Technology assessment in times of multiple crises – more important than ever. A conference report

On 17 October 2022, members of parliament and scientists met for the international EPTA conference in Berlin to discuss the political and social handling of disruptions and the role of TA for parliament.

Alma Kolleck | 25. Oktober 2022

EPTA-Konferenz 22: Kai Gehring eröffnet (Mitte) Marc Elsberg (links) Jacob Prehn (rechts) TAB/Konstantin Börner
The Committee Chair Kai Gehring (in the centre) opening the conference.
EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Armin Grunwald bei seiner Einführung TAB/Konstantin Börner
Prof. Grunwald introducing the conference topic.

The EPTA conference, which took place on 17 October 2022 in the German Bundestag, was entitled "Disruption in society - TA to the rescue?". EPTA (European Parliamentary Technology Assessment) stands for the European network of 27 parliamentary technology assessment institutions, which also includes members from outside Europe, such as the USA, Korea, Japan, Chile and Argentina. More than 150 members of parliament and scientists from Germany and 16 other countries took part. It was opened by Kai Gehring, chairman of the German Bundestag's Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment, who said that technology assessment (TA) is more important than ever. The COVID pandemic, the climate crisis, and the energy sovereignty crisis brought this home. In his welcome address, the head of the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB), Prof. Dr. Armin Grunwald, emphasized how much the understanding of the concept of disruption has changed. Just a few years ago, the focus of disruptions was primarily on the innovative moment, for example in the case of disruptive technologies. In contrast, the negative side of disruptions, such as floods and droughts, predominates in today's perception. The view of the future has also changed: The general assumption that tomorrow's world will remain largely the same as today's, only perhaps a little better, is now outdated. The idea of the future is now essentially linked to threats. Against this background, TA could, in the best case, support parliaments in shaping society and the future for a good, livable Anthropocene.

EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Marc Elsberg während seiner Keynote TAB/Konstantin Börner
"We shape our world, then it shapes us". Marc Elsberg

In his keynote speech, bestselling author Marc Elsberg gave a sample of his work and took the audience on a journey through the plot of his novel "Blackout - Tomorrow will be to late", in which the characters  experience and live through an almost Europe-wide power blackout. The author presented the social consequences of a two-week blackout chronologically and drew a picture of mutually influencing collapses of various social subsystems. Elsberg referred to a quote by Winston Churchill, who stated that we first design our buildings and then, in turn, they shape us as users. It is similar with regard to the planet Earth, which mankind has changed so massively that the man-made planetary changes, for example in the climate or biodiversity, now have an effect on us as a human species.

EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Petra Jonvallen und Michael Nentwich TAB/Konstantin Börner
Dr. Petra Jonvallen and Dr. Michael Nentwich
Gerhard Deimek, Abgeordneter für den österreischen Nationalrat TAB/Konstantin Börner
Gerhard Deimek, member of the Austrian National Council
EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Speaker der Session Kritische Infrastrukturen -wie verhinderen wir Disruptionen-2. vlnr. Nentwich, Krieger-Lamina, Liekkilä, Uhl TAB/Konstantin Börner
Dr. Michael, Nentwich, Jaro Krieger-Lamina, Katri Liekkilä and André Uhl (from left to right)

In the first expert panel on the topic of "Critical infrastructures - how do we prevent disruptions?" the panelists Dr. Petra Jonvallen from the Swedish Riksdag, Jaro Krieger-Lamina from the ITA in Vienna, Katri Liekkilä from the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) and Gerhard Deimek, Member of the Austrian National Council, discussed how elementary supply services can be protected from sudden failures and disruptions. The experts emphasized that the networking and interdependencies of critical systems increase the range of a potential failure. For example, the (necessary) transformation of the transportation infrastructure toward sustainable electromobility and the energy supply toward non-fossil energy sources would further increase the dependence on reliable power grids. Risk management and resilience promotion must therefore go hand in hand. When designing grids, it makes sense to take measures that promote resilience and to include risk management in planning from the very beginning. Local and national risk management strategies need to be constantly revised and adapted to changing threats. However, resilience promotion is not exclusively an infrastructural or material task, but also consists to a large extent in ensuring the continuity of critical services and, related to this, in cooperative crisis preparedness between private and public sectors, as well as in preparing democratic publics for possible disruptive events. Citizens who are prepared for disruptions and can provide for themselves for three days in the event of a blackout, for example, will react differently to disruptive events than completely unprepared publics. In addition to power supply, he said, the water cycle and possible consequences of extreme weather events such as droughts or heavy rains and floods also need to be considered. The debate also revealed that different countries and regions need to find their own, possibly very different, responses to their respective threat situations, reflecting and targeting their various geographic, climatic, infrastructural, social and political strengths and weaknesses. Resilience of society, politics and the economy can also be fostered by better forecasting of crises. To this end, André Uhl from the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) presented TAB's "Crisis Radar" project. It examines how a crisis radar would have to be designed and institutionally anchored to enable early crisis and risk management. Four pillars for the development of a crisis radar were identified: learning from early warning systems (e.g., with a view to the pandemic experience), the anticipatory analysis of potentially crisis-like dangers in individual societal subsystems, the institutional integration of early detection instruments, and the promotion of resilience in the context of societal transformation processes.

EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Prof. Dr. Cedric Ryngaert, Maya Brehm, Linda Kohl (vlnr.) TAB/Konstantin Börner
Dr. Cedric Ryngaert, Maya Brehm, und Linda Kohl (from left to right)
Prof. Chris Jencks and Dr. Frank Sauer TAB/Konstantin Börner
Prof. Chris Jencks and Dr. Frank Sauer

In the second expert panel, moderated by Linda Kool (Rathenau Instituut, The Hague), panelists Maya Brehm from the International Committee of the Red Cross (Switzerland), Prof. Chris Jenks from the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Prof. Dr. Cedric Ryngaert from the University of Utrecht, and Dr. Frank Sauer from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich discussed the topic of "Autonomous Weapon Systems - Humans in the Crosshairs of the Machine". The first topic was how experts define autonomous weapon systems (AWS). A consensus emerged that AWS are characterized by their ability to identify and attack targets without the need for human intervention. Actually, it was concluded, autonomy in weapon systems would be a more apt description, since the functionality of autonomous target selection and engagement could be incorporated into very different types of weapons, from missile defense systems to antipersonnel weapons or drone swarms. Dangers posed by AWS include legal and ethical accountability, the risk of reifying people in armed conflict, global forms of conflict management, and the risk of escalation in armed conflict. Human rights regulation to date does not appear to be a sufficient response to the challenges of AWS, such as the protection of civilians and legal and social responsibilities. To fill this gap, Germany could first define a national regulation on AWS and use this as a basis to reach agreements on AWS with European and international partners as well as within NATO. In doing so, Germany could build up its own military capabilities and at the same time seek AWS regulations without necessarily losing defense capability. Overall, the discourse and the further course of action should be less guided by unrealistic scenarios, such as the killer robots often used as an illustration; instead, a realistic look should be taken at what autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems are currently capable of in order to take steps toward control and regulation on this basis.

Dr. Somidh Saha, Dr. Helene Limen, Dr. Palle Madsen TAB/Konstantin Börner
Dr. Somidh Saha, Dr. Helene Limen und Dr. Palle Madsen (from left to right)
Dr. Helene Limen, Dr. Palle Madsen, Prof. Pierre Ibisch, Dr. Christoph Kehl TAB/Konstantin Börner
Dr. Helene Limén, Dr. Palle Madsen und Prof. Dr. Pierre Ibisch (from left to right)

"Nature under pressure - humans as a disruptive force" was the topic of the third expert panel with Prof. Dr. Pierre Ibisch from the University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde, Dr. Palle Madsen from the Danish research institute InNovaSilva ApS and Dr. Somidh Saha from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, moderated by Dr. Helene Limén (Baltic Waters 2030, Stockholm). In this thematic panel, humanity itself was seen as the disruptive force that is changing global ecosystems for the worse in the Anthropocene through climate change and widespread biodiversity reduction, causing massive and abrupt disruptions in natural structures that have evolved over long periods of time. This is also reflected in the fact that there are few forests left in the world that have not been shaped and altered by human influence. These largely untouched vegetation areas, known as primary forests, hardly exist any more in Europe; they are most frequently found in South, Central and North America as well as Siberia. On the one hand, it was stated that there is an urgent need for (re)forestation and comprehensive protection of existing forests, as they perform important functions in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss due to the storage of carbon dioxide, their important role in the natural water balance and their cooling effects, and as habitats for numerous species. At the same time, however, wood is becoming increasingly important as a sustainable raw material for the construction industry, for example, so that the question arises as to what extent forests can or should be made "anthropocene-proof" through economic use or through the targeted planting of new tree species that are supposedly better able to withstand climate change: Should humans with their economic needs or the forest ecosystem be the focus of forest policy and forestry measures? The vulnerability of forests is shown not only by current experiences with forest fires, wind breakage and massive pest infestations, but also by the difficulties of rebuilding and diversifying forests in a targeted manner. Often, deforestation or destruction cannot simply be reversed, especially since the nutrients formerly present have escaped from the soil due to the loss of vegetation. The discussion revealed differences regarding who the forest "has to serve" and what measures are permissible for its use and adaptation to future climates. However, there was unanimity in the desire to strengthen knowledge about the forest and its ecosystems in science as well as in politics and the public, among other things through intensified research and more diverse participation.

Dr. Holger Becker, (SPD), Lars Rohwer (CDU/CSU), Laura Kraft (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Prof. Dr. Stephan Seiter (FDP), Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Michael Kaufmann (AfD), Ralph Lenkert  (v.r.n.l.) TAB/Konstantin Börner
Abschlusspodium: Vom Rat zur Tat – Disruption aus Sicht von Abgeordneten der Berichterstattergruppe TA
Tore Tennøe fragt die Abgeordneten (Mitte) . Reinhard Grünwald (links) TAB/Konstantin Börner
Tore Tennøe (2nd from left) moderated the closing panel.

At the closing panel "From advice to action - Disruption from the MPs perspective," the members of the German Bundestag and specifically the rapporteur group TA Dr. Holger Becker (SPD), Lars Rohwer (CDU/CSU), Laura Kraft (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Prof. Dr. Stephan Seiter (FDP), Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Michael Kaufmann (AfD) and Ralph Lenkert (Die Linke) together with committee chairman Kai Gehring (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and moderator Tore Tennøe (Teknologirådet, Oslo) discussed the conclusions to be drawn by political decision-makers from the current challenges, threats and multifaceted crises. They named new forms of social participation such as reallaboratories or citizen science, technological innovations, European cooperation, knowledge provided by science and research, and the efficient use of existing resources as important resources for overcoming current and future crises. As wishes for technology assessment as a scientific advisor to political decision-makers, the delegates formulated the early identification and naming of emerging problems, the neutral, factual and balanced presentation on the basis of scientific findings, as well as a more noticeable, "loud" public relations work for the often very good work and results of TA, according to the motto "make some noise! At the same time, TA should provide information about the costs associated with certain actions and decisions or with inaction. Existing knowledge should be organized and made accessible, and policymakers should be provided with strategies for sorting and channeling existing knowledge. TA that does all these things could enable policymakers to be better prepared for worst-case scenarios and to act more effectively. At the same time, he said, politics must also rally behind science to protect it, especially against radical social currents, and to preserve and strengthen Europe as a continent of scientific freedom.

EPTA-Konferenz 2022: Blick in den Saal 3.101 im Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus TAB/Konstantin Börner
View of the conference room in the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus.

As a result, the conference not only touched on a wide range of topics in the field of disruption and brought together a wide variety of political readings and perspectives on the future, but also brought political decision-makers, academics and representatives of civil society from 19 countries into conversation with one another. The conference was moderated by Dr. Reinhard Grünwald from TAB. It was a very stimulating and, in the best sense, multi-voiced day, to which all panelists, moderators, the members of the rapporteur group TA of the German Bundestag and, last but not least, the committee chairman Kai Gehring contributed with their commitment and knowledge.