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Observing Emergence

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Technologies to watch

Future and emerging technologies (FET) may eventually transform European societies. The EU needs to know what the likely fields are so it can invest and support them properly. An EU team compiled a list of 171 such areas, drawn from traditional and non-traditional sources of innovation.


FET are those technologies likely to have a strong impact on the European economy and society. FET implies high-risk, long-term, multidisciplinary research that lays the foundation for next-generation technologies. Therefore, pinpointing and developing the technologies are high priority for associated EU bodies. The EU-funded OBSERVE project was launched to identify opportunities for FET research. Work involved scanning the research literature and offering suggestions to stakeholders and experts in the form of dialogue. Project partners examined the potential for FET by looking at a wide range of emerging phenomena. Although most researchers keep an eye on developments, according to OBSERVE project coordinator Dr Philine Warnke, most are biased towards their own fields. Instead, innovation studies suggest that radical breakthroughs rarely emerge linearly from basic research; novelty emerges from a combination of numerous sources. Therefore, the project examined numerous frontiers of thought. “In OBSERVE we included sources from art, science fiction and social sciences that are not usually seen as sources for new science and technology perspectives,” explains Dr Warnke. “Our reasoning was that new things usually emerge from an interplay of social and technological change, so it makes sense to look at the full spectrum of developments.” Emerging topics OBSERVE published a report detailing 171 items to be considered as potentially emerging topics, grouped into 44 clusters. In decreasing order, the top-five largest groups were: machine society, mixed realities (vr+), understanding and influencing human behaviour, human enhancement and distributed collaboration platforms. Project researchers also presented the information as a deck of 171 cards. The cards contain basic information about each topic, and were designed to stimulate strategic conversation during a series of workshops. Starting from the 171 topics in a stepwise process of online and face to face interaction with experts the team generated a set of 35 “hotspots of change” which cover a diverse range of aspects including e.g. Bacteria Management, Multi-Signal Sensing Systems, Solar Age and Privacy Providing Systems. The complete report is available for download. Technology still has much to learn from humans The study did not proceed exactly as intended. The team originally planned to use a roughly equal combination of semi-automated and manual searches. However, during the research process it became apparent that they would not be able to use the automated methods as extensively as envisaged. “We had totally underestimated the challenge of a completely open screening approach,” says Dr Warnke. “In particular, the automated analysis of publications from the Web of Science did not yield very relevant results.” The team thus relied on human scouting much more than planned. During its final phase, the project refined the FET radar methodology employed during the research. The report is downloadable. Project researchers believe the method to be highly promising. It is applicable to companies and other actors planning similar studies. Details of the method are also available via the project’s home page. As a result of the OBSERVE project, the EU can take the portfolio of highlighted topics and focus resources on their priority development. Pursuing such work also fosters the EU’s capacity to engage in future FET foresight activities. In both ways, the research helps to advance European competitiveness and well-being.


OBSERVE, technologies, science, society, innovation, emerging technologies

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