Narratives and Models in the Assessment of Unproven Technology

Project description

Imagined futures are said to be the driving force of the present. Politicians, scientists, engineers, and economists alike rely on speculations to reason and outline their present decisions in an unfolding and promising future. Although we cannot predict the future (immanence of the present), we can empirically observe how imagining and fighting about future imaginaries takes place at different places, contexts, and times. At these sites of hyperprojectivity, boundaries for the imagination of unproven technologies emerge and manifest in reference to models and narratives. In this thesis, I study models and narratives to analyze and distinguish between imagined futures to gauge their implications for Technology Assessment (TA).

The study’s conceptual approach is based on two rather detached debates in the field of TA, namely the Sociology of Expectation and the Philosophies of Modeling and Imagination. While the sociological debate highlights the scope and significance of anticipatory practices for novel and emerging technologies, the philosophical debate addresses the prerequisites of achieving new beliefs and motivation in fiction. The two debates overlap in their understanding of models and narratives as socially authorized instructions for the imagination. While narratives represent the temporal coherence of heterogeneous elements in hypothesized pathways for actions (from A to B via C), models of interrelations of factors considered, represent the basis for socio-epistemic reflection. Since they are both pivotal for shaping the future, mutual influences are to be worked out. For this purpose, the integrated accompanying research of a study on the "Visions of nutrition with microalgae" serves as an empirical example. The developed, analytical perspective reveals how future narratives arrange collective actors and expertise differently, generate new beliefs, and induce action through props, models, and prototypes. I conclude that more attention should be paid to the central role of models and narratives as the boundary objects and props of technology assessment in order to better understand the interrelations of its scientific, political and economic embedding.

The articles of the cumulative work cohere in their question about the role of contested representations, such as models and narratives for the assessment of unproven and emerging technologies. The first article discusses the role of narratives for agency and ambiguous assessments of knowledge from a systems theory perspective. The second article discusses and exemplifies, how to empirically study societal futures in Delphi methods, and how generalized key-narratives allow to distinguish and communicate them across transdisciplinary contexts. The third article transfers Kendall Walton’s theory of “make-believe” from representational arts and scientific modeling to the empirical study of visions in order to reveal the ambiguous sociotechnical boundaries for the imagination of the future technology, using the example of a stakeholder workshop. The fourth article takes up and merges the system analytical findings in an opinion paper on futures of microalgae nutrition. The fifth article discusses ways of anticipating political and economic perspectives on life cycle assessment (LCA) in the study design under the premise of comparability and methodical standardization. In summary, the thesis gives models and narratives of unproven and emerging technologies a new relevance in present debates of TA and its scientific surroundings.

Related publications

Vision as make-believe: how narratives and models represent sociotechnical futures

Comparability of LCAs — Review and Discussion of the Application Purpose

Key-Narratives of Microalgae Nutrition: Exploring futures through a public Delphi survey in Germany

Microalgae for integrated food and fuel production

Narrative Self-Reference and the Assessment of Knowledge

Administrative data

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Armin Grunwald
Advisor: Prof. Dr. Albrecht Koschorke (Universität Konstanz)
Doctoral students at ITAS: See Doctoral studies at ITAS


Maximilian Roßmann, M.A.
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS)
P.O. Box 3640
76021 Karlsruhe