What Is Technology Assessment?
This report aims to familiarize and to provide an understanding of Technology Assessment both in its past and present form. Its different viewpoints, approaches, tools and methods, which are all relevant to the engineering decision-maker and analyst alike, are discussed.
The four different Technology Assessment paradigms as described by Eijnhoven (1997) along with the views of lecturers in this subject on the question What is Technology Assessment? , is also discussed and analysed.
By understanding the roots of technological assessment and its impacts on everyday life, one can recognize and appreciate the importance of its presence in an ever-changing environment. The first part of this report aims to achieve this.
The second part of this report describes the increased need for engineers to incorporate Technology Assessment into engineering decision making and its practice. Different engineering disciplines will see Technology Assessment in different perspectives. How they will approach a particular problem through the different environmental, social, technical, economic and political factors is part of the decision making process (Taylor, 2000).
THE NEED FOR TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT
In the post-war era, the necessity of taking into account social costs and benefits as well as private costs and benefits became apparent. At the time, problems relating to forecasting the future consequences of complex technologies became more and more obvious (Freeman 1995). Such an example if the issue of nuclear power. The limitations of a purely economics-based assessment of social and environmental problems had become clear.
It was in these circumstances that techniques of ‘Technology Assessment’ began to be used in an attempt to overcome the short-comings and limitations of cost-benefit analysis.
Thus, Technology Assessment was adopted by U.S Congress and governments from around the world and was widely recognised through the need to make publicly available assessment of the potential risks, hazards, costs and benefits of developing new technologies. It also sparked the importance of parliamentary control of assessment procedures and the involvement of diverse disciplines.
An example of developing new technologies would be the resource presentation by Wahidul Biswas on Socio-Technical Design in Mechanical Engineering. In his presentation, Wahidul talks about the consequences of new technologies, that is, social and environmental aspects. New technologies (NT’s) centers less on the numbers employed (a social aspect) and leads to incomplete combustion and biomass consumption in developing countries (an environmental aspect).
Technology Assessment as described in Eijnhoven readings by the lecture from Bronwyn Holland as a metaphor that ‘Technology Assessment illuminates the darkness/opacity of the technology society interface’ (Eijnhoven 1997). This is quite true. In a society where nothing is very open, Technology Assessment is necessary to bring technology and society to ‘light’, so to speak, in order to gain a better understanding.
One important purpose of technology assessment, in general, will be continual improvement. By using evaluation results, one will better understand how a technological product or process is working and where it is headed. With this greater understanding, better decisions can be made that will improve/refine the life of the product or process in the long run.
Examples would include:
Negative effects of the above, in general, are becoming positive effects through the continual implementation of technology assessment.
Another good example would be in the area of Health Technologies. The resource presentation by Hung Nguyen on Design issues in Electrical Engineering talks about the need to design a non-invasive hypoglycaemia monitor capable of monitoring hypoglycaemia conditions, without extracting blood or body fluid. Technology assessment is necessary in designing such a device for diabetic patients. Using new and improving technology, more advanced monitoring systems can be designed and implemented to better fulfil society. Engineers are currently working on such a device. As stated in his lecture, there is no hypoglycaemia monitor in the market at present.
There are many different reasons to evaluate a particular technology. Many people think of an assessment as a nerve-wracking process meant to determine continued funding or recognition. Although making decisions on continued funding or recognition could be a purpose of technology assessment, there are many other reasons why one should assess technology.
Some of these reasons are:
To provide information to engineers and others on aspects of the technology that work well and the potential problems that arises.
To catch potential problems early in the technology product so they can be corrected before more serious problems occur further down the track.
To guide further assessment efforts. For instance, an assessment may bring to light; issues that need to be examined in greater detail or an initial evaluation of a technology product implementation may be used, in part, to guide a later assessment of long-term impact.
To provide information on what technical assistance may be needed.
To determine what impact the technology product is having on users in our society.
So, to answer the question Why do we need technology assessment? in my view, has two major parts:
1. To find out if the technological product is beginning to produce desired results that one aims for. For example:
Has the product improved over existing model/product?
Is it comparatively cost effective?
Does it have a place in society? If so, how useful is it?
Are all major factors considered? That is, environmental, social, technical, economical, cultural and political factors?
2. To obtain information on implementing the product.
UNDERSTANDING TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT
What is Technology Assessment?
There is no one straight answer or definition to this question. Technology assessment has taken on many forms and approaches and is viewed differently by each individual. It is however, can be agreed that technology assessment has established itself as a new form of interdisciplinary technology research where engineers from all disciplines and other parties come together to assess a particular technology.
Two definitions, which I believe, are good approaches to understanding Technology Assessment are:
Technology assessment is a class of policy studies which systematically examine the effects on society that may occur when a technology is introduced, extended or modified. It emphasizes those consequences that are unintended, indirect or delayed (Coates 1980)
Technology assessment is an attempt to establish an early warning system to detect, control, and direct technological changes and developments so as to maximise the public good while minimising the public risks (Cetron 1972)
There are four main types of TA approaches, which can be distinguished (Ende et al 1997):
1. Awareness TA: forecasting technological developments and their impacts to warn for unintended or undesirable consequences.
2. Strategic TA: supporting specific actors or groups of actors in formulating their policy or strategy with respect to a specific technological development.
3. Constructive TA: broadening the decision process about technological development, to shape the course of technological development in socially desirable directions.
4. Backcasting: developing scenarios of desirable futures and starting innovation processes based on these scenarios.
Technology assessment analyses are studies which:
comprehensively and systematically analyse and evaluate the prerequisites for and the positive and negative impact of introducing and (widely) applying technologies;
identify areas of social conflict created by technology applications and
Point out and review optimal courses of action (options) for improving the technologies considered and their terms of application.
The Starting points for technology assessment are either from a concrete project, a specific technology or a perceived problem. There are three Technology Assessment studies usually undertaken:
1. Project-induced TA-studies: Investigation of technology applications that are prototypical.
2. Technology-induced TA-studies: Address the issue of using a technology and its consequences for industry, the environment and society within the framework of a broad range of known or potential applications.
3. Problem-induced TA-studies: These studies attempt to point out possible alternative (technical) solutions for foreseeable problems, such as in the areas of transport, energy supply, environmental issues etc.) and to analyse their impacts.
The four paradigms as defined by Eijnhoven
J.C.M Van Eijnhoven, a professor of technology assessment had devised through extensive research, the four paradigms of technology assessment: the classical paradigm; the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) paradigm; public technology assessment paradigm; and constructive technology (CTA) paradigm.
The classical paradigm emphasized early warning and the neutral character of the information to be provided.
OTA assessments were not so directed at early warning, but at the development of policy makers. The careful balancing of participation of the U.S Congress, stakeholders and academics provided a mechanism leading to authoritative reports.
Public TA Paradigm
Concentrates on actively seeking participation of a wider public. The emphasis here is much less on the production of authoritative reports than on social processes that may help shape technology in society. In countries other than the United States, much more emphasis is placed upon a lack of interaction among experts, representatives and the public with respect to science and technology issues (Eijnhoven 1997). Public TA paradigm aims to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors while at the same time, expanding the relationship between people and technology.
Active involvement of the public in making them understand the scope and implications of a particular technology is what governments, the parliament and private sectors hope to achieve.
An example of this would be to hold conferences where a panel of people is educated about a certain technological development and whereby they can consult with experts and the audience about particular issues and concerns.
Their conclusions are then written into a document, which is then delivered to parliament as a basis for further policy development (Eijnhoven 1997).
The Dutch Science Dynamics program was the start of a development that ultimately led to constructive technology assessment. The Science Dynamics program was created by the Minister of Science Policy (minister 1973-1981) of the Netherlands to initiate a research program directed at finding ways in which research can be oriented toward societal goals.
Compared to the early warning approach of the classical paradigm, constructive technology assessment was idealised as an active, positive form of shaping technological development.
The body of literature about constructive technology assessment leads one to think how technological development can most effectively be influenced. This is done primarily in industry. For this reason, constructive technology assessment can sometimes be viewed as a form of enlightened management, of broadening the factors taken into account in the usual design processes in industry.
Technology Assessment Tools and Methods
There are numerous technology assessment tools and methods used by the relevant party(ies), professions and governments of today, both modern and traditional. New assessment tools and methods are being discovered or developed at a rapid pace to adapt to the needs of an ever-changing environment.
The application of different TA tools and methods needs to be evaluated more systematically to determine in which situations the application of the tools and methods has been successful and in which not.
Moreover, a combination of different TA tools and methods may be required for, say, a particular project/product.
Examples of the tools and methods used to identify or characterise Technology Assessment can be summarised in the table 1:
Tools and Methods
Layout of Studies Layout of interventions Tools for Analysis Intervention Tools
Technological Forecasting Intervention in Innovation Networks Trend Extrapolation Consumer Conference
Impact Assessment Connecting Separated Networks Structured Interaction Structured Interaction
Scenario Analysis Demand Articulation Checklists
Market Research Consumer TA Socio-technical Maps
Panel Consensus Participatory TA
Visionary Forecasts Citizens’ Initiatives
Risk Assessment Strategic Niche Management
Table 1: Tools and Methods
Four tools and methods, which will be discussed in this report, are Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Barometer of Sustainability, Structured Interaction (Delphi) and Technological Forecasting.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
Environmental impact assessment aims to record and evaluate the impact of physical projects (e.g. building roads, power stations, industrial plants etc). An environmental impact assessment is not just a study of the environmental impact of a project but is a legally regulated process, which must be carried out in accordance with certain rules and regulations before approval is granted.
Environmental impact assessments must also be carried out for environmentally relevant plans and programs (town planning, land-use programs, transport planning, research and technology programs etc.).
From the methodological aspect, EIA has a great deal in common with TA; in many countries, economic and social effects are also considered within the framework of environmental impact assessments, i.e. the impacts they record are similarly comprehensive to those of TA-studies.
An overlap between technology assessment and environmental impact assessment is particularly evident in the case of research and technology programs, or projects concerned with building technological innovation (e.g. coal liquefaction plants). Such environmental impact assessments are usually accepted into the TA-field, while environmental impact assessments of projects with an already established technology (e.g. construction of a coal power station) or other conventional projects are not included (Halstead 2000).
Barometer of Sustainability
A powerful tool for examining and understanding human and ecological well being at the same time. Developed by the World Conservation Union and supported by a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for a project titled Measuring Progress towards Sustainability.
It enables users to organise and combine indicators, and to draw broad conclusions from often confusing and contradictory signals about people, the ecosystem, and the effects of interactions between the two. It presents those conclusions visually, providing an immediate picture of well-being.
The Barometer has six key features:
1) A performance scale, combining indicators to which the user can attach a performance value — desirable, acceptable, or unacceptable, for example — with respect to human or ecosystem well-being
2) The scale has two axes: one for human well-being, the other for ecosystem well-being. This ensures that an improvement in one does not mask a decline in the other. Conclusions about well-being are expressed as points on their appropriate axes. The intersection of these points provides a reading of overall well-being and progress toward sustainability
3) A lower score on one axis overrides a higher score on the other. In other words, overall well-being is based on which subsystem — people or the ecosystem — is in worse condition
4) The Barometer’s 0-100 scale is divided into five sectors of 20 points each, the interval between which may vary. Users control the scale by defining one or more sectors. For example, for unemployment amongst engineers, 0-4% may be defined as good, 5-9% as okay, 10-19% as medium, 20-49% as poor, and 50-100% as bad
5) Defining the sectors of the scale obliges users to state explicitly their assumptions about the significance of each indicator for human or ecosystem well-being, and the level of achievement that would be ideal, desirable, acceptable, unacceptable, or disastrous
6) Converting indicator results to the barometer scale involves simple calculations, making it easy to use for a wide range of people and applications
Structured Interaction (Delphi)
A technology assessment approach developed for forecasting purposes. This process requires that experts consider the issues under investigation and make predictions about future developments. Delphi is a systematic, interactive method of forecasting based on independent inputs regarding future events.
The method includes interviewing of, and anonymously exchanging answers between experts. In this way, an attempt is made to make an estimate of future developments without any interference of the social relations that exist between these experts (Ende et al 1997). However, there is a limitation, in interviewing experts, will generally produce biased results. A flowchart of the Delphi process is shown below.
This anonymity also provides the comfort of confidentiality, allowing experts on the panel to freely express their opinions. By doing so, it becomes highly useful in documenting a wide spread of opinion so that uncertainty regarding events or the topic at hand can be reflected. Thus, different perspectives from a range of disciplines are critical to the outcome.
All participants are encouraged to comment on their own forecasts and on the combined panel results. This procedure reduces the effects of personal agendas or biases and assists the panelists in remaining focused on the questions, issues and comments at hand.
Technology forecasting is a quite common technology assessment technique used in almost any application. However, it is primarily used to develop images of the future development of technology. In particular, the predictions of future technologies and how it will vary as its technological course of action varies is seen as probable futures. The realisation of these futures is dependent on actions of the different parties involved.
There are immense limitations with the application of this technique, in particular where technological forecasts are seen as being highly predictive. One of the fundamental flaws is that of predicting technology itself. How does one predict that a particular technology will, if ever, be actually successful, as one would hope it to be? The answer to this question is of a speculative nature.
Another limitation would be the difficulty in forecasting societal developments. Especially in an uncertain era such as this one, society develops and changes constantly. Adapting to change would be quite difficult and forecasting would probably be needed to be done on a regular basis.
Also, the unpredictable types of use of new technologies are another limitation. One cannot be sure whether a certain technology forecasted will solely be used for that purpose(s) only.
DISCIPLINARY DIFFERENCES IN TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT
In today’s society, Technology Assessment plays a significant role in the engineering decision making process. It is seen more and more as a formality to include Technology Assessment studies when dealing with engineering decisions. Increased pressure from the social, environmental, cultural, political, economical and technical factors have shaped the way engineers think.
The idea of interdisciplinary research is not an uncommon one. Until different disciplines are brought into contact with one another, the results obtained within a single discipline are likely to be highly misleading. Interdisciplinary research is evident in almost all projects undertaken by engineers and other professions.
Technology Assessment and Engineering Disciplines
The primary function of engineers is to use their technical knowledge and training to create products and processes that are of value to the organisation (Harris et al 1995). Engineers being professionals must uphold the standards their profession has decided should guide the use of their technical knowledge. They have obligations to hold which include meeting the standards usually associated with good design and accepted engineering practice. The criteria embedded in these standards include such considerations as efficiency and economy of design, the degree of invulnerability to improper manufacturing and operation, and the extent to which state-of-the-art technology is used. Technology Assessment is one major tool engineers use in their approach to achieve this.
Technology Assessment (TA), I believe should be incorporated right across the engineering range of disciplines. It should be implemented at the beginning and finish of a project or product, to ensure the above-mentioned relevant factors are taken into consideration, and that the engineers’ decision, in the end, is the right one. Different TA tools and methods will be implemented by different engineering disciplines.
TA studies should also be done to ensure the project viability and the risks as an outcome from products, structures, substances created by engineers is minimised or avoided.
Engineering necessarily involves risks. Even if engineers did not innovate but rather designed things in the same way year after year, the chance of producing harm would exist. New hazards could be found in products, processes and chemicals once thought to be safe (Harris et al 1995).
The element of risk is greatly increased because engineers are constantly involved in innovation.
Civil engineers and Builders constructing a bridge or building with new materials or with a new design
Mechanical engineers designing new machines
Chemical engineers synthesizing new chemical compounds
This is usually always done without the full knowledge of their long-term effects on humans or the environment. Thus, TA becomes crucial in reducing these effects. By implementing TA-studies, knowledge of the dangers associated with new technology can be avoided or minimised.
Incorporating factors into the engineering decision making process
As mentioned in the overview, engineering disciplines have different social, technical, economic and political forces that shape their decision making process. This is quite true. Different engineering disciplines will have different views on a particular subject or project. Each engineer would have been taught to think differently and act/respond accordingly and so the engineering phrase there is more than one way to design something is quite true.
Typical examples of the different disciplines that incorporate the various factors into their decision making process is in the medical technologies and IT industry.
While most assessments of medical technologies focus narrowly on their cost effectiveness, a more important question for technology assessment involves the decision making process that accompanies it. In addition one knows little information about the different roles played by different actors in the development and implementation of medical technology such as hospitals, as well as financial institutions (example, health care insurers). (Weijers 1995).
Decision making on such medical technologies such as insulin fusion pumps used for the treatment of diabetics was quite interesting as it was a new technology whose optimal use pattern was (and remains) unknown. Here, different factors such as social, economical, technical, health factors and approaches are incorporated into the decision making process.
Decision-making is often limited to the efficiency of the technology as such amongst other factors, and is based on the technology’s state of the art at that moment. Rarely do decision-makers take into account the possibility that a technology might change, through research and development, or that new organisations or involved parties might change its application.
Another example of decision making processes incorporating the various factors is in the Information Technology industry. Social, economical, technical and political factors are the important ones to consider when assessing, producing and implementing new technologies.
Whereas IT has been a steadily growing element of society for the last 50 years, one is now faced with a situation where IT in many respects is setting the standard for communication between organisations. Traditional means are no longer a cost-effective alternative and will therefore be replaced. With individuals, IT is starting to become a part of everyday life. Examples include:
Electronic transfer of money instead of cash payments
All these are popular examples, which indicate changes in everyday life.
Another example is in communication with authorities, where personal data is sometimes only available on computer.
A growing concern whilst dealing with IT is IT-security. The three main areas are:
Continuity – the availability of information to the organisation or individual
Integrity – level of trust one can put on the information processed, transmitted or stored.
Privacy – who is allowed to see what information
Each engineering discipline will incorporate different factors in regards to their decision making process. For example, a Civil Engineer on a specific project, say, building a road, would need to consider all, if not most of the factors listed previously. Whilst an Environmental Engineer would probably concentrate on the environmental, cultural, and social factors associated with building a road. But both would collaborate with one another to achieve an optimal goal or end product. This leads to the issue of interdisciplinary research.
As mentioned earlier, Technology Assessment has established itself as a new form of interdisciplinary technology research where engineers from all disciplines and other parties’ come together to assess a particular technology. Technology and society is quite clearly approached from different directions by different disciplines not just engineers. These include economists, technologists, scientists’ etc.
Different engineering disciplines with their different assumptions and methods are brought into contact with one another as evident with any project undertaken or development of new technology. Decisions are made, during the research stage of new technologies and of new equipment, which will later force all efforts to design the jobs in connection with them. This research phase should therefore attract other disciplines other than engineering such as social scientists. Indeed, there are similarities and differences existent in the way socio-technical information is sought in the various disciplines.
The basic model drawn on the previous page is typical of the engineering decision making process that engineers use to plan, implement and design a particular project. This model can also be used in other disciplines.
From this report one can conclude by saying that Technology Assessment is vital in all aspects of society and not just in engineering alone. Through the different approaches, viewpoints, tools and methods of technology assessment we can gain a better understanding of the processes involved and to produce, refine and implement new and existing technologies to better fulfil our daily lives.
Through the understanding of paradigms classical, OTA, public and Constructive (as described by Eijnhoven), we can try and relate it to real-life situations and engineering applications.
The need for Technology Assessment to be incorporated at the design phase of a project is crucial and fundamental in the way Engineering design is undertaken by the various Engineering disciplines.
The issue of Interdisciplinary research and collaboration is achieved through the use of Technology Assessment tools and techniques.
Also, the different social, technical, economic and political factors are all factors which influence the way decision making processes are made through different engineering disciplines.
Technology Assessment has taken on many forms during this era and is varied through each individual and/or organisation. It has an enormous impact on my future as a practising engineer.
Taylor, Elizabeth. 2000 48270 Technology Assessment Study Guide Notes s2000 1,
Freeman, Christopher, 1995. Preface to Managing Technology in Society.
Managing Technology and Society, 1995, p. ix. Pinter Publishers
Eijnhoven, Josee Van 1997 Technology Assessment : Product or Process?
Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol 54
Biswas, Wahidul 2000 Socio-Technical Design in Mechanical Engineering
Resource Presentation 2000