Mobile innovation lab for rural regions earns OECD accolades

Social Foresight Lab


Fraunhofer IAO’s CeRRI provides a place to innovate and promote rural regions’ participatory development – the Social Foresight Lab.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has acknowledged the Social Foresight Lab developed by Fraunhofer IAO’s Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CeRRI) as a public sector innovation. Born of a project called Horizonte erweitern – Perspektiven ändern, or Broadening Horizons – Changing Perspectives, the lab is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). A mobile medium to promote participation and knowledge transfer, it has been deployed successfully to Bavaria, Hessen and Schleswig-Holstein.

Big cities and metropolitan regions are seen as hubs of innovation; rural regions less so. While many urban inventions have found their way to rural regions, the latter face specific challenges and opportunities. Invigorating these regions and positioning the non-urban community as a place where innovation can thrive will also require specific solutions. With this in mind, the Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CeRRI) of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO developed the Social Foresight Lab as part of this Broadening Horizons - Changing Perspectives research project.

Innovating in the Social Foresight Lab, jointly and locally

The idea behind the Social Foresight Lab is to shape the future of rural regions with local stakeholders and develop bespoke innovations. The lab serves to assess regional needs and legacy innovation systems. Drawing on these insights, its staff and local stakeholders strive to draw up a fitting game plan with a method that combines technology foresight, social foresight, needs assessment and strategy development.

The underlying assumption here is that efforts to innovate can only succeed if the general public affected by social challenges is on board and has a say in developing solutions. This participatory approach fosters unprecedented collaboration among regional stakeholders, particularly in rural regions with distinctive circumstances. It also serves to embed technological and social innovations in regional development efforts in ways that best suit the local situation.

Another key aspect of the Social Foresight Lab is to bring the idea of reciprocal learning and experimentation to bear in the process of transferring technology. Diverse stakeholders experiment with forward-looking solutions that tie together technological and social innovations.

Tapping rural region’s innovative potential with a future-minded parcourse and games

A new type of participatory workshop conducted in three test regions, Bavaria, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein, figured prominently in the Social Foresight Lab. Some 70 participants worked their way through a parcourse with 12 themed stations. They also played a specially developed game, taking part in missions to shape the region’s future. Fraunhofer IAO’s CeRRI and Fraunhofer INT had developed this concept. Confronted with hypothetical solutions and notional design objects, and prompted by visuals and narratives, participants pinpointed the benefits and drawbacks of these future solutions and gauged acceptance thresholds. People with various backgrounds and perspectives took part in the workshops, where they discussed their region’s potential, challenges and opportunities.

Three visions and narratives outlining rural areas’ potential future provided points of reference for this discourse. These visions were developed in a joint effort with rural thought leaders and with the dynamics and reciprocal action of social and technological developments in mind. The details were fleshed out in a Fraunhofer INT technology foresight project.

The requirements pinpointed in these workshops will be conveyed to researchers and public policymakers in the final stage of the lab. Translated into strategy development tools, these specifications will serve to develop actionable projects in collaboration with science and government experts.