The Epinet Project

At present there exists a great diversity for assessing the impacts of science and technology on society and the environment. This project explores new ways for bringing more of these methodologies into concert with each other, as well as with the concerns of innovators, policy makers and citizens.

EPINET introduces the concept of epistemic networks as a way of conceptualizing complex developments within emerging fields of sociotechnical innovation. It establishes a weak or "soft" framework within which the plurality of different assessment practices can be explored in a concerted and holistic manner. EPINET uses this concept to study four cases:

1) wearable sensors for activity and physiological monitoring;
2) cognitive technical systems (mainly robotics)
3) synthetic/ in-vitro meat, and
4) smart grids for power supply

EPINET is an EU funded project under the seventh framework program, coordinated by the Centre for the studies of the sciences and humanities, University of Bergen.

University of Bergen
seventh framework programme

Case: The smart grid

With goals set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining security of electricity supply to end-users, renewable energy technologies are projected to be widely deployed by the middle of this century. A paradigm shift in electricity supply is required because the traditional centralized way of generation, transport and one-way distribution through the grid will be changed toward decentralized systems and two-way distribution. This will involve and impact all stakeholders in the chain from generating companies, system operators and consumers. Especially with decentralized electricity generation units such as photovoltaic solar energy modules and micro combined heat and power units, the traditional consumer can now act as a generating company and even sell or trade his electricity on the market. Here, ICT and artificial intelligence embodied in ‘smart meters’ will play an important role in the emerging technology of smart electricity grids. Where in the past the consumer could solve an electricity failure at home by just replacing a fuse, (s)he may now need the assistance of a software engineer or a helpdesk. In other fields, consumer dependence on high-tech helpdesks has turned already into nightmares for low-tech consumers. If such concerns are not taken on board adequately upstream during the early stages of the smart net innovation, it may turn the whole technology into a failure in the implementation phase, which we cannot afford in view of the desired transition to a large scale decentralized renewable energy system. Within EPINET the focus will be in the area of consumer interaction with both the smart meter and its possibilities of control of her/his demand. We aim to elicit the conditions that need to be met for a smart electricity grid to be a socially robust and socially acceptable technology. This also involves legal dimensions related to privacy, data access, but also to discrimination and unfair exclusion. New economic models of electricity tariffs may tempt the consumer to adapt his electricity usage so as to minimize his electricity bill, by, e.g., delivering his surplus electricity to his neighbor or local electricity cooperative or a nation-wide electricity trader or producer.

Assessment methodologies involved: media analysis, risk and uncertainty analysis, vision assessment, socio-technical analysis, multi-scale integrated assessment, ethics and law.

Case: Wearable sensors

The case study focuses on recent developments of wearable sensors, including biosensors, for which numerous applications are being piloted or promoted through futuristic visions of high-tech sensor and other monitoring technologies. These new-emerging technologies promise great benefit, e.g., more efficient care and the improved safety of persons in a variety of situations, but there remain many unanswered questions about the implications of this new wave of innovations and how it may go forward. Through this case study we seek to contribute substantively to ongoing evaluations of Europe's innovation policy and the strategic agendas that aim to ensure the future of Europe's competitiveness in accordance with the Europe 2020 and Horizon 2020 initiatives. We observe that dominant social-cultural and political sentiments resonate in policies resting on explicit promising and expectations that science and technology will solve common societal, environmental and existential challenges. What is particularly relevant for our case study is how such expectations are embedded in visions of the future in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) continue to conjoin with other technologies and scientific research. In other words, ICTs are seen as key-enablers with a central role in planning, preparing and mastering the future.

Assessment methodologies involved: ethics, law, media studies, knowledge assessment (pedigree analysis), socio-technical analysis.

Case: autonomous robotics systems for the use of citizens

Whereas artificial intelligence for a long time now has been located in isolated software processing, research over a decade or so in cognitive and neuroscience have changed the outlook of machine intelligence towards a paradigm of embodied intelligence. This has had repercussions in the field of robotics and automation: increasingly, systems are being developed with learning and cognitive capabilities which are integrated with state-of-the-art sensoring technologies, thereby displaying human-like traits in flexible, adaptive and interactional systems. In this way, it is imagined, robotics will take a step towards socially embedded machines for use in new areas of activity and possibly address novel societal challenges on large scales. Initiatives are under way to develop “emotionally intelligent systems”, for instance, for use in different household tasks or for caring for the elderly, and as companions in love and sex. Robots can also be used to maintain infrastructures under pressure from increasing urbanisation or for monitoring, preserving and managing the environment. Although these developments have potentially far-reaching impact, most research into cognitive technical systems is not in a mature stage of development. This work package especially focuses on efforts within the European Union to create more autonomous robotics systems to meet with main societal and environmental challenges. It investigates different meanings and implications of “autonomy” as understood by lawyers and ethicists, and by engineers and roboticists.

Assessment methodologies involved: ethics, law, socio-technical analysis, vision assessment.

Case: Synthetic meat

Following the expansion of stem cell science and tissue engineering for biomedical purposes over the last fifteen years, scientists in Europe and North America have been growing cells taken from pigs, turkeys, cows, goldfish and sheep to grow lumps of muscle tissue that could be consumed as food. The technology, termed In Vitro Meat or cultured meat, is still in the early stages but has been funded by groups including the Dutch government and NASA. Currently the main centres are in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and the US. There are also three start-up companies looking for routes to commercialisation. The technology is presented as having a range of potential benefits. Perhaps the most high-profile claimed benefit today relates to the potential impact on climate change. Drawing upon the UN report 'The Long Shadow of Livestock' that argues the livestock and dairy industry contributes to climate change more than the entire transport industry, In Vitro Meat protagonists have developed a number of preliminary life-cycle analysis report demonstrating significantly less environmental damage. Socially and morally we must recognise that In Vitro Meat represents such a fundamental re-configuration of the typical organisation of meat production and animal kinship that it inherently raises many clear moral questions: is it ethically right to produce artificial meat? Is it 'meat'? Is it somehow “unnatural” or does this only appear to be so until we come to accept the idea? Is it vegetarian to eat In Vitro Meat?

Assessment methodologies involved: multi-scale integrated assessment, ethics, media analysis

Scientific background and research process

During the last 30-40 years a number of different assessment methods have been developed and implemented on national, international and EU levels to deal with the societal and environmental implications of new sciences and technologies. Although much has been achieved in fields such as technology assessment, ELSA studies and public participation these are also characterised by great diversity and a plurality of methods. Although diversity may be a resource it can also turn out a decisive hindrance to communication and action for principal end users, such as policy makers or publics. In part, the diversity of these fields comes from the fact that different forms of assessments are undertaken for a number of different purposes. To determine risk or toxicity levels will not necessarily increase public debate; public perception, debate and precautionary approaches to risk assessment may be perceived as obstacles to innovation, and so on. Where real underlying conflict of interest exists, it might be better to spell out the underlying values and presuppositions without seeking further consensus. However, differences of perception may also be due to (differing) values and epistemologies built into assessment practices and methods themselves. Especially here there is potential for improvement. We use the term epistemic network to refer to three levels of analysis and practice:

The first denotes contexts of innovation, denoting complex and intersecting relations of professionals, technologies, citizens, users, entrepreneurs, business and policy-makers forming new constellations of collaboration, experimentation and reflection to meet societal challenges.

The second relates to political levels of governance. These may try to accommodate innovation to meet so-called grand societal challenges, such as the goals set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, but also with addressing concerns of publics and citizens.

The third level relates to the context of assessment, i.e. the activities of people working on the interfaces of different scientific disciplines and policy making in order to better assess and evaluate the implications of new and emerging technologies.

It is the potential for tighter integration between three main fields of practice, i.e. contexts of innovation, governance and contexts of assessment, which serves as the analytic point of departure as well as the critical (regulative and normative) goal for EPINET.

The notion of epistemic communities emerged within the academic field of international relations (Haas 1992). EPINET proceeds to expand on conventional notions of knowledge and expertise by situating it as practice-based and locally contingent (Polanyi 1958), as also identified in the “Practice Turn” in Science and Technology Studies (e.g., Schatzki et al., 2001). EPINET also builds on and expands the notion of epistemic communities into that of epistemic networks by shifting the focus from epistemic and normative commitments of expert communities to networks forming as the result of new imperatives for S&T development as outlined in EU policy frameworks such as the i2020 initiative. In principle, therefore, anybody responding to or contesting a grand societal challenge by engaging in innovation activities together with others is a potential member of an epistemic network. Such networks emerge on the intersections of communities traditionally separated as “expert” and “lay” knowledge. On that account, common experiences, insights, knowledge and creativity have to be included as relevant forms of expertise. The same, of course, goes for knowledge and normative commitments held by user-based communities, such as civil society organisations and other NGOs, patient organisations, professional organisations or labour unions. One shift of focus which we explore, but which has been recognised neither in the academic analysis nor practice of technology assessment, is to move from the implied assumption that methodological elaboration will be sufficient to encompass all the salient factors, to the idea that some of the issues here require appropriate carefully designed institutional changes.

The project runs through three main stages of development:

Initial assessment (months 1-12): The first stage corresponds to a general mapping of methodologies, networks and policy issues, including intrinsic values, framing premises and purposes shaping methodologies and procedures. Two work packages (WPs 1 and 2) will work on cross-cutting (conceptual and disciplinary) perspectives, investigating the potentials and limitations of methodologies, disciplines as well as central policy concepts dealing with grand societal challenges. At the same time, and in coordination with WPs 1 and 2, work will start on the specific cases (WPs 3-6). Here, each case will be studied in accordance with dominant TA methodologies whereas at the same time focusing specifically on epistemic networks, grand societal challenges and the policy concepts meant to govern them. Hence, this stage will also serve as a general mapping, both of the context of innovation (R&D) as well as the context of assessment (the different methodologies and their bearings on the cases).

Embedding assessments (13-24): The second stage expands initial assessments by bringing them into interaction with different epistemic networks; scenario development activities will bring together broad groups of thinkers and practitioners to explore pressing policy issues through two workshops. The workshops enables the co-creation of main issues on the intersections of policy and innovation, research and development and as such enables industrial players to engage in reflexive learning with diverse experts doing assessments of the particular cases. In order to bridge the institutional, philosophical, professional and cultural perspectives that are relevant to thinking systematically about the prospects of emerging technologies, the dialogue and research leading to scenarios is at once open ended and highly structured.

Comparison and integration (months 25-36): The final stage will compare, analyse and work out the general implications of the project. Here, the results from the implications workshop will be distributed through the project’s channels as well as attendant publications describing the process and outcomes to public and academic audiences. The feedback from participants and end users will be analysed along with preceding results from all work packages: first of all, for each case this concerns the results gained through the distinct methodologies; in a next step, this must also be placed in relation to the results from the cross-cutting WPs 1 and 2. Taken together, results will be used to draw conclusions and for recommendations for assessment practitioners, policy makers and other end users and interested parties.


University of Bergen
Cesagen, Lancaster University
University of Sussex
LSTS Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Utrecht University
European Commission – Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, DG Joint Research Centre
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona-Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals