Are there ways in which democracy could revitalize technology in Europe?

By Helena Paul

It would be interesting to reverse this question and ask instead: are there ways in which democracy could revitalize technology in Europe? I think there are, if we have more inclusive processes of deliberation and consultation as new technologies are developed. Clearly our biodiversity and climate crises are due to a great extent to our ongoing development of technologies and we have to tackle this issue if we are to address these crises. We must not fall into the trap of supposing that simply developing new technologies will enable us to avoid making major changes to the model of development that is having such dire impacts on climate and biodiversity.

Stages in the development of a technology
I would like to quote from a chapter called Geoengineering as a response to the climate crisis: right road or disastrous diversion? in the book Facing up to Climate Reality: Honesty, Disaster and Hope, for the Green House Think Tank: published May 2019 and the chapter is available here:


  • The stage gate process

There are often several phases in the development of a product or technology and the aim of a stage gate process is to identify points where the proposed development should be examined and a decision taken as to whether or not to proceed to the next stage. It was in fact a stage gate process that helped to stop the first proposed geoengineering project in the UK, the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project (in 2010), which was to use a tethered balloon and hose to disperse water at a height of 1km to try out a prototype for delivering particles into the stratosphere at some 20 km above the surface of the earth. In the stage gate process for this project:
“…a panel of external experts considered the progress of the project against a number of criteria, such as checking that mechanisms have been identified to understand wider public and stakeholder views on the envisaged applications and impacts.
Following the stage gate meeting, the panel advised the research councils and the SPICE team that further work on stakeholder engagement and the social and ethical implications was required.”
In order to properly assess geoengineering we need a thorough stage gate process combined with the strict application of precaution and ongoing public consultation. Public consultation should happen at every stage of the development of a new technique and should have the power to halt it completely. If such an approach had been taken to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos, it is possible that their development and deployment could have been halted early in the twentieth century.

For more on the issues of asbestos and PCBs, see: Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, page 71: page 71


In answer to the actual question I feel deeply skeptical about the idea that technology could ‘revitalize’ democracy in Europe. Our attitude to technology tends to be that it will solve difficult issues for us that, I would submit, need to be approached quite differently. Proposals for geoengineering, for example, fit into this category, giving some the illusion that we can carry on with business as usual if we have technologies to capture and store carbon or reduce the warming effect of the sun. Democracy requires time and real inclusiveness as outlined above, and technologies cannot substitute for this, although they may possibly be able to assist in certain ways. However, the example I gave of the voting tool used in the Synthetic Biology Dialogue process shows that we have to be very cautious. Above all we should perform a technology assessment prior to any deployment, as proposed above.


  • Technology is shaping society without prior analysis and deliberation.

It is becoming abundantly clear that remote communication of all kinds can be very problematic for democracy. Mobile phone technology and platforms such as Facebook are beginning examined for their impacts only now, even though they have been with us for many years. In this way technology is shaping society without prior analysis. Physical presence in the same place at the same time seems to be very important to successful democratic deliberation. And now the move by Facebook et al. towards ‘greater privacy’ in order to address some of the problems that have emerged is not encouraging for democracy, which requires openness and responsibility.

We need to carefully investigate where relevant technology has been helpful and where it has not and then develop ways to address this. Remote communication, for example through Skype, is extremely useful, but I believe that it is important for real democracy that participants in discussion know each other already and have met face-to-face at some point. Also I do not believe that remote encounters of this kind can be a regular substitute for face to face meetings.

As touched on above, we should develop ways of trying to assess new technologies as they develop and before they are deployed. This involves the application of the Precautionary Principle and should be an ongoing process (stage gate) with the option to assess and halt, abandon or re-vision the technology at key points in its development.


Finally, although it may seem less relevant in the UK, it is important to realize that Indigenous Peoples and some local communities have developed their own forms of deliberation from which we could learn. I participated briefly in such deliberations by Indigenous communities in Colombia. Two important things I learned were the importance of spending enough time on the process and making it inclusive – the aim was to ensure that every member of the community understood the issues for deliberation, was able to express their views and participate in the process of making a decision.

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