- 4 min read

Stakeholder engagement in business and ethics research:

Learning from failures

Tsjalling Swierstra, who holds a chair in philosophy at FASoS, started delving into the world of so-called public-private partnerships because he was interested in investigating the application of the Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI) concept in practice. On these premises, Swierstra decided to participate as field philosopher in two RRI projects with different businesses. During the MPCER workshop he described his experience and how the projects failed.

RRI advocates stakeholder participation in innovation projects, following the argument that it creates a win-win situation. On the one hand, proponents argue, RRI allows the innovator to optimise or fine-tune the new product or service by engaging different stakeholders in the design and development process. On the other, engaging stakeholders turns innovation into a democratic process. 

As a field philosopher, he and his collaborator Merel Noorman were eager to introduce the aspect of ethics into Research & Innovation, while observing RRI in practice. Swierstra had high expectations: he aimed at making ethical choices explicit in the development process. By following and studying the dialogue between stakeholders, he hoped to improve his grasp of collaborative innovation processes. Eventually, he aimed to increase the knowledge of how deliberative processes can contribute to articulate different ethical positions earlier in the innovation process, and thus guide the development process in a more open and transparent way. However, both projects failed, for different reasons.


Define your field of action

In the first case, which concerned a data-sharing platform nicknamed “Data Share”, Swierstra became aware of the different pace of action between philosophers, who wanted to take time to analyse and reflect on processes, and the start-up under study, which was continuously updating prototypes. “We were always thinking about last week’s prototype,” the philosophers noticed. Moreover, Swierstra pointed out, it simply takes time to understand what is happening or what is going wrong. Gradually, he and his research team realised that they did not have the mandate to carry out the project in the way they wished either. 

Initially, Data Share had said that they aimed at integrating ethical considerations in their data-sharing platform. The philosophers suggested to embrace transparency and follow a democratic process by bringing different types of stakeholders together. Data Share said to be definitely interested in engaging stakeholders, yet, as it turned out, more as potential customers. The data sharing platform wanted to give the impression to each potential customer that the platform was tailor made for their specific needs. They were open to bringing together clients from one industry sector, but felt that that bringing together potential customers from different sectors was simply a bad idea: “This would be detrimental to the platform’s image.” 

According to Swierstra, the lesson from this case was that the start-up and the philosophers spoke different languages (customers versus citizens), and applied different logics (market research versus democratisation). Moreover, start-ups run a high risk of going broke, he added. Which is what happened; exit case 1.


Engagement fatigue

The second case described how an energy network operator, nicknamed “Current”, tried to apply RRI to enhance democratic legitimacy for their digital (smart) technologies. Initially Swierstra and his team felt more comfortable with this project. They could do desk research, remain theorists, and develop and propose a normative framework for democratic digitalisation. However, Current insisted on stakeholder participation and even expected the researchers to arrange this! For Current, however, the goal was not so much to find out and take into account their stakeholders’ opinions, but rather to start a process of network building and awareness raising with them. The researchers had not expected to be responsible for the organisation of exchanges with stakeholders. Moreover, here the philosophers encountered a “participation fatigue” among potential stakeholders. Only academics showed up in workshops, which brought few new insights the philosophers had not heard before. The researchers started pondering about the pros and cons of direct democracy, and thinking that maybe representational democracy wasn’t as bad as they had assumed. Last but not least, the entire project came to an abrupt end, when the CEO of Current was suddenly replaced by one less eager to work with philosophers.


Dilemmas in stakeholder engagement

Besides explaining more in-depth some specific reasons for the failures in the two cases, Swierstra discussed general dilemmas in engaging with stakeholders, such as balancing theoretical distance and practical engagement, or respecting the researchers’ normative agenda while helping partners to realise the difference with their own normative agenda. The discussion with the audience revealed many other interesting dilemmas and insights and highlighted in what way Community-Engaged Research differs from commissioned research or private-public collaborations: Servicing the commissioner should be sharply distinguished from serving society. 

On an even more fundamental level, questions were raised regarding tensions between democratisation aims and capitalist interests. Yet, it is also true that only through researchers’ engagement in public-private partnerships, that mechanisms as discussed above could be discovered.


Lessons learned

Next to dilemmas – which probably will remain – the workshop helped to draw practical or concrete lessons for the MPCER community:

  • Researchers should realise that involving stakeholders is a complex and time-consuming endeavour.  
  • Be aware of different motivations and interests between academics and business partners. 
  • Collaborations with partners involve negotiations, for which researchers are often not prepared. Before entering into a partnership with a private company, be sure that interests are either aligned, or at least that differences are made clear. Make a contract that stipulates the division of tasks and responsibilities. 
  • As researchers we could learn at least as much from each other’s failures as from each other’s successes. 

The audience applauded Swierstra’s courage to talk about failures, because his testimonial made clear that the fear to discuss and address shortcomings is often the reason for many systemic dysfunctions remain covert.

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