//How to run a public dialogue on technologies that don’t yet exist? – it’s never too early to engage

How to run a public dialogue on technologies that don’t yet exist? – it’s never too early to engage

Future Flight context and the need for public dialogue

How can you run a public dialogue about technologies which don’t yet exist? The UKRI Future Flight challenge takes us into the realms of technologies, like flying taxis, that to date have only been possible in science fiction. But these technologies, including piloted and autonomous drones capable of carrying 2-3 tonne payloads, passenger carrying electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs), and electric or hydrogen fuelled regional aircraft, are now very much on the horizon for the 2030’s and beyond.

There is a huge amount of investment globally in developing these new forms of air vehicle and their related infrastructure, but publics’ perceptions are seen to be key to their success or failure. Many of the discussions of publics’ views of these technologies to date have been focussed on how we might better educate, persuade, or excite publics about the uses of these technologies currently being explored, primarily by industry. But this approach fails to consider that whilst these technologies offer some promises of social benefits, they could also have potentially far-reaching impacts on society, in some places radically changing the ways in which we work, travel, connect with each other or access goods and vital services. So, there was a clear need for better public engagement with these technologies now.

Upstream public dialogue – early public voice to inform technology direction  

As a result the Future Flight dialogue took place far further ‘upstream’ of the development and roll out of these technologies than is often the case. As there are so many emerging potential pathways for these technologies, and those pathways are yet to be set, we wanted our dialogue to privilege publics’ hopes and concerns, so that public voice could play a pivotal and early role in informing the directions in which these technologies’, alongside their operation, infrastructure and regulation, might develop.

Therefore, the big question for us when planning and designing this dialogue, was really how could publics meaningfully engage in dialogue about futures in which these technologies might (or might not) exist? Futures, which at present may only be imaginable in terms of their pre-existing sci-fi framings, or limited by the narrower current usages of drones (e.g. small drones for recreational use or military drones).

Public dialogue brings publics into structured conversations with a range of specialists with relevant expertise whose role is to provide participants with an understanding of the relevant science or technology at stake. Public participants then interrogate these scientific research agendas, or pieces of technology.  Often in these processes, the scientific agenda or piece of technology exists at a stage of development, operation or implementation where at least some of its (social, political, economic, environmental) impacts can be presented and form the basis of discussion in these dialogic settings.

However, we needed to take a very different approach. Given that many of the experts in Future Flight technologies currently have vested interests in their commercial success, we felt it was inappropriate to allow these voices to frame the issues presented in the dialogue. As both the technologies, and the field of social study surrounding them are nascent and emergent, an independent body of experts does not yet exist. The input of ‘expert’ voice was therefore kept to a minimum. Instead, the focus was on deliberative dialogue with plenty of opportunities for participants to reflect, digest and discuss their own and others’ perspectives, through facilitated workshops, self-guided activities and engagement in an online community.

Bringing futures to life

To make this happen, the team from UKRI and Ipsos with a graphic design company The Liminal Space worked on a creative futures approach developing a range of audio, visual and print stimulus materials to enable publics to imagine various futures in which future flight technologies existed in a range of ways.  This elicited publics’ perceptions of the benefits and disbenefits of these futures, as well as their hopes and fears.

We were keen to avoid simplistic framings of the technologies in the materials, which were overly reliant on science-fiction tropes or familiar contemporary uses. Each of the stimulus materials sketched out potential technological and social futures for the 2030’s and beyond, drawing and expanding on technological capabilities that are currently being designed and tested.  Packs of these materials were sent to participants by post.

Many of the materials arrived at were designed to emulate the kinds of materials which might fall through your letterbox in the year 2035. This included, for example; a brochure for a vertiport which had opened at the end of the street, with discounts for residents living in close proximity and a leaflet for a drone parcel delivery service, with tiered pricing subscription and advertising the security of its service via biometric identification and data links to the police and a ‘No Fly Zone’ badge from the Campaign for Clearer Skies.

Audio-visual materials included a news report of future flight technology supporting rescue efforts in the wake of a national emergency caused by flooding; a traffic update announcing a crash between a drone and road bridge with the information relayed by other drones involved in the clean-up.

Participants were invited to take on the role of Skyways planner in our Skyways Game, thinking through the implications and possible routes of future technologies between different rural and urban settings, first from their own perspective, then through the eyes of ten different characters all with their own priorities, needs, hopes and concerns.


Key to all these materials was the desire to foreground both positive and negative aspects of the futures they envisaged, and some of the trade-offs that the development and implementation of these technologies might necessitate: variety and speed of transport options vs noise and visual pollution; convenience vs surveillance; or environmental benefits vs impacts on jobs.

Engaging early with the public: Key takeaways

As is clear from the accompanying report these materials stimulated deep and engaged conversation from publics around these issues, alongside clear and coherent recommendations for the development and uses of the technologies themselves, as well as the innovation ecosystem and regulatory framework that should surround them and in which they are embedded.

This dialogue truly highlights that we should never underestimate publics’ ability to engage with complex issues in a sophisticated, intelligent and insightful way.

It may take some creativity but engaging in early public dialogue is not only possible, it is more importantly hugely informative and beneficial. Undertaking a dialogue of this kind, upstream of technological development and centring public voice, provides a unique opportunity to move away from identifying a market for possible technologies capabilities by trying to find societal problems to solve, towards designing technologies in a way that is responsive to and informed by community and social need. Which ultimately is in everyone’s best interests.

Written by Fern Elsdon-Baker, UKRI Future Flight Challenge Social Science Research DirectorUniversity of Birmingham.