What is societal engagement?

Societal engagement is about engaging citizens in specially designed activities to better address the challenges society faces today. Societal engagement is a way to keep technological innovation open to continuous social monitoring by taking the priorities, expectations and concerns of citizens into account. Reliable knowledge is not only created through scientific methods, but is highly dependent on its ‘reliability’ within a societal context. Therefore, to navigate the complexities between knowledge, decision-making, expertise and action in technology and innovation, it is of importance to consider experiences, attitudes, perceptions and vulnerabilities of citizens, alongside the knowledge required through scientific methods, in order to steer innovation towards desirable and acceptable goals.

Within this guide, with ‘citizens and society’ we mean any societal actors affected by technology applications, including:

  • Citizens or representatives of citizens (e.g. NGOs, community organisations, local committees, trade unions and consumer organizations).
  • People directly impacted by technology (e.g. patients and patient groups for e-Health, workers and trade unions for industrial automation, inhabitants of urban places, social housing associations for constructions) or contextual actors (any type of citizens and civil society organization).
  • People of different age, origin, gender, and hard to reach and underprivileged groups who are often not involved in decision-making processes.

These aspects need to be carefully considered in the choice of people to engage with, depending on the purpose and ambition of the societal engagement activity.

How much should you engage citizens?

The level of engagement can vary from merely informing citizens to involving citizens in co-creation. The former is a one-way process and often called pseudo-participation or tokenism, whereas the latter is about working in collaboration or partnership with citizens as stakeholders in their own right.

In this guide, we recommend you to start somewhere in the middle (depending on your previous experience) by engaging with citizens and taking their insights on board through:

  • identifying specific societal needs (or constrains and requirements) that the innovation process should address
  • asking citizens to provide suggestions and envision new ideas and innovation pathways
  • developing shared, common values
    and then, if possible, moving towards further engagement and potentially trying co-creation.

Societal engagement is a process. Its scope and ambition can change in accordance with the needs of the process and the participants, and its objectives need to be selected in advance as this will influence the methods, resources and duration of the process – it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

We encourage you to engage with a wider diversity of citizens, not just end users, in order to hear different perspectives. By widening your engagement, your company can expand the network and market reach and enhance its reputation.

What is societal engagement about?

Societal engagement is about:

  • exploring with citizens diverse current and future scenarios, highlighting the challenges and opportunities that come with the implementation of innovative technologies

  • reflecting on your company’s ethical and social responsibilities

  • facilitating ‘tangible’ discussions on the impact of innovative technologies on the daily lives of citizens

  • creating a space for active participation and contribution from all actors involved

  • enabling all stakeholders to learn from each other

  • creating space for empathy and common ground

  • building and fostering sustainable relationships

  • focusing on long-term impact rather than generating short-term impact

Why does engagement with citizens matter?

Engaging with citizens matters because it provides space for discussing the ethical implications and the impact of innovative technologies on the day-to-day life and the potential future. Societal engagement can also inspire innovation and enhance your company’s profile:


  • You can profit from identifying new opportunities that could strengthen your technology.
  • You can make sure that your technologies are relevant to users because they reflect people’s needs and values.
  • You ascertain the societal readiness of your products (societal readiness is the level of societal adaptation of a technology, a process or a product to be integrated into society).
  • You gain new opportunities to establish long-term visions, strategies, relations and profits.
  • You strengthen your market position by become more aware of local and global cultural, political and/or economic developments.
  • You prevent developing products or technologies that harm users or the environment.
  • You might benefit from learning about new competencies and skills that could enrich your company.
  • You explore opportunities to expand your network and its reach, as well as opportunities to collaborate with relevant stakeholders.

Insights from a tech research centre in Spain: engaging citizens in AI development

Fernando Boto is Data Scientist at Tecnalia, a research and technological development centre, whose mission is to transform technology into GDP. In this video, he explains why engaging citizens in discussions about AI can help scientists in developing such technologies:

Insights from a municipality in Denmark: the market decides

Birgitte Schytte, Municipal Councillor at Lejre Municipality in Denmark, explains why it is the market and the users who decide what needs to be addressed with new technology:

How to go about organising societal engagement?

In order to develop a societal engagement plan, three essential aspects have to be addressed:

1. The company’s resources

These are the available skills, knowledge, time, space and budget that can be used for organising societal engagement. It also involves an awareness of underlying expectations, interests and potential for learning, as well as understanding values in regards to technological innovation.

2. The facilitation

When engaging with citizens, you need a skilled facilitator to lead the activities. This is someone who knows how to design a participatory process, by choosing the relevant methods and being able to communicate appropriately with the audience.

3. The approach (methods, activities, tools and materials)

Choosing the appropriate method, with the corresponding activities, tools and materials is crucial in order to get the desired outcomes.

What are the necessary resources for societal engagement?

It is often underestimated which resources are needed for societal engagement, so we offer here an overview of the practical requirements of undertaking and organising a societal engagement process:


  • MOTIVATION: First of all, there has to be a strong intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to undertake societal engagement. We have addressed some possible motivational factors in the previous section, and hope that you can find further reasons when defining your goal why it might be beneficial for you and for society.
  • MINDSET: Societal engagement requires having the right mindset to want to engage with others and to ask reflective and critical questions about your ambitions. This mindset is about understanding and believing in the purpose of societal engagement.
  • TEAM: Having the right people in-house with whom you can collaborate on this project makes all the difference.
  • SUPPORT: It can be helpful to have external support at various stages of the process, for example from public institutions and research centres, but also from government, the legal framework and relevant laws.
  • TIME: Societal engagement is time intensive as there are several steps that need to be undertaken to make the actual event a success.
  • FACILITATION: You will need a dedicated person, either in-house or external facilitator, to engage with the citizens in the right way, using appropriate methods.
  • NETWORK: Having a network, encompassing both partners for collaboration on societal engagement and connections to associations or organisations that work directly with citizens, will help in recruiting participants. You will also benefit from social media channels to reach a wider audience.
  • BUDGET: A budget might be necessary if you wish to outsource facilitation, rent a space, provide catering and travel reimbursement and purchase appropriate tools and materials.
  • SPACE: The location, type of space, and room arrangement are all important to consider when engaging with people.

Questions to consider

  • To what extent are citizens already being engaged in your company’s processes?
  • What kind of citizens do you involve?
  • How are these citizens engaged?
  • What is the purpose of these interactions?
  • What are the (interpersonal/professional) skills and expertise that your company already has, to facilitate societal engagement?
  • How do you already deal with the issue of responsibility regarding innovation in your company?

What is your company’s motivation and goal in engaging citizens?

Having explained what societal engagement is, and why it is beneficial in general terms, it is now time to start thinking about your company’s own interest in engaging with citizens and society. Defining your motivation and setting a clear goal will help you to make further decisions as to how to organise the whole process. Which of the reasons mentioned above – reputation, employee morale, relevance, new opportunities, network, contribution to positive impact – apply to your company’s ambitions? What would you like to get specifically out of discussions with citizens?

It might be useful to start having conversations with your colleagues to find out about the company’s ambitions and how societal engagement could be a resolution. Setting a clear goal is, in particular, challenging as it requires asking yourself critical questions about the current approach to tech innovation. To what extent are you in control over the implementation of your technology? Can you predict all the positive and negative consequences of an application? How will you mitigate the negative impact? It is not just about answering such critical questions, but also about formulating new ones to hold up a mirror to your own company’s approach. Above all, ask yourself as a company: which insight can citizens provide me, that we do not have?

Defining your motivation

Which of the following statements apply to your company’s ambition for the future? You can use the PDF Guidebook to fill out this activity.


  • We do not have a clear policy yet on Responsible Research and Innovation and would like to invest in this by undertaking societal engagement.

  • We would like to show our clients/customers that we care about their perspective on technology by inviting citizens for discussions.

  • We wish to make a positive contribution to the future of innovation by engaging citizens and implementing necessary changes in our tech development.

  • We want to be sure that our technology does not harm humans, animals and the natural environment and to that goal we want to undertake societal engagement.

  • We would like to enhance our reputation by connecting more with citizens and demonstrating in practice that we care about their concerns.

  • It is important for us to boost our employees’ morale regarding the ethical stance of our company and having a shared mission.

  • We are keen on expanding our network of stakeholders and citizens.

  • Your own company-specific motivation.

Setting a goal

Setting a goal for societal engagement is the key to subsequently choosing the right method and approach to achieve the desired outcomes. Arriving at a goal can be done by asking critical question, for example through the following three stages of enquiry:


  1. Why are we developing this particular technology? (It might be necessary to continue asking ‘why’ in an iterative process until your answer arrives at the core of your enterprise.)
  2. Are we sure that this is a problem? Are we sure that our technology is the solution?
  3. How could citizens help us to make sure that we are doing the right thing?


The Guide towards Responsible Tech Innovation using Societal Engagement has been created as part of the EU funded SocKETs project, which aims to align innovative technologies with citizens’ needs and values through societal engagement.
This 3-year project has been managed by 10 partners from 8 European countries.

This guide and its contents reflect only their authors' view. The Research Executive Agency and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.

The SocKETs project (Societal Engagement with Key Enabling Technologies) has received funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under grant agreement no.958277.


The Tech Industry’s Guide has been created as part of the EU-funded SocKETs project, which aims to align innovative technologies with citizens’ needs and values through societal engagement.
This 3-year project has been managed by 10 partners from 8 European countries.

This guide and its contents reflect only their authors' view. The Research Executive Agency and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.

The SocKETs project (Societal Engagement with Key Enabling Technologies) has received funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under grant agreement no.958277.