Mr Pretschner, Ms Hornsteiner, bidt has set itself the task of providing a basis for “shaping the digital future of society in a responsible and public-spirited way”. What role does dialogue play in fulfilling this common good-oriented mission?
Alexander Pretschner: Dialogue with different stakeholders is inscribed in the DNA of our institute. It was our explicit wish not to understand this dialogue as a one-way communication of results, but always as a mutual exchange of wishes, suggestions and questions. As scientists, we can give impulses and recommendations on how certain developments can be shaped in a way that is oriented towards the common good. Not emotionally, but fact-based, on the level of scientific findings. We can help to understand the relevant dimensions, but others have to decide.
Ms Hornsteiner, as a political scientist and communications expert, you have dealt with the areas of participation and representation in the past. To what extent can you also bring these focal points into your work in the bidt dialogue team?
Margret Hornsteiner: The bidt combines all the topics I have worked on in my previous activities in a very exciting way. In my dissertation I was able to show that it makes a difference in participation processes who you involve and when on which topic. In consulting, I have tested citizen participation in practice and seen that a good process design is enormously important for participation processes to succeed. I want to bring this experience to bidt. For me, dialogue is not the end of the research process, but a constant companion of research. In accordance with our motto “research in dialogue”, there should always be feedback with stakeholders from the non-scientific world throughout the entire research process. It is also important to go out with interim results and get feedback.
What difficulties arise in the dialogue with stakeholders from politics and business in the different disciplines?
Pretschner: As a software engineer, it is quite natural for me to interact with stakeholders from industry; after all, we are working together to solve a problem. In other disciplines, however, there is a discourse about whether stakeholder interaction is allowed to take place at all. Here, the fear of influence and manipulation is behind it. We try to reduce these fears at bidt.
In which direction do you want to further develop dialogue-oriented research? Have you already experimented with agile research?
Hornsteiner: Agility is reflected in various areas of our institute. For example, at the level of topic setting: we don’t have a fixed agenda that we follow for five or ten years. Instead, we are constantly searching for new questions in the dynamic field of digital transformation in dialogue with society. Our research projects also follow flexible mechanisms. Sprint reviews are built into all projects, where researchers come together and compare interim statuses.
Researchers from different disciplines work together at bidt. How can they develop a common language and avoid misunderstandings?
Pretschner: A culture of interdisciplinarity must grow over the years. To achieve this, there must be spaces like bidt where researchers from different disciplines can work closely together. Only in this way can respect and understanding for each other develop. I have learned that the different disciplines think differently. Engineers think in an extremely problem- and solution-oriented way. In the humanities and social sciences, people think more in terms of discourse. You have to learn this different approach so that you can work together on issues without causing frustration and incomprehension.
Which target and age groups are you trying to reach in the public? Are they all target groups, from day-care children to senior citizens?
Hornsteiner: The task of conducting a dialogue with the whole of society is incredibly big. At the moment, we are focusing less on children and young people, but perhaps we will develop an offer for this target group in the future. Many of our activities are aimed at a broad public. Especially in our events such as bidt Perspektiven or bidt Werkstatt digital and the stakeholder workshops, we place a certain focus depending on the topic, for example on business representatives, people from politics and administration or from the education sector. In the context of our study on the social credit system in China, for example, we were able to provide Bavarian companies with specific information.
What events and tools have been used in the past to involve the various stakeholders in the discourse?
Hornsteiner: In the last two and a half years, we have developed various channels and formats, including event and publication series, social media and classic media work. Many of our ideas are based on people being able to meet locally. Direct exchange is extremely valuable and builds trust – within research, but also with stakeholders. The pandemic has presented us with particular challenges in this regard. Under the given conditions, however, we have done the best we could. Our bidt conference in autumn 2021 was a hybrid event. About 80 participants were on site, 800 followed the conference online. We took great pains to offer interaction opportunities to the participants who were connected online. There was a live blog, social media offerings and discussion rooms.
Why is it so important for the public to have more understanding and knowledge about the digital transformation?
Hornsteiner: The digital transformation moves many people, we saw that for example with the topic of home office. We were one of the first institutes to publish survey results on the spread and acceptance of home office in Germany shortly after the first Corona Lockdown. The situation is similar with many other issues. For example, many people have only a vague idea of artificial intelligence, which is coupled with a diffuse fear. There is a great need for orientation here. As a research institute, we want to clarify all these complex topics and point out implications.
Pretschner: With our offers, we want to correspond to a classical humanistic educational ideal. Those who do not understand the world cannot live self-determined lives. Those who have the aspiration to do so must understand how things are interrelated.
Why are so many scientists elsewhere still hesitant to present and discuss their research topic in public?
Hornsteiner: One reason is usually a lack of incentives. Success in science is measured primarily in publications. Thus, dialogue with the public becomes a question of capacities and resources. But the role of science communication and research transfer is becoming increasingly important – whether for research proposals or individual career planning. At bidt, we offer the framework conditions for researchers to bring their topics into exchange with society. Important questions are: What is the social or political relevance of my topic? With which actors and stakeholders do I want to enter into an exchange? We would like to support the researchers in this, for example in the conception of suitable dialogue formats, in dealing with media enquiries, in writing for the target group or in networking via social media channels.
Is bidt also an institution that provides classic policy advice? How much appeal does bidt have here so far?
Hornsteiner: Politics is one of our central stakeholders. Laws and regulations are important instruments for shaping the digital transformation. As part of our project “Measuring Opinion Power and Diversity on the Internet”, we organised an event with politicians that was also attended by representatives from media policy and regulatory bodies. Another topic we dealt with is governance of digital policy. In addition, there were always informal formats where we met with members of the state and federal parliaments. So we definitely see ourselves as advisors to politicians who want to be heard, but who also like to be asked in advance.
What are the future scenarios for bidt? How do you want to develop the dialogue further?
Hornsteiner: One goal is the further development of our website, in which we want to incorporate dialogue features so that the public can participate even better. We also want to further develop personal encounters and personal experience, if this will be possible again in the future.
Pretschner: In the last two and a half years we have experienced very rapid growth in our processes and structures. Now it is time to consolidate and understand what has worked well in the past and where we can improve. We have progressed at such a crazy pace that we should be cautious about making too many changes. Either way, we still have a big task ahead of us: to identify the cause-and-effect relationships between the individual phenomena of digitalisation, to describe them from the perspective of the individual disciplines and to derive generalisations. I see this as the great task of bidt.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Prof. Dr. Alexander Pretschner
He is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (bidt) and holds the Chair of Software and Systems Engineering at the Technical University of Munich.
Dr. Margret Hornsteiner
She is head of the Dialogue Department at bidt. The research interests of the political and communication scientist lie in the areas of participation and representation.