Our current age is full of challenges and uncertainties: climate change, global migration, and the continuous digitalization of life are core parts of today’s uncertainties. Most of these uncertainties link technological advances to societal transitions, and thus, they result in socio-technical challenges.

The networked and complex nature of socio-technical challenges makes it impossible to adequately address them through the perspective of one discipline, field of expertise, or profession. To manage them, we need innovative approaches and input from all four legs of what we call ‘the quadruple helix’: the government, civil society, companies, and research institutes.

Facilitating the dialogue among quadruple helix stakeholders is at the core of the work at Digicampus. In this blogpost, we will present a new, additional approach to quadruple helix collaboration based on our research. This approach bridges dilemma-driven design and controversy research in the context of socio-technical challenges. In our next, blogpost, we will highlight the workshop protocol that bridges dilemma-driven design and controversy research.

Why work with dilemmas and controversies?

We tend to avoid conflict and tension, as we mostly associate them with negative experiences. The credo is often that it is better to focus on what binds us, rather than what divides us. However, we see great constructive potential in working with conflict-inspired phenomena, such as dilemmas and controversies, and will explain below what makes them appealing in multi-stakeholder collaborations.

What’s common to both dilemmas and controversies is the concept of conflict (or tension). In the case of personal dilemmas, the conflict is intra-personal (within an individual). There are also conflicts between people or stakeholders, which are inter-personal or inter-stakeholder dilemmas. Finally, at the level of systems and society, we face controversies that are often an escalation of conflicts at various levels. When faced with conflicts, we may feel paralyzed. We know that they entail making difficult choices and accepting trade-offs without being certain of their consequences. As a result, we tend to avoid conflicts.

Although often perceived as a source of impasse, we argue that conflicts can be constructive: they help to reflect on technical, social and ethical aspects of socio-technical challenges. Dilemmas surface concerns that matter to individuals and stakeholders and, similarly, controversies surface concerns that matter in society. Understanding these concepts can therefore help to open spaces for diverse viewpoints and perspectives. They make us reflect on the futures ahead of us and the values we want to preserve. For example, if we allowed pervasive surveillance from corporations and governments, would we end up living in a world where humans do not have secrets anymore? How would that impact personal interactions? Or our jobs? We are inspired by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s words (from his book Liquid modernity (2000)):“Real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe in the same things like you”. Although we often feel that dilemmas and controversies separate us, when we embrace them, they can help us to identify and shape responsible futures. What if, instead of being paralyzed by dilemmas and controversies, we embrace and use them as a source of creativity to produce new ideas, while engaging in a deeper reflection on what is going on around us?

Dilemmas and controversies explained

Theoretical concepts can be challenging to define. In our work, we approach dilemmas from a lived-experience perspective and define them as the realization that two options exist that cannot be achieved simultaneously. For instance, in the context of recent societal debates on monitoring the spread of Covid-19, one may experience the dilemma: I want to to protect my health (which implies to download ‘Coronamelder’, the COVID-19 contact-tracing app) vs. I want to protect my privacy (which implies not to download the app due to the fear of privacy breaches). Such dilemmas are sometimes personal and they remain that way. Other times, they ‘scale up’ and infuse controversies in society. Controversies arise in complex socio-technical contexts that involve multiple stakeholders and societal issues that are too important to be ignored. They are public discussions about something that multiple stakeholders disagree about – it is where perspectives clash and value tensions emerge. Coming back to the recent debate about CoronaMelder: this is controversial because it prompts debates around societal values such as public health, privacy, autonomy, and freedom. This debate involves scientists, policymakers, companies, and citizens, prioritizing or advocating for certain values over others. The stakes are high, and overcoming this global crisis calls for collaboration. 

How can conflict be contructive to your project?

In our research projects (responsiblecities and designwithdilemmas), we believe in, and are inspired by, the potential of conflicts. Research shows that conflicts help to think critically about issues at stake. And at the same time, they also help us to think about futures that we would not acknowledge without embracing conflicts. As part of our work, we have developed an approach to unpack and map the ‘network of conflicts’ that make up controversies. Our approach is not only a collaborative and analytical mapping exercise: we also use the network of conflicts to stimulate collaborative creativity and ethical reflection on relevant societal issues.

At Digicampus, this approach will help to look at a situation or question from different perspectives and to start the real dialogue concerning the issue at hand. This controversy workshop broadens and deepens the view of the societal issue that is discussed. It does so because you explore the personal, organizational and societal needs at stake, and look at instances where they align or contradict one another. This extended insight allows for a more holistic perspective of the issue, and ultimately, improved decision making by including multiple perspectives. As this workshop takes place in a setting involving different interest groups, it supports quadruple helix collaboration.

Do you want to learn more about how to apply these ideas in a workshop setting? Read our follow-up blog ‘A conflict-inspired approach in a full-day workshop package.’

Who are we and why this blog?

We are a team of researchers from the University of Twente and we are interested in helping multi-stakeholder collaboration through design. Jointly, we have developed the ‘network of conflicts’ approach, that supports the identification of value tensions within and among stakeholder groups.  Our work is both value- and conflict-driven: we are inspired, rather than hindered, by conflicts. The ‘network of conflicts’, which we help stakeholders collaboratively build in a workshop setting, allows participants to gain a deeper understanding of the context in which they operate. It offers opportunities to acknowledge and work with the complexity of multiple perspectives in a collaborative setting.

Anouk Geenen
Deger Ozkaramanli
Julieta Matos Castano