo Å, Nicewonger T and Elam M (eds.) Designs for experimentation and inquiry: Approaching learning and knowing in digital transformation.

Madsen AK (2015) Tracing Data – Paying Attention – Interpreting digital methods through valuation studies and Gibson’s theory of perception. In: Kornberger M, Justesen L, Madsen AK and Mouritsen J (eds) Making Things Valuable. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 257-277



The Twitter-thing

Parliaments could seem to be highly issue-agnostic places. All sorts of problems move in and out. But issues make cuts. Some parliamentarians become attached to specific issues.

What if the parliament was approached not as a representation device for the national population, but as an assembly of multiple and constantly transforming issue-oriented publics? What kinds of issues come to the fore, how long does this last, and who associate themselves with them?

The aim of the Twitter-thing is to trace the cuts issues make in a parliament. Each time a parliamentarian use a hashtag in a tweet, a link is created between that hashtag and the parliamentarian. The tool then generates a network visualization showing how parliamentarians group around topics and issues. The version shown in the screenshot below was developed in collaboration with the Danish newspaper Politiken, which featured the tool and accompanying articles on its website in 2016.


The resulting ‘issue publics’ – or things in the sense of a collective aroused by an issue – are also ‘data publics’ because they are not necessarily aware of themselves as publics. At the same time, it is possible to self-select membership of these publics by using a specific hashtag. This raises the question of what feedback loops are at work between visualizations and those being visualized. How might a tool like the Twitter-thing change (parliamentary) politics? More generally, the tool prompts us to think about the fate of issues in institutionalized democracy.

The Twitter-thing invites users to explore these questions by making the network available in an interactive format that makes it possible to zoom, search for particular politicians, parties or hashtags, narrow down the network, and follow it over time. It is part of ongoing efforts in digital methods to develop ‘datascape’ navigation tools.

Link to the interactive online tool:

Built with the Actor-Network NAvigator (ANna):


Birkbak A, Bornakke T and Papazu I. (2017) The Twitter-thing: Retooling the parliament into issue publics. Exhibition presented at the Data Publics Conference, Lancaster, Great Britain. 31/03/2017 – 02/04/2017.



Responses to Airbnb: public issues and emerging policies

The rise of the collaborative economy has attracted a lot of interest in recent years, not least in relation to travel and tourism, with companies like Airbnb and Uber in the rise. In 2016, TANTlab participated in the production of a report on the topic to the European Commission. The project was headed by the Tourism Research Unit (TRU) at Aalborg University Copenhagen and involved researching and writing a so-called ‘impulse paper,’ which provides academic input to the decision-making process in Brussels.

The thrust of the TANT-Lab contribution was to utilize digital methods to map issues related to the rise of services like Airbnb. Airbnb is the most prominent example of how a shift towards a collaborative economy is changing tourism. A key question for the EU commission is how cities respond to this development, how they monitor and regulate this new type of business, and how they cope with or attempt to benefit from the new developments. Recently, services like Airbnb and Uber have caused a range of controversies, also in Europe.

In the impulse paper, we explore the issues that have arisen in four major European tourist destinations: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Paris. We constructed data sets from Airbnb reviews, from Facebook, and from the news database Proquest. Based on the semantic analysis software Cortext, developed for research purposes by IFRIS and INRA in France, we constructed maps of the ‘issue spaces’ related to Airbnb and visualized how the four different cities were positioned differently in the maps.



The discussions and controversies in Paris and Amsterdam turned out to be associated more with tax issues, while Berlin focused more on land use regulation, and Barcelona was more strongly associated with an innovation agenda than the other cities. Each city is represented by its own cell in the visualization above, which uses a heat map technique in Cortext to show how each individual city is related to the overall issue space. The visualization was published as part of the 40-page report, which can be downloaded (link below) and consulted for a closer look at the visualization and the datasets and techniques behind it.


Dredge D, Gyimóthy S, Birkbak A, Elgaard Jensen T and Madsen AK (2016) The impact of regulatory approaches targeting collaborative economy in the tourism accommodation sector: Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Brussels: European Commission.




Engaging stakeholders in the implementation of a new school reform

How do you engage citizens and stakeholders in developing a crowdsourced policy for the future of the public school system in a municipality? This was the challenge facing local politicians in Aalborg, Northern Denmark, when they approached the TANT-Lab together with the consultancy AGORA. It had been decided in advance that the process would have to involve the social media platforms where citizens were already making the school their matter of concern – in this case Facebook – but it was unclear how a messy social media conversation could be fruitfully hardwired into more traditional citizen techniques for public engagement.


Anders Kristian Munk and Anders Koed Madsen present the first results of the hashtagged Facebook conversation between 1600 school stakeholders in Gigantium Aalborg on January 8th 2015.


Throughout the fall of 2014 we helped the municipality collect and organize interesting conversations from their Facebook page and gradually cultivated a practice of users hashtagging their contributions, according to the themes the discussion had a bearing on, as well as the types of stakeholders involved in it. A school teacher might for example hashtag a post about physical activity in the classroom #physicalactivity #classroom #teacher allowing us to identify emerging thematic clusters in the debate and emerging relations between particular stakeholder groups and themes.

In early 2015 the municipality invited 1600 teachers, pedagogues, managers, students and other staff to a day of collaborative work at one of the major sports arenas in Aalborg. Based on our experiences from the more open ended online conversations in the preceding months we devised a short catalogue of best practices when hashtagging Facebook inputs. Organised around 150 tables the participants were then asked to collectively author visionstatements for the future, post them and discuss them.

The result of this work was a database of approximately 1.000 vision statements hashtagged by their authors according to their themes. From the data we identified a number of overarching thematic clusters and central hashtags that were deemed necessary to include in a crowdsourced political vision for the schools. Based around this analysis the database with the full statements was made available and explorable to the 150 school leaders who would sit down and formulate the eventual 2-page policy document outlining the vision.

The process proved an interesting experience for the researchers involved. A major reform of the school system in Denmark had preceded the vision process in Aalborg, and the topic was still sparking intense controversy, both locally and nationally. One important feature of opening up a conversation on Facebook was that the roaming issue-public that had sparked around the national reform found a temporary forum in which to express itself. Another and somewhat contradictory effect of these controversies was the considerable political potential with which the conversation was charged, and the implications this had for those participating in the discussion. It was not without consequence to make your voice public under such circumstances. These and other reflections are currently the topic of several paper projects in the lab.

Playgrounding Techno-Anthropology

The Techno-Anthropological Laboratory (TANTLab) was founded in 2015 as a response to what we saw as a growing need to road test digital methods and its associated styles of analysis with non-university partners. Located as part of the Techno-Anthropology Research Group at the Department of Learning and Philosophy at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen, and thus part of thriving research and educational programmes in STS, we had been developing an interest in digital methods over a period of five years. These methods were relatively new to STS, where they had been developed under headings like issue mapping and digital controversy analysis (Marres & Rogers 2005, Venturini 2010). At the same time, STS more broadly had been asking itself how it means business and what kinds of interventions it wants to make. Our intuition was that digital methods in STS were now coming sufficiently of age to answer some of these questions more directly and in practice.

From the very beginning we decided to signpost this mission with two words: laboratory and playground. We called ourselves TANTlab and we adopted the tagline The Techno-Anthropological playground. In the following we will try to convey our sense of what it means to be a laboratory-playground.

Labs and serious play

We live in the age of labs. For someone taking an outside look at Academia these days, it quite possibly seems as if we’ve all contracted a contagious case of ‘laborangitis’. A new lab springs to life almost on a weekly basis (Smith et al. 2013, Ehn et al. 2014). On the relatively small campus of Aalborg University Copenhagen, we can think of at least 6 entities that call themselves labs, including a biotech lab, a food lab and a lab for physical prototypes.

Visitors coming to the TANTlab are not greeted by classic lab equipment. We have no petri dishes or microscopes, no animal models or bunsen burners, and no strangely looking blackboxed pieces of equipment. The physical space of TANTlab is a relatively conventional place – a room with screens, tables and chairs. You will find students mingling with researchers, and academics mingling with practitioners. You will hear people claiming to be makers and doers first, and thinkers or critics second, people claiming to be designing things, prototyping things, exploring and experimenting with things, although often ‘digital’ things that are only visible on screens and on large print-outs attached to the walls.

When you walk down the hallway, you will see the lab’s tagline in bold print on the glass wall: the techno-anthropological playground. It is only fair to ask if it is all fun and games?

Our response is that laboratories are indeed serious business. But so are playgrounds. Anybody who remembers being 5 or sending their kids off to kindergarden for the first time will know this instinctively. The transition from playing on your own, or under the close supervision of an adult, to holding your own against peers your own size, age and ferocity is a tough and challenging experience. And it takes place on playgrounds.

At the techno-anthropology lab we contribute to a young degree programme – only 6 years of age, in the middle of kindergarden, in fact – and we face all sorts of formative playground trials all the time. Our students face them in the college bar late at night, or at the family dinner, talking to that friend or relative who got into anthropology proper or decided to become a doctor: ’So, what exactly is a ”techno-anthropologist”’? They face it at their job interviews and when they negotiate a semester project with a company or a public agency.

Our researchers face it when they justify themselves to their colleagues in more established disciplines. But they also, and increasingly, face it when they strive to translate the societal relevance of their findings and methods. And, not least, our collaborators and future employers face it when they have to decide if we are worth playing with?

An age old tactic of the playground is of course to rely on your friends and your older siblings, if you have any. At the techno-anthropology lab we draw inspiration and support from fields like Science and Technology Studies, Digital Methods and Co-Design.

The trouble with siblings, however, is that they are not always there. Try walking into a job interview and rely on Science and Technology Studies to cover your back. It’s not bullet proof.

We – students, researchers, collaborators – need to work actively with how we are playgrounding techno-anthropology. That is the idea of the techno-anthropology lab.

The benefits of playgrounds

Playgrounding, or playground design, is actually a sprawling professional field now. In a recent paper on ”The developmental benefits of playgrounds” Frost et al. note that:

“Among the benefits of unstructured outdoor play (…) are the abilities to make decisions, work and play within a community of others, and to try out ideas and explore the play environment. Also highlighted are the benefits of pretend play, which has recently been shown to further the development of brain synaptic connections. (…) “If children lack opportunities to pretend, their long-term capacities related to critical thinking, problem solving, and social functioning, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, may be diminished.” (Frost et al. 2004)

That is surely something worth striving for! As a collateral bonus, the authors add that:

“Besides the social and academic benefits of play, research indicates that children with play opportunities are not likely to be depressed and hostile and generally do not exhibit excessive fear, rage, and worry.” (ibid.)

What is not to like?

The crux of the matter seems to be that good playgrounds have to be thought through. A little bit of playground history is instructive here. The idea originated in Germany in the mid 1800s but only spread at the beginning of the 20th century. Here is what president Roosevelt had to say about the matter in 1907:

“City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children. Older children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.”

You will notice that there is a classic dilemma lurking between the lines: How do you design something that is supposed to afford games, that are vigorous and likely to be against the law? Can you even design play?

Actually, we have quite a tradition for it in Denmark. The landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen pioneered the concept of the adventure playground, or junk playground, in the 1940’s. He wanted to create imaginative environments, building on the pragmatist ideals of John Dewey. As pointed out by Kozlovsky, in a paper from 2008, it was the imagination of the child, not the architect, what Dewey would have called inquiry, that was supposed to unfold. We believe that is a good ideal to adhere to for a playground.

Carl Theodor Sørensen later said that: “of all the things I have helped to realise, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.” (Kozlovsky 2008: 7)

It seems essential that playgrounding is about coming out. That it is about doing things with others, rather than on your own. At the lab we are trying to do that with our students, for instance, making sure not only that they work problem based – or simply with other people’s problems – in concrete collaborations every semester, but also that this work is sign posted on our website as part of building a techno-anthropological identity.

And of course, when you play, you get invited home on play dates. We see this as a great opportunity. One of the things we did was to assist the municipality of Aalborg in developing a Facebook driven vision for the future of their schools. Going to other people’s locations and work spheres means learning to play by other people’s rules while honing and fine tuning your own position. The learning potentials are enormous, we think.

Often times, and again this is conveniently equivalent to actual playgrounds, this learning involves the simultaneous development of our imagination and our motor skills. At the techno-anthropology lab we work with a range of cutting edge techniques for harvesting and analysing large amounts of digital online traces. That is an ongoing process of acquiring tools and skills, while constantly maintaining a critical and imaginative perspective on their potential applications. And that is best done in a lab setting. It is together with other people’s problems, so to speak, that the strengths and weaknesses of new methods can crystallize.

Styles of play

On playgrounds, including ours, certain styles of play tend to emerge over time. Sometimes these styles are clearly demarcated. Kids who play football would NEVER join the roleplay with their younger siblings. In our case, the emerging styles of play overlap both in terms of participants, tools and ideas. And yet we can distinguish at least four different genres.

Re-tooling ethnography 

This game explores how traditional ethnographic approaches such as interviews and participant observation can be enriched or challenged in conversation with analysis and visualization of large datasets, and vice versa.

Participatory Data Design

This game explores how digital methods can enter into collaboration with actors who are already substantially engaged in particular fields or issues. We engage the actors, whom we call issues experts, to understand the problem of the field, and together we explore. Instead of just looking at data together, we take inspiration from participatory design methods and pursue the idea that decisions about datafication, filtering, analysis and visualization are never ‘just’ technical but more often where the scope and limitations of the project is laid down and blackboxed. We work actively with the data sprint format to facilitate participation in the early stages of a data project.

Media publics and democracy

This game is about assisting democracy. It presumes that new media has a variety of consequences for democratic practice and the formation of public opinion, some of which are adverse. The game is about providing meaningful interventions. It necessitates an ongoing discussion about normative commitments to particular styles of public deliberation and the goods that result from such commitments.

Critical metrics in organizations

This is a valuation game. It is about providing alternative metrics to help organizations make the quality of their activities visible in new ways. It draws on valuation studies and the sociology of markets to assert that the perception of quality depends on the devices available to perform it. Under an evidence based policy paradigm, to be critical can arguably be done at a distance or in proximity with the business of doing evidence (cf. Latour 2005; Birkbak et al.). This game pursues the latter option and embeds with the organization to do evidence in new ways.

Snapshots from the playground

In the following texts we present a set of case examples that illustrate the diversity of play from our first two years of operation. We have selected them to provide a tangible idea of what our playgrounding looks like in practice – the collaborators we engage with, the digital tools we deploy, and the emerging styles of play.