Technology Assessment (TA) has taken on two meanings. One centers on evaluation of the properties of existing technology options – e.g., as you might choose between two printers. The other, and the one of interest here, has been classically defined by Joe Coates (1976) as:
A class of policy studies which systematically examine the effects on society that may occur when a technology is introduced, extended, or modified. It emphasizes those consequences that are unintended, indirect, or delayed. [italics added]
This is a form of impact assessment, along with Environmental Impact Assessment, Social Impact Assessment etc.
What TA is all about
Determining the “unintended, indirect, or delayed” societal impacts of a future technological innovation poses severe challenges. Determining cause and effect relationships in complex, interactive socio-technical systems is exceedingly difficult – even historically (i.e., looking back, no less looking forward) (Tarr, 1977). There is no hope of predicting the full and exact effects of changing technology; even less the manner in which those effects will interact among themselves and with other socio-economic forces.
Joe Coates (1971) offered an insightful illustration of the problematic nature of pinning down indirect effects. He nominally tracks the 1st through 6th order effects of introducing television on communities. The 1st order force of a riveting source of entertainment in the home leads to less mingling in local clubs; that leads to less neighborly interaction; isolation follows; then overdependence on spouses to meet one’s psychological needs; and finally, divorce rates escalate.
The aim in undertaking TA ought not to be prediction of exact effects and their timing, but rather identification of potentially important vectors of change. Identifying possible concerns (and benefits) can alert technology developers and overseers to potential issues – i.e., an early warning system. Going a step further to assess which of those are relatively likely can point to possible mitigation measures to reduce the chances of severe consequences.
Technology managers need TA to understand likely patterns of acceptance and resistance to an unfolding innovation. Whirlpool Corporation provided two classic examples of the costs of failing to perform TA and the benefits of technological foresight (Porter et al., 1991). In the 1970s, Whirlpool introduced the trash compactor without adequate impact assessment. Community concerns rose up about disposal of compacted waste; the media picked this up as an environmental cause; and communities began to ban the use of compactors because of perceived hazard to municipal incinerators. The product was pulled from the market. Studies led to ways to resolve the negative impacts and compactors reappeared. However, the costs of this interruption were excessive, and trash compactors never fully regained their market momentum. TA could have led to remedying the problems before they occurred. On the bright side, Whirlpool tracked developments in the chemical and textile industries (note that these are outside but relevant to their large appliance business) to identify “permanent press” fabrics prior to their commercialization. They acted quickly to generate washer and dryer permanent press cycles, beating their competition to market by about a year. This resulted in substantial gain in market share. It pays to monitor, forecast, and assess emerging technologies and their applications.
Technology Assessment came into prominence with the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Congressional hearings from 1969 led to public law #92-484 in 1972 establishing OTA, with its first assessment produced in 1974. OTA’s funding was stopped in 1995 by a Republican-led Congress. See Coates et al. (2001) for a succinct history of the evolution of the Future-oriented Technology Analyses (FTA) community, including notes about OTA. See http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/
for an electronic archive of the hundreds of technology assessments generated by OTA plus good historical notes.
Since the early 1990s, TA has become firmly established in Europe at various levels including at the EU level http://www.europarl.europa.eu/stoa/default_en.htm
and in most member nations, for a listing see http://www.eptanetwork.org/EPTA/
Forms of TA
As a result of criticism by various social scientists (e.g. Wynne 1975), as well as the growing theoretical base in the areas of Science, Technology and Society (STS) and the Public Understanding of Science (Rip 1999), as well as the maturation of the field itself, Technology Assessment has evolved over the 40 or so years of its existence. A number of variants to the classical, traditional or expert-based TA that was initially developed have now emerged, which are not fundamentally different from each other. These include:
- participative TA which emphasises the social nature of technology, that experts can not assess social reaction, and the need to involve the community in decision making (see Hennen 1999; Durant 1999; Joss and Bellucci 2002)
- interactive TA which seeks to influence the innovation process through early interactions between suppliers, users and parties affected using a Delphi-like procedure (see Grin and van de Graaf 1996; Grin et al. 1997)
- constructive TA which argues that the social issues need to be addressed by a co-creation process where social issues influence the design of the technology at a very early stage (see Rip et al. 1995; Schot and Rip 1996; Schot 2001; Genus and Coles 2005; Genus 2006), and
- real-time TA which seeks to integrate natural science and engineering investigations with social science and policy research from the outset (see Guston and Sarewitz 2002).
Key Literature in TAIAIA Key Citations: Technology Assessment
(Updated October 2009)
Coates, J.F. (1971), Technology Assessment: The Benefits…the Costs…the Consequences, The Futurist
, Vol. 5 (December), 225-231.
Coates, J.F. (1976), Technology Assessment – A Tool Kit, Chemtech
Coates, J.F. (1995), Anticipating the Environmental Effects of Technology – A Primer and Workbook
, Washington, DC: Kanawha Institute, for UNEP Industry and Environment.
Coates, V., Faroque, M., Klavins, R., Lapid, K., Linstone, H.A., Pistorius, C., and Porter, A.L. (2001), On The Future of Technological Forecasting, Technological Forecasting and Social Change
, Vol.67, No. 1, p. 1-17.
Durant, J. (1999), Participatory technology assessment and the democratic model of the public understanding of science. Science and Public Policy
Genus, A. (2006), Rethinking constructive technology assessment as democratic, reflective, discourse. Technological Forecasting and Social Change
Genus, A. and Coles, A. (2005), On constructive technology assessment and limitations on public participation in technology assessment. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management
Glenn, J.C. and Gordon, T.J. (eds.) (2009), Futures Research Methodology
Version 3.0., Millennium Project, WFUNA, Washington, DC; http://www.millennium-project.org/millennium/FRM-v3.html
Guston, D. and Sarewitz, D. (2002), Real-time technology assessment. Technology in Society
Grin, J. and van de Graaf, H. (1996), Technology Assessment as learning. Science, Technology and Human Values
21(1), p. 73-99.
Grin, J., van de Graaf, H., Hoppe, R. (1997), ‘Technology Assessment through Interaction. A Guide.’ (Rathenau Institute: The Hague).
Joss, S., and Bellucci, S. (eds.) (2002), Participatory Technology Assessment: European Perspectives
, London: The Athenaeum Press.
Hennen, L. (1999), Participatory technology assessment: a response to modernity? Science and Public Policy
Porter, A.L., Rossini, F.A., Carpenter, S.R. and Roper, A.T. (1980), A Guidebook for Technology Assessment and Impact Analysis
. New York: North Holland.
Porter, A.L., Roper, A.T., Mason, T.W., Rossini, F.A., and Banks, J. (1991), Forecasting and Management of Technology
, New York: John Wiley.
Rip, A. (1999), STS in Europe. Science, Technology and Society
Rip, A., Misa, T. and Schot, J. (eds) (1995), ‘Managing Technology in Society: the approach of Constructive Technology Assessment.’ (Pinter: London)
Schot, J. (2001), Towards new forms of participatory technology development, Technology Analysis and Strategic Management
Schot, J. and Rip, A. (1996), The past and future of constructive technology assessment. Technological Forecasting and Social Change
54 (2/3), 251-268.
Tarr, J.A. (ed.) (1977), Retrospective Technology Assessment – 1976
, San Francisco: The San Francisco Press.
Technology Futures Analysis Methods Working Group, [Alan L. Porter, Brad Ashton, Guenter Clar, Joseph F. Coates, Kerstin Cuhls, Scott W. Cunningham, Ken Ducatel, Patrick van der Duin, Luke Georghiou, Ted Gordon, Hal Linstone, Vincent Marchau, Gilda Massari, Ian Miles, Mary Mogee, Ahti Salo, Fabiana Scapolo, Ruud Smits, and Wil Thissen] (2004), Technology Futures Analysis: Toward Integration of the Field and New Methods, Technological Forecasting and Social Change
, Vol. 71, 287-303.
Wynne, B. (1975), The rhetoric of consensus politics: A critical review of technology assessment. Research Policy
Special thanks to Alan L. Porter and Frank Vanclay for providing initial content for this IAIA Wiki topic.