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The Ferdinand-Steinbeis-Institute removes technology topics from the ivory towers of science

Involving society in the trend toward Economy 4.0 is important for two reasons. On the one hand, many emerging technologies in the field of “autonomization” and digital transformation cannot take effect without society. On the other, society can have a decisive influence on how and in which areas new technologies enter application. But what is the best way to involve society, and what needs to be in place for this to work? This is the question being looked at as part of a macro testbed called Technologie*Begreifen (“Grasp Technology”) organized by the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute (FSTI), part of the Steinbeis Foundation. Dr. Marlene Gottwald, a senior research fellow at the FSTI, explains why we need to be more daring and experimental when it comes to involving society in the implementation of future technological visions.

Interesting the general public in technology topics and encouraging them can be quite challenging, especially in Germany, where a lot of technology trends – such as artificial intelligence, autonomous robots, and self-learning machines – are seen as the projects of the elite and “far-removed.” There are not enough suitable, comprehensive sources of information, and this creates another barrier for society in trying to come to terms with the latest technological developments. Exchanging ideas about technology in society and getting people involved in public debate will only work if everyone understands the underlying technological principles and the full spectrum of application scenarios.

But this is about more than accepting new technologies. Technology is not something that exists beyond the realms of society, independent of the influence of people, and it is thus not something that can only be accepted or rejected (Petrella 1990). Quite the opposite: “Values, strategies, and decision-making do affect and influence the essence and nature of technological development, and how technology is disseminated and introduced” (idem: 19). In addition, research found in the literature is often driven by the ambition of influencing acceptance among a specific target group. To make an informed decision, an understanding is needed first, independent of the outcome of that decision. At the same time, research on technology acceptance has found “that knowledge is a prerequisite for adopting an attitude/opinion or forming a willingness to take action, and it can help raise the level of understanding, allay reservations, discover different ways of using things, and objectively weigh up costs and benefits” (Schäfer/Keppler 2013: 43). Sharing knowledge can thus also be a tool for creating acceptance.


Independent of the opinion-forming process, the focus is turning to enabling society or giving society permission to question technology topics and make decisions independently, and people now use the term digital or technological literacy. According to Paul Gilster (1997), who coined the term, digital literacy is about more than the ability to understand or use information from different digital sources: “Digital literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (Gilster 1997). Digital literacy is thus about a certain mindset and has less to do with a specific skill set.

This contrasts with technological literacy, which can be seen as the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology (International Technology Education Association 2007: 242). To involve society in developing into an Economy 4.0, it is necessary to promote both digital and technological literacy. This can be achieved by imparting knowledge over and beyond pure technological competence and encouraging people to develop their own ideas – or maybe even visions – of the nature and application of technologies.

An example of how future technologies can be a topic of social interest can be found in Finland, which launched an initiative called the 1% AI Challenge. Its original goal was for one percent of the Finnish population to understand what artificial intelligence is and know what it can be used for – within the space of one year. This goal was achieved quickly. Yet the initiative did not start with a large-scale project underpinned by a detailed plan. Instead, coding courses were organized for children on a small, ad-hoc basis, revolving around actual needs (Merten 2019).


This method is also being adopted for a pilot macro testbed project called Technologie*Begreifen (“Grasp Technology”) at the Ferdinand-Steinbeis-Institute. The Technologie* part of the name stands for the overarching level, including several individual technologies, commercial and/or societal models, and the progressive convergence of technologies (especially beyond digitalization). With the support of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry for the Economy, Employment, and Housing, the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute is daring to engage in an ambitious experiment in which it aims to enable society to grasp future technologies – and the term “grasp” can indeed be taken literally. As part of a series of innovation events on three selected technology topics, members of the public (ranging from school children to senior citizens, technology fans, and those perhaps not so familiar with technology) can gain a general understanding of technology principles and see how different technologies can be used and what impact they have. Under the hashtag #techourfuture, participants at the one-day events are accompanied by experts and scientists and allowed to try out and “get their hands on” the very latest technological developments. They can also independently think through their potential and different ways of using them.

The aim with #techourfuture is to create a neutral platform that not only imparts the knowledge required to assess, understand, use, and manage technology – in keeping with the principles of technological literacy – but also makes it possible to develop and discuss ideas in keeping with the digital literacy principles of Gilster and Eshet (2002).



Dr. Marlene Gottwald (author)
Senior Research Fellow
Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute (FSTI) (Stuttgart)


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