Assessing the Value of Technology

Guidance Document

Background and request for advice

New technologies and applications come onto the market every day. We now have smartphones and apps such as Airbnb and Uber. Tomorrow we may well have robots that deliver pizzas and groceries, or buildings made of self-cleaning nanomaterials. We can already see rapid growth in the number of online platforms and big data applications which support the ‘sharing economy’. In short, technology is establishing new relationships within society and within the human environment. In most cases, those relationships are beneficial and complementary. Technology creates new transport options or new ways in which to use our limited space. It facilitates alternative, more sustainable solutions. But there can also be adverse effects: greater pressure on public spaces, disruption of the labour markets, or new forms of scarcity. Whether an effect can be regarded as positive or negative will often be a matter of perspective. Technology itself is never neutral. Its development and application will involve making choices, implicit or explicit, which determine the relationship between technology, society and the living environment.

 

 

The Council has formulated the following questions:

  • What changes will the application of new technology entail for the economy and society at large, with particular reference to infrastructure and the human environment?

  • What are the threats and opportunities with regard to public values, particularly those in the context of the living environment?

  • To what extent are developments covered by existing regulatory mechanisms? Are those mechanisms sufficiently adaptive or is deliberate action needed?

  • What implications do these questions have for the government and other stakeholders?

Strategic and analytical approach to technology

The effects of new technologies and applications are generally difficult to predict and it is equally difficult to assess their potential impact. When will they become apparent? At what level of scale? How will we recognise them? Who will benefit? Are the effects temporary or permanent? In this guidance document, the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (Rli) contends that not everything is as chaotic as it first appears. Several patterns can be detected and these enable certain effects to be identified on each of the various levels of regulatory mechanisms in our society. The Council offers a strategic and analytical approach to technology-driven developments.

In an earlier publication, ‘Survey of Technological Innovations in the Living Environment’ (Rli, 2015), the Council presented conclusions with regard to the main policy issues within its sphere of expertise. A number of these conclusions are relevant to the current document:

  • Technologies change societal relationships through market shifts, the creation of new economic sectors, or changes to the production chains.

  • The short-term effects of technology are generally overestimated, while the longer-term effects tend to be underestimated.­

  • Technological innovation is driven to a significant degree by societal values, challenges and requirements. Conversely, technology influences social and moral values. The use of technology can alter people’s values and the importance they attach to them.

  • Technological developments demand a different type of assessment and ongoing re-evaluation.

In this publication, the Council is concerned with how the effects of technological innovation on the living environment can be analysed and evaluated. The guidance document proposes an appropriate response to the various developments. The main body of the guidance document discusses a five-step analytical assessment cycle that can be used to gain insight into the effects of technology. By way of example, the Council has applied this assessment cycle to three case studies: the milking robot, local generation of electricity using solar panels, and autonomous vehicles. Finally, the guidance document discusses a number of points for attention when managing developments.

Presentation and discussion meeting

The Council published the guidance document on 10 March 2017. On the same day, the Council also organised a discussion and publication meeting at The Hague Security Delta Campus (HSD). The report was presented to the Minister of Economic Affairs, the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, and the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Secretary-General Maarten Camps of the Ministry of Economic Affairs was presented the guidance document by advisory committee chair Niels Koeman. The report’s contents were then explored and applied by stakeholders gathered around several tables. The discussion was preceded by two challenging and provocative introductory talks: one about milking robots by Kees Romijn (Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture, dairy farming section), and one about the sustainable short-stay rental platform FairBnB by Marleen Stikker (Waag Society).

Further information

For further information, please contact project leader Douwe Wielenga by e-mail at douwe.wielenga@rli.nl.