2021. 10. 22.

A Brief Talk with Martijn Wiarda

Martijn Wiarda

  • PhD Candidate at the Delft University of Technology (TUDelft)
  • Expertise and interest: Responsible research and innovation, Responsible standardization, Science and Innovation policy, Participation
  • Visit on LinkedIn and Twitter

The Co-Change Lab of the Delft University of Technology explores which factors can motivate, obstruct or facilitate social responsibility in the standardization process, as facilitated by the Royal Netherlands Standardization Institute (NEN). The analyses allow to set forth recommendations to assist NEN in further improving their services and develop socially desirable standards by transforming the standardization process. The leader of this Co-Change Lab is Martijn Wiarda, and we are talking about the steps they have already made to support NEN in institutionalizing RRI aspects.

What motivates you, as a researcher, to take part in institutionalizing changes at a standardization body?

Standards are potent mechanisms for ensuring aspects such as the quality, compatibility, and safety of novel innovations. Standards are essentially requirements to which products and processes need to conform. The process that pursuits this conformity is known as standardization. Many people talk about how standards can enhance the social desirability of industry innovators, but nobody thinks about whether standards themselves are socially responsible. I think we are one of the firsts to take a step back by looking at the very source of those standards. I believe that this is not merely important for standardization bodies and industries, but also for the broader society as standards impact our lives by for instance affecting our privacy, safety, and comfort.

The Co-Change Lab of the Delft University of Technology started by creating a commitment with NEN.

Yes, we believe that driving change is often the result of intrinsic motivation. We wanted to be sure that we could get in touch with everyone and make enough resources or time available. As a result, we can conduct research and provide NEN with the insights they need to drive change. That’s why we asked for the commitment.

Was that easy to get it?

In some cases, with some people, yes. NEN is a relatively mature organization, and is by its employees frequently described as rather conservative. What we noticed is that there are multiple generations in the organization with very different visions. The younger generation tends to be more critical and progressive. Hence, they want to drive change. Others may be a bit more hesitant and are content with the status quo. These images are of course very crude generalizations. As that may be I suppose that is how most changes go, there's often resistance.

How did you raise awareness about responsible research and innovation at NEN?

We first participated in some networking events by for example presenting our work at a standardization conference. In addition, we met many employees throughout our research. As a result we had many interactions with employees in which we could increase the awareness of RRI in NEN. I think I can quite confidently say that we reached a large proportion of the consultants. These consultants are the ones within the organization who facilitate the process of standardization. And I think the idea of social responsibility in standardization is now much more alive and more a topic of debate at NEN. Through a survey, we asked all consultants to evaluate how socially responsible they think standardization is. 12 out of approximately 30, so almost half of them, said that they believe standardization is partly irresponsible. To me, this emphasizes that there's room for improvement.

With your survey you have identified 96 facilitators, barriers and motives for institutionalizing RRI at NEN. Would you please mention some of them that you consider important or interesting?

We asked the executives, the managers who have a long experience with standardization (often more than 20 years), “what do you think drives, obstructs or facilitates inclusion, anticipation, reflective learning and responsiveness within standardization?”. We continued by asking all consultants if they recognized these factors. We believe that this approach was insightful as we could compare both the perceptions and experiences of the strategic and the operational level. What I found really interesting, for example, is that the cost of participating forms an influential barrier to inclusion. To participate in the negotiations that take place during the standardization process, you have to pay a participation fee. This is NEN’s business model. For that reason, the lay public or start-ups are less inclined to join these processes as they are often not able to afford these costs. This can be detrimental as these stakeholders might have very meaningful experiences, knowledge, or values that are important for the future desirability and success of the standard. We also found that there's still a lot of unawareness in society about standardization. NEN thinks that many stakeholders do not know what standardization is. An increased awareness could lead to higher levels of inclusivity as more stakeholders may want to join. It's also interesting to see that one of the motives for standardizing in an inclusive, anticipatory, reflective and responsive manner is that a lot of consultants think that this is a societal obligation of NEN. They think it's an obligation because NEN is one of the most prominent standardization bodies in the Netherlands, maybe the biggest, therefore they have a unique market position that they should use in the most meaningful way. We also found it striking that developing a standard can typically take two to three years. Many employees believe this to be too long. However, the pandemic has shown that this can be done differently. For example, the standard for face masks was developed in a record time of just a couple of weeks, specifying what it is that makes a good mask. This was not only valuable for addressing the pandemic. It also showed in a broader sense how NEN can respond more quickly to urgent societal challenges. These quick standards do not need full consensus but form rather an imperfect agreement that can be further developed over time. Due to the severity of the problem, the parties negotiating the standard were also much more willing to make compromises. Furthermore, online meetings made the process much cheaper and quicker. We now see an increased willingness of NEN to meet in hybrid or online form.

You have also developed key performance indicators. Would you summarize what you did and how it will help NEN?

Unfortunately there was not enough commitment from NEN that they would be involved in workshops to create and select RRI-specific KPIs. As a solution, we thought it would be worthwhile to first learn a lot about the process of standardization, the work culture, and all the perspectives, so that we could select the KPIs for them. Later we validated with NEN whether we chose the right KPIs. It was a kind of indirect way to do this. We know that this is imperfect, but it was the best we could do with the commitment and resources we had. Soon we'll get an updated form of that KPI measurements to find out if we can see any changes and whether employees perceive NEN to be more socially responsible. Hopefully, of course, NEN finds these KPIs helpful. Even if no changes in their RRI performance are found, then these KPIs are still important as a reflection tool to start any discussion on responsibility.

Can you explain what institutional change means for a standardization organization?

Driving a change in any organization as large and mature as NEN is incredibly difficult. Still, we see an increased interest in assessing the socio-economic impact of standards. NEN will do more research on this in the coming years to see how this can be done. Also, they've recently started to use a new technique to foster inclusivity in standardization. In the past, when standardization processes were initiated NEN would rely on its network or manually search on the internet for relevant stakeholders. However, recently they've developed and implemented a complementary AI search engine that browses the web and assists in finding all sorts of stakeholders that are somehow linked with the topic that is being standardized. As a result, they now have an extra-large list of stakeholders that might want to be involved. This could mean bigger committees and more discussions, which both perhaps better reflect the worldviews of all stakeholders in society.

Can you detect institutional changes happened so far in terms of RRI?

It depends on the definition of institutional changes. It may have a different meaning for the European Commission than it has in an academic sense. In the academic sense, institutions are often referred to as norms, values, and (implicit) rules. We now see a gradual change in NEN’s values and implicit rules which, to me, hint toward an institutional change. The European Commission may prefer to see more tangible changes such as changes in guidelines and strategies .We are still in the process of attaining this. I believe that our research on the perception of, and factors that affect, social responsibility provide a solid foundation with which these guidelines and strategies can be formulated. To me this is the most promising institutional change that NEN, in relation to RRI, currently faces. As a result, by including all the relevant know-how and values from society’s stakeholders, innovations can become more desirable and improve our lives even more.