Working with and for regions: on difference

CWTS, Leiden University
Science Shop Bonn
Maastricht University

The European Commission’s attempts to reconcile science (‘in here’) with society (‘out there’) have created a ground swell of democratisation in European research policymaking. Accompanying this evolution is the reformulation of the action plan ‘Science and Society’ to ‘Science in Society’ in 2007, which later became ‘Science with and for Society’ (SwafS) under Horizon 2020, where participation and inclusion assume central stage as mechanisms for aligning scientific practice with ‘the needs of the real world out there’1. The underlying assumption is that involving diverse sets of actors in research processes automatically ensures societal relevance and desirability of research outcomes. However, as participatory practices in research become further grounded, there are loud signals from the SwafS ecosystem network of Super_MoRRI that projects experience difficulties with regards to involving diverse stakeholders. This gives rise to an introspective question: how can participation and inclusion be achieved in the context of such diverse stakeholders?

Without differences (in viewpoints, capabilities or objectives etc.) between stakeholders, there would be no benefit of including new participants. Without differences (even among one type of actor, e.g. among scientists or among scientific disciplines, there would be limited opportunities to learn from each other, or benefit from each other’s ways.  In this respect, differences should be celebrated, actively searched for and invited to participate. On the other hand, differences can also make it more difficult to learn from each other, e.g. in case of cognitive and language differences which make it difficult to communicate. Translations are therefore essential in engagements with diverse stakeholders.

The following reflections are based on experiences that were collected through SwafS ecosystem activities of the Super_MoRRI project. This was done in collaboration with three other projects funded under the Science with and for Society programme, namely CHERRIES, RRI2SCALE and TeRRIFICA. The common denominator of these is their regional focus involving various European ‘regions’ in their research and innovation activities and their attempts to co-create regional responsible research and innovation ecosystems. The reflections focus on the difficulties that emerged in the structuring of spaces (i.e. regions, territories, networks, levels), as well as organisational and translational issues that arose by involving diverse stakeholders that were discussed in joint reflection activities2.

Diversity of ‘regions’

The projects’ engagements ‘in regions’ surfaced specific differences in what project partners understand as ‘the region’ and how it manifests in the projects’ activities. They became constructed through project activities, local actors, the networks they mobilised, or geographies addressed, leading to translational issues that surfaced between the partners involved whilst trying to speak about ‘the same thing’. The following paragraphs illustrate the many ways in which regions manifested in the three projects introduced.

In RRI2SCALE, engaging regions manifested differently depending on the activities the project partners were pursuing. The project designed a large-scale survey at the start of the project addressing thousands of citizens within the geographical boundaries of Galicia, Kriti, Overijssel and Vestland. The responses drew a specific version of ‘the region’ concerned with certain issues that manifested differently compared to the later research process, when people from regional governments representing ‘the region’ were involved to identify, define, and prioritise dilemmas on themes such as smart city, transport and energy policies in the context of responsibility in regional research and innovation activities. The identified dilemmas (with conflicting differences in interest and the benefits springing from innovation) and techno-moral scenarios for the future were translated to formats that could be used to test them using social media, and later be translated to cards that can be played in a “scenario game” where a few players represent different stakeholders in the region, gamifying the translations across regional actors in this policy-feeding process.

There are also geopolitical complexities in defining regions: In the case of Vestland, ‘region’ is defined as the county Vestland, located on the Western coast of Norway and was created as an administrative unit in January 2020, when the two former counties of Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane merged. In the case of Overijssel (Netherlands) ‘region’ refers to the province or the provincial Government. Overijssel consists of two sub-regions. People living in the sub-region with the largest city, Enschede, would probably say that Twente is the name of the region they live in. This sub-region is where most of the engagement takes place, since the University of Twente established DesignLab and TopFit Citizenlab to engage and interact which citizens. What further complicates defining the region is that the Smart Specialisation Strategy East Netherlands  (European Commission’s regional innovation policy framework), is jointly developed with the neighbouring Province of Gelderland, merging conceptions of regions together through this work.

Similarly, the region of Örebro, Sweden, manifested differently in CHERRIES for different partners. It is a project designed to promote responsible healthcare ecosystems in different European regions. Although a joint mapping exercise of the region’s technoscientific strengths, policies and stakeholders aimed at creating common ground for speaking about and collaborating with and for the local healthcare system, the local partners’ understanding of their region did not resonate with the mappings produced. For them, the scale was too grand and too distant from the way they understand Örebro region: instead of common problems, relations between organisations and people in the municipalities of Karlskoga, Degerfors and Laxå, the project’s methodological infrastructure mapped the region on the basis of European Commission’s ‘Smart Specialisation Strategy’ that focuses on the technoscientific strengths and economic potential of regions. Eventually, the researchers and local practitioners tried to, but did not manage to talk about ‘the same Örebro’ because of topological differences in understanding ‘the region’ and the way it was constructed in the project.

Finally, in TeRRIFICA, the organisation of regions was done as ‘territories’ that should be understood broadly and may be defined by any particular area characterised by any shared cultural, environmental or economic ties. Addressing climate change adaptation in 6 European regions, the project developed an online-tool that lets anyone contribute to mapping crowd data such as air quality and through it, collectively, shape not only a version of the ‘territory’, but also the carry the problems to address into the project. The regions have similar geographical conditions, for example in terms of settlement structure or climatic peculiarities. In each region, co-creation teams were formed with stakeholders from the Quadruple Helix and relatively narrow targets for the joint work were initially set. TeRRIFICA has been pursuing a co-creative bottom-up multi-stakeholder approach based on dialogue, visualizing experiences and observing and reflecting the concerns of all actors involved and as such enabled participation in the development of concrete measures as well as initiating research and contributing to regional policy strategies.

These examples show that depending on the actors engaged in the projects’ activities, entirely different versions of the regions became represented in the form of conversations, mappings, websites, or questionnaires that reflect diverse local specificities and (potentially) imply different decisions for the project and the interventions planned. This irreversibly binds the project’s process, objectives, and strategies to the actors it mobilises regionally.

As such, the regions that projects engage are always simplified ‘slices’ of the actual complexity. This carries certain hazards if the goal is to allow regional stakeholders to partake in research processes. For example can different societal groups be or feel excluded depending on geographical boundaries: rural parts may not benefit from regional smart city initiatives, and may be more difficult to involve in working with scientists and innovators at universities’ Living Labs in the main cities.

This plurality of what regions mean in the projects and how they are represented has deep implications for the planning and carrying out of such ‘regional research projects’, as they are not (only) bound geographically and topically. Rather, regions are carried into the project through the actors involved and the methodological infrastructures3 on which the projects are based.

Regional research and innovation strategies

Attempts to open up science to diverse sets of actors generally challenges the research projects’ infrastructures in their catering to the complexity of diversity: local specificities and tacit knowledge cannot easily be translated into scientifically compatible packages of codified knowledge, forcing projects’ actors onto an epistemic tightrope balancing the stabilities of scientific practice with the fluidities of the local.

The table below illustrates some of these differences. It derives from activities within the RRI2SCALE project’s interactions with their regional partners.

Tacit Knowledge (regions) Partners learn from their own actions and those from others; learning by doing; by using and interacting Citizens debating dilemmas; engagement in discussions Discussions on possible dilemmas, scenarios Informal institutional change
Codified Knowledge (methodological infrastructure) Using the same questions and methodology, knowledge can be compared among regions Learn from statistics on citizen needs; reading results from surveys and consultations Large scale citizen surveys; validation of scenarios; project evaluation Formal institutional change


The basic assumption in this observation is that science is to open up without modifying the research system, assuming that non-scientific actors may, automatically, be able to partake in scientific processes. However, such science system rigidity renders participation difficult, as Wouter van de Klippe describes in the context of a Super_MoRRI case study on research funding and the inclusion of civil-society organisations.

When applying research results in innovation it is easier to see the benefits and possibilities to involve the tacit knowledge of citizens in co-designing even better/more relevant local solutions/applications for transformative change. Smart cities, energy and transport as fields of application chosen by RRI2SCALE are in this respect closer to daily life where the fluidities of the local may give rise to niches that may inspire others and may translate into promising new standards. Besides translation between the different languages of actors, languages of different regions, and the languages of different research and innovation fields (e.g. smart city, energy or transport), scenario development in RRI2SCALE also translated from the past to the future calls for translation into new narratives and indicators.

In TeRRIFICA, a ‘research-serves-needs’ approach lowered barriers for diverse participation in the development of adapted solutions and support (informal) institutional change without questioning ‘good scientific practice’. Instrumental for achieving this was the online tool that let anyone contribute local problems for the project to take up and address.

Whether and how the regional SwafS projects (and their plans) accommodate for difference between the actors involved, or more generally, whether and how the methodological infrastructures of (regional) research projects actually accommodate the complexity of ‘regions’ often remains unasked. Additionally, the plurality of region’s manifestations (in the SwafS-projects) comes along with an artificial entangling of researchers and local actors (in European research projects). This creates a need to clarifying not only the project’s commitments, but also the European Commission’s strategies for reconciling science and society: is the projects’ goal for regional research to attend to local specificity to better understand and act on the complexity that is often simply bracketed as ‘society’, or is the goal the alignment of views and creation of common worlds across otherwise heterogeneous actors?

Asking these questions and incorporating their answers into the design of (regional) research projects can be a step towards creating the right conditions for participation – an aspect that was highlighted as one of the key challenges for actual participation by DG Regio’s Director-General Marc Lemaître during the launch of a new ‘competence centre on participatory and deliberative democracy’ by the European Commission. Arguably however, the preceding question is how far the research and innovation system itself is ready for democracy and inclusion. Traditional ideas on research excellence that mainly value codified knowledge may neither be capable to creating the right conditions for participation or needs-oriented innovation, nor open to further democratisation.

Proactive addressing of regional differences in the actual and perceived aspects of (regional) research and innovation, accommodating diversity by design, and addressing (mis)translations in the methodological infrastructures of these projects are therefore essential aspects of doing regional research and innovation responsibly: with and for society.


Accompanying is also the decentralized innovation policy from EU Regional policy that promotes the involvement of a wider variety of stakeholders, beyond science-industry linkages.

Specifically, these include (a) bimonthly reflections collected between a group of researchers actively involved in Science with and for Society 14 work programme, as well as (b) other bimonthly sessions inviting the whole of the SwafS ecosystem partners.

Methodological infrastructures refer to “the basic operational elements of method: from technical definitions, systems of classification, indicators, and the procedures for data collection, to wider processes of standardization and analysis” – see Krätli, Saverio, Brigitte Kaufmann, Hassan Roba, Pierre Hiernaux, Wenjun Li, Marcos Easdale, and Christian Hülsebusch (2015). A House Full of Trap Doors: Identifying barriers to resilient drylands in the toolbox of pastoral development. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

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