Can members of the public help redirect new technologies?

A new paper in Science from a group of social scientists updates the evidence on public deliberation. The models, including Citizens’ Juries, Citizens’ Assemblies and participatory budgeting processes, have been around for a while. I and Driverless Futures colleagues have been involved in various ways over the years. Some of the things published by Demos, where I used to work, Involve, where I am a trustee, and Nesta, are worth looking at. (See also this episode of Ed Miliband’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, featuring Sarah Allan from Involve). For an academic discussion, there’s a paper I wrote with Simon Lock and James Wilsdon in 2014. These experiments in democracy are particularly relevant for science and technology, where the assumption has in the past been that the questions are too difficult for citizens.

There are a few reasons this is getting attention again now. First, the growth of populism. As politicians lean on the ‘will of the people’ to justify their policies, it becomes more important to find out what people really think and give them ways to genuinely influence their own futures. Second, policymakers are struggling to understand and control the power of technology companies. Third, there have been some high-profile examples in which deliberation has helped break policy deadlocks. In Ireland, a Citizens’ Assembly that preceded the referendum on abortion provided an interesting model for how not to screw up democracy.

We have recently been part of the team running the UK’s public dialogue exercise on self-driving cars, the report for which is due out this Summer. We helped 150 citizens in five locations discuss the technology, its implications and options for its governance. Without revealing any spoilers, the clear conclusion was that members of the public can and should help set the direction for new technologies. Watch this space for more…

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