2021. 02. 15.

A Brief Talk with Antonia Bierwirth

Antonia Bierwirth

  • Project manager and RRI advocate at Tecnalia
  • Research interest: Innovation management, institutional changes via RRI in industrial and business settings, Organizational learning and change management, Ethics, Public Engagement, Tools for Facilitation & Dialogue, Lab-like styles of working, tools and methods to stimulate creativity, dialogue, and citizen participation
  • Co-Change WP3 leader on the RRI implementation in Co-Change Labs

Antonia, you are leading WP3 in Co-Change. How do you explain the ambition of this work package, and what is your mission? 

Many organizations are in a situation where they need to re-invent and re-define their value creation logic from the perspective of social expectations. However, this is a complex process and leaders are dealing with dilemmas between efficiency and flexibility, ethics and profit, competition and collaboration. The Concept of “Social Lab'' is too open and abstract and thus difficult to overview what a Lab should look like. As a social experiment it works well because it provides space for autonomy and creativity, but it fails in the long term when attempting to guide in an efficient way unexperienced teams to ambitious goals. The RRI principles add further complexity to this as their rather “romantic” nature doesn’t provide clear boundaries. WP3 is called “Co-Change Labs'', it is in my opinion the key for the success of the project, as it should provide all the necessary support to the development of the Labs and gradually export the knowledge to other Labs, not related to the project, creating in this way an expanding impact on the research ecosystem. So, the mission of WP3 is ambitious and large scale, dealing with lots of uncertainties. We aspire to create a practical, structured and transferable approach for the development of the Labs that still provides enough space for free-flowing experimentation. By doing this we want to zoom in into the decision-making protocol of the Labs but also to zoom out and provide the Labs with the big picture of change,  explain responsibility matters and how we can contribute to the SDGs and build a better world for all. And if it doesn’t sound overdramatic, with all this we aim to create a responsible movement that continues to grow and inspire people and their organizations. 

Since Co-Change started (February 2020), how did you experience the partnership's potentialities?

During these extraordinary times, we are all struggling to find the proper working format. In WP3, we organize monthly meetings with the Co-Change Labs where we discuss their progress and difficulties. In Tecnalia we have an extensive RRI experience, but we learned a lot about coaching of groups through the NewHoRRIzon project, where we worked closely for almost four years with a professionnal organizational psychologist and psychotherapist, Markus Hauser. Markus thought us about mindful listening, about the importance of emotional content, trust and acceptance in meetings, and provided us with useful tips on how to achieve consensual effectivity when working with groups. We learned how important are the questions and how we should be patient towards the answers. This changed our way of applying RRI and brought excellent results from the Labs that we were coaching.  I was eager to apply and upgrade these skills to our work with the Co-Change Labs, but the pandemic brought us in a new situation, where we had to reinvent it all. Now, we are trying to simulate real-life environment though digital tools in order to achieve the full potential of the teams and provide them with the necessary motivational and social aspects; but we are still struggling. However, we are working hard to address this limitation though our online coaching method called “STIRRI” and I am sure that in the next months we are going to achieve a significant breakthrough.

What is then your definition of a Co-Change Lab?

In a broad and idyllic sense, a Co-Change Lab is a Social Lab that creates changes in collaboration with other Labs. As we discussed before, in my opinion the problem is that the concept of “Social Lab” is overestimated, too vague and cannot be easily managed. Often, I feel that we put too much burden and responsibility on the Lab Managers by requiring them to implement their ambitious roadmaps without providing them with relevant schemes, facilities, and content. It is like asking a child about his or her career plans and simply supervising the progress. If she or he aspires to become an astronaut, it needs excellent education, evaluation and training systems that comprise of different areas such as medicine, robotics and piloting, science, space system engineering, physical and mental health preparations. This requires commitment, time and resources, a personal devotion and an adequate infrastructure backed by a multitude of actors.

You took part in the Social Labs conceptualisation in the NewHorRRIzon project. Based on those experiences, you invited Erik Fisher to implement the STIR methodology in the Co-Change Labs. What are the most exciting lessons so far? 

In November 2020 we did a training with Erik Fisher on his collaborative Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR). I liked it, but I still didn’t know how to use it in the collaborative framework of the Co-Change Labs. The STIR is somehow very “zen”, philosophical and at the same time “for dummies” style. It is a completely different way of approaching responsibility of what we are used to apply in Europe. On the other hand, our research on the needs of the Labs revealed that the Labs prefer a collaboration in the form of structured workshops with elements of inspiration, experimentation and reflection. After merging these elements together with the limitations of the Social Lab approach and the RRI principles we came up with the STIRRI method (STIR + RRI). Erik is very open-minded and allowed us to adapt his method to the needs of the project. He will be our professional coach this time and we are very excited to do this social experiment with him over the next coming months. In the STIRRI method we break down the visions of the Labs into small and more manageable tasks or “challenges”, which may take the form of an issue, a problem, or any occasion or situation that calls for a response in the area of RRI. To facilitate the identification of challenges, RRI topics are gradually introduced by external rotating experts, tapping in this way on the collective intelligence of the participating organizations. Challenges are further decomposed by the STIR protocol and explored in four different dimensions: Opportunities, considerations, alternative, outcomes. Thus, each application of the protocol reveals a small “slice of Lab” from a larger context, it is opened up and assessed in a group of diverse stakeholders. This micro-scale reflection uncovers the contextual dimensions of Lab decisions in real-time, but also what is experienced by the Lab leader, namely his or her “human” cognitive, affective, ethical, personal and professional goals and articulations. The STIRRI sessions will be repeated over time in an iterative way, aiming to gradually remove barriers and to achieve a spiral effect in which the focus progressively shifts from “research/Lab values” to “public values.” Although Erik is very busy, and it is difficult to work together because of the big time difference, we hope to initiate the workshops series in April/May and continue improving the method until the end of the project. 

You have just launched the “Co-Change Idea Competition”, tell us more about it. 

Although that it is officially a “competition”, in the world of sustainability there shouldn’t thrive any competition, but rather collaboration, shared objectives and agendas. Through the call we want to get to know people and teams working in similar areas and see how we can enrich mutually our efforts. We encourage also teams with not so much experience to apply, as we could probably help them develop their initiatives, by providing them with expert advice, visibility and key contacts.  There will be three semifinalists, but in case that we receive more eligible and challenging proposals we would consider organizing an event where all ideas could be presented and discussed.