Co-Director of the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS)
Carl von Linde Associate Professor for Innovation Research at Technical University of Munich
Sebastian Pfotenhauer is the Co-Director of the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) and Carl von Linde Associate Professor for Innovation Research at Technical University of Munich. An MCTS and innovation policy scholar, he heads the Innovation, Society and Public Policy group co-located at MCTS and the TUM School of Management. Sebastian’s research interests include regional innovation cultures and strategies, the governance of emerging technologies, co-creation and responsible innovation practices, sustainable mobility transformations, and the critical political economy of innovation.
Before joining TU Munich, he was a research scientist and lecturer with the MIT Technology & Policy Program as well as a fellow at the Harvard Program on Science, Technology and Society. He has served as consultant on innovation policy to various regional and national governments, as well as for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France. His work has appeared, among other outlets, in Social Studies of Science, Research Policy, Nature, and Issues in Science and Technology. He holds an S.M. in Technology Policy from MIT, a PhD in Physics from the University of Jena, Germany, and has received post-doctoral training in MCTS and public policy at Harvard and MIT.
3 questions to Sebastian Pfotenhauer
What do you appreciate most about working at your university and/or your department?
Technical universities such as TUM have emerged as central actors for shaping the relationship between innovation and society. In many ways, they are the places where questions about how to connect new scientific knowledge and new technologies to society can be asked, and are asked, for the first time. My sense is that many technical universities, and perhaps TUM in particular, are increasingly recognizing this role as a key part of their mission. In a way, it affects every part of their mission, from the way they educate the next generation of engineers and leaders, to the way they steer and reflect on their own research and foster more open and co-creative innovation practices, all the way to their role as spaces of public debate and dialogue about innovation and the future of society.
TUM has recently taken a number of critical steps to put social responsibility at the heart of its technological mission, from novel educational programs such as our Master’s in “Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology,” to new institutional units such as the “Munich Center for Technology in Society” or the new Department of STS, all the way to the launch of an entire new school, the TUM School of Social Sciences and Technology! At the TUM School of Management, too, we have embraced responsible technology leadership as a core value and put in place additional incentive structures to emphasize the Sustainable Development Goals in our teaching and research. Students respond very positively to these steps – and they also demand them. This is why it’s so important to be ahead of this trend. From conversations with EuroTech colleagues I know that TUM’s steps are closely watched, both from within Europe and beyond.
About which topic could you talk for hours?
At the moment, much of my research and teaching is driven by the question “What is good innovation?” The past 5 years have shown that we don’t just need more innovation – above all, what we need is better innovation. I believe we are witnessing an ongoing paradigm shift in the innovation landscape that recognizes that innovation can also have downsides, and that we need to foster a more inclusive and realistic understanding of what kind of innovation we want in our lives. That is, which types of innovation are actually socially desirable, and how can we shape innovation in ways that reflect the specific social, cultural, and political commitments within diverse societies. Innovation always produces winners and losers — as do other forms of social change. Caring about “good innovation” rather than just innovation recognizes that innovation is also social-political process, not just an techno-economic one. It also recognizes that a blind obsession with more innovation as the only possible answer might crowd out other possible solutions to social problems, or important social issues that might not require innovation to fix them.
We need to become better at anticipating and addressing the social consequences of innovation. This true for research and innovation at institutions like TUM, but it’s particularly true for early-stage start-ups, where there is a lot of pressure to scale very rapidly. Second, we need to recognize that innovation is always a redistributive social and political process, not just a techno-economic one. Questions about precarious employment of an entirely new class of Uber drivers, or about potential genetic or digital discrimination, are deeply political. When we accept the political nature of these questions, the logical consequence is that those who are affected by them should have a say in it – for example by democratizing innovation. Third, we need to watch out for macro-effects in what some have called a ‘new gilded age.’ This year, we had two billionaires fly to space, with Jeff Bezos thanking all Amazon employees and customers for making it possible. What does this say about the effects of innovation?
What one thing makes you most proud?
Well, proud is perhaps not the right word, but I am quite delighted that the first European Horizon 2020 project that included (then) all EuroTech universities was a social science project called SCALINGS – short for “Scaling up co-creation: Avenues and limits for integrating society in science and innovation” – which I had the pleasure of coordinating. The term “co-creation” refers to the practice of opening up innovation processes to bring together diverse actors for mutual beneficial innovation outcomes, for example by engaging publics and end-users “upstream” in the R&D process. In SCALINGS, we studied the use of three novel co-creation instruments (public procurement of innovation, living labs, and co-creation facilities) in three technology (domains robotics, autonomous vehicles, and urban energy systems) across 10 countries. SCALINGS was a truly interdisciplinary project that brought together social scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and industry partners and worked closely with existing engineering projects and consortia from across Europe. I am particularly happy that some of the key insights from SCALINGS are now picked up in follow-up large-scale projects, including the EuroTeQ educational network to educate the responsible engineers of the future, and the Munich Cluster for the Future of Mobility in Metropolitan Regions (MCube).