Engaged Science, Technology and Policy Studies – The Twente Approach

by Stefan Kuhlmann, Kornelia Konrad, Lissa Roberts
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 http://www.utoday.nl/news/51771/bruggenbouwer_tussen_maatschappij_en_technologie

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.