The overall aim of the VOICES project was to identify citizens’ ideas, preferences, values, needs and expectations with respect to research priorities for the theme ‘Urban Waste and Innovation’. Another important aim of the project was to yield valuable insight on methods and procedures for engaging citizen participation to help set the research agenda for Europe’s Responsible Research and Innovation framework.
One thousand European citizens from 27 EU countries participated in focus group discussions about the topic ‘waste as a resource’ using a structured VOICES methodology which spans training, implementation and analysis.
To ensure diversity in participating citizens and to represent society-at-large, demographic selection criteria (age, sex, education, employment, housing situation, urban/non-urban, type of municipality) were applied. For diversity in perspectives, a renowned method – focus groups – was applied in a unique way.
One misconception about VOICES could be that it was inviting citizens to identify problems in the waste management process and directly come up with new innovations in order to solve these problems. This may well be a by-product of the work of VOICES consultations, and it is true that the methodology involves participants identifying and prioritising solutions, but the ultimate objective was for citizens to identify ideas (not only those linked to existing problems) to feed into analysis and influence research priorities.
An important advantage of focus groups is that participants can respond to and build on the views expressed by the other participants. It is a method that provides opportunities to gain in-depth insight into experiences, values, wishes and concerns of participants and stimulates shared creative thinking.
Stakeholders (policymakers) were asked to consider citizens’ needs in order to foster tailored scientific research in the field. Specific research calls on waste management were influenced by citizens’ priorities.
The outcomes of the focus groups were analysed by researchers, who first summarised the priorities for each country, and then compared these results on a European level. The reports produced were used by the European Commission to draft some of the calls for research proposals under the new Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The knowledge gained through VOICES will echo in similar participatory actions across Horizon 2020.
By demonstrating how the opinions of European citizens can directly influence policymaking related to research and innovation, VOICES showcases an RRI methodology that successfully couples inclusive deliberation to transformative policy action.