To ensure the benefits of sustainability and social participation in the bioeconomy
Background, research question and research design
Biotechnological processes such as the production of chemicals, wastewater treatment or the production of biogas are important parts of a bio-based economy already today. By reducing CO2 emissions and using biomass instead of fossil resources, these technologies have the potential to contribute to improving the sustainability of many other processes. However, biotechnological processes are often are often viewed critically in public perception. With regard to certain processes, this attitude is primarily based on the use of genetic engineering. While science and industry often attribute this critical attitude to a lack of scientific knowledge on the part of citizens, its causes are actually more diverse, and include among others low trust in certain actors. At the same time, the participation of citizens in pioneering decisions (e.g. the energy revolution) is currently considered desirable. Thus, a careful design of participation processes focussing on technically and economically complex topics is needed. They ought to bring citizens and other social actors, politicians, and companies into an equal dialogue in which different forms of knowledge and values are legitimate and through which the development of viable results can succeed.
Against this background, the inter- and transdisciplinary research project BIOCIVIS (“Partizipation zur Sicherung des Nachhaltigkeitsnutzens und der gesellschaftlichen Teilhabe (in) der Bioökonomie”) raises the question: Through which participatory processes can the benefits of bio-economic technologies be socially secured and democratic participation be strengthened at the same time? In order to answer this question, participatory formats for securing the sustainability benefit and social participation in microbial biotechnology processes will be developed and tested in course of the project and of inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. To this end, a close cooperation between political scientists and biologists of the University of Muenster as well as the integration of microbial biotechnology companies, civil society actors and citizens in multi-stage participation processes is being pursued.
BIOCIVIS is led by Prof. Doris Fuchs (Institute for Political Science, University of Muenster) in collaboration with Prof. Bodo Philipp (Institute for Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology, University of Muenster) as members of the Center for Interdisciplinary Sustainability Research (ZIN). The project is funded the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, funding number 031B0780) during its three-and-a-half-year term (November 2019 until April 2023) as part of the concept "Bioökonomie als gesellschaftlicher Wandel".
The bioeconomy is a way of doing business in which, among other things, a circular economy is made possible and petroleum-based products and processes are to be replaced by renewable raw materials. There is currently a controversial discussion about whether the bioeconomy can contribute to more sustainability - and if so, in what way. Against this background, the interdisciplinary research project "BIOCIVIS - Participation to secure sustainability benefits and societal participation in the bioeconomy" investigated how citizen participation can be designed to secure the benefits of a sustainable bioeconomy and at the same time strengthen democratic participation. For this purpose, three successive participation events, the so-called Biodialoge, were organised, carried out and evaluated. The participating citizens were to enter into a joint discourse with stakeholders from theory and practice in order to talk about opportunities, challenges and risks of the bioeconomy and associated innovations. At the end of the research project, recommendations for action for the implementation of participation processes in the bioeconomy, directed at politics and practice, were developed from the collected findings.
In order to gain insights and ultimately derive the recommendations for action, the project team evaluated the material collected from the Biodialoge. In addition to the observations and posters of the events, this also includes questionnaires that the participating citizens and stakeholders filled out before and after the Biodialoge. With the help of a specially developed catalogue of criteria, it was examined to what extent the biodialogues fulfilled the criteria for good democratic participation - and where there is still room for improvement.
In order to increase the significance of participation formats, they should always be as representative as possible of the entire population. This means that the group of participating citizens should roughly correspond to the real composition of the population in terms of characteristics such as age, gender, educational attainment, field of work, migration background, voting behaviour, income, marital status and religious affiliation. In this way, the participating citizens can represent a cross-section of society on a small scale and the results of the participation can be better transferred. In order to achieve this goal, the recruitment of participants in the Biodialoge was carried out according to different strategies, e.g. through voluntary applications from interested persons or through random selection from municipal registers.
For the first and second Biodialog, citizens were made aware of the event through a marketing campaign (e.g. advertisements in local newspapers, posters and radio ads, social media, etc.) in Münster, Münsterland, Hamm and Recklinghausen. The project team also relied on the help of associations, science, civil society or the local community to promote the Biodialoge. Interested citizens could then apply to participate. Despite this time-consuming process and a variety of incentives to participate (including an expense allowance, reimbursement of travel and accommodation costs as well as meals and childcare), fewer citizens applied than hoped. In addition, it was not possible to select a diverse group of participants from the applications for the first and second Biodialog. In particular, the level of education and the age distribution did not differ much and did not represent a cross-section of the population. Thus, the participating citizens were characterised by a low age below 35 years and a high, mostly academic, level of education.
Therefore, the recruitment of citizens for the third Biodialog was carried out by an external provider using the population registers of the three cities of Münster, Hamm and Recklinghausen. Randomly selected citizens received a personal invitation and were able to register for the event via an online form (specifying the above-mentioned characteristics). The implementation of this recruitment approach was very costly. With regard to the diversity of the participants, there were slight improvements, e.g. in terms of age and educational level. Nevertheless, the expectations of the project team were not fully met, especially when the high costs are put in relation to the outcome. The first Biodialog in May 2021 was conducted online due to the Corona pandemic. The second Citizens' Dialogue could take place in August 2021 in presence in the Botanical Garden of the University of Münster, the third in May 2022 in the Kapuzinerkloster in Münster.
The outline of the events was similar in all three cases: between a lot of relevant information, the participants had time to reflect and discuss together. The focus was on three practical everyday examples that were intended to make the topics of bioeconomy and biotechnology more tangible for the citizens: Wastewater treatment with the help of microorganisms, the production of biogas from organic waste and the production of bio-based chemicals such as bioplastics, insulin and the flavouring vanillin.
The Biodialoge used a combination of different methods to convey knowledge: in addition to input lectures by various stakeholders from theory and practice, followed by question and answer sessions and discussions, experiments, stories with everyday references or future scenarios, playful elements, informative videos and an exhibition of everyday bioeconomic products helped to make the topic as comprehensive as possible and at the same time as low-threshold as possible. In the ensuing discussions, the opportunities and challenges of the bioeconomy and biotechnology, as well as related topics such as genetic engineering, were weighed up. In addition, the citizens at the third Biodialog developed the following individual conditions on how a sustainable bioeconomy should be shaped:
- The creation of political framework conditions by politics is a central prerequisite for the realisation of a sustainable bioeconomy, as it is decisive for all further procedures and efforts.
- Intensive and knowledge-based information and education on the topics of sustainability and the bioeconomy also helps to increase the population's motivation to act.
- Individual and societal consumption behaviour must change and focus on renunciation, sufficiency, initiative and regionality, among other things, in order to counteract the excessive consumption of fossil resources in particular and to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle.
- A value-based, moral model for political and corporate decisions must be developed. For the participating citizens, the preservation of the environment, ethical aspects, health as well as global and social justice were central.
The collected findings of the research project were used, among other things, in the form of recommendations for action for politics and practice. These recommendations show how good participation formats should be designed for complex, scientific sustainability topics such as the bioeconomy:
- Transparency: The process and objectives of the event should be communicated clearly and transparently.
- Representativeness: The diversity of the group in terms of defined characteristics (especially age, gender, educational background, migration background, marital status, voting behaviour) should be a main objective of the recruitment process. The organisation and assumption of costs for meals, accommodation, childcare, travel and the payment of an expense allowance (participation incentives) can support this.
- Dialogue orientation and cooperation: Respectful interaction between participants is needed to reduce inhibitions to active participation. To this end, rules for discussion should be established, the toleration of dissenting opinions and the equal distribution of speaking shares should be ensured.
- Supportive framework conditions: A barrier-free venue, a comfortable group size, the use of diverse, suitable methods as well as good technical equipment and preparation are essential to enable an intensive exchange between the participants. Furthermore, good and at the same time flexible time management is required in order to be able to respond to the interests and spontaneous suggestions of the citizens.
- Comprehensive and at the same time low-threshold knowledge transfer: The use of different materials and methods (e.g. a mixture of lectures, videos, different forms of discussion/talk group sizes, role plays, future scenarios, etc.) helps here.
- Integration of the results of the dialogue into policy: The knowledge that one is making a meaningful contribution by participating and that the results have a concrete benefit increases the motivation to apply and actively participate.
Overall, the BIOCIVIS research project shows that citizens can indeed participate and lead discussions on complex and technical issues. As a basic prerequisite for this, the organisers of a participation format must ensure a common knowledge base on the topic. For this and for the further planning of citizen participation formats, careful, elaborate preparation is required. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to involve all parts of society in the shaping of the bioeconomy. Only if forward-looking decisions, such as for or against the bioeconomy as an alternative economic concept, are taken by everyone and subsequently supported, can the sustainability transformation really succeed.