Skip to main content

Nanotechnology Development as if People and Places Matter


Technological innovation in general, and nanotechnology development in particular, happens often disconnected from people and places where these technologies eventually play out. Over the last decade, a diversity of approaches have been proposed and developed to engage people in the innovation process of nanotechnology much earlier than in their conventional role as consumers. Such “upstream” engagements are conducted at stages when nanotechnology products and services are still amenable to reframing and modification. These engagement efforts have enhanced technological literacy among stakeholders and the general public. Yet, there is still potential for other types of impacts by leveraging links between nanotechnology and people’s everyday experiences. The present study explores a novel approach for participatory nanotechnology assessment and design, called Collaborative On-site Technology Exploration (COTE). The approach allows nanoscale scientists and engineers to explore nanotechnologies where they matter to people and places. We conducted a series of COTEs in the Gateway district in Phoenix addressing community challenges of renewable energy supply, water contamination, and public health issues. COTEs are proposed as a step toward bringing together nanoscale scientists and engineers and community stakeholders in need for solutions to urban challenges.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. The term ELSI here is used synonymously with Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA), a phrase more common in Europe. See Rip [17] for a nuanced distinction.


  1. Bhargava PM (2006) The social, moral, ethical, legal and political implications of today’s biological technologies: an Indian point of view. Biotechnol 1(1):34–46

  2. Frewer L, Lassen J, Kettlitz B, Beekman V, Berdal KG (2004) Societal aspects of genetically modified foods. Food Chem Toxicol 42:1181–1193

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Roco MC, Hersam MC, Mirkin CA (2011) Nanotechnology research directions for societal needs in 2020. Springer, Netherlands

  4. Bal R (2012) Public participation in science and technology policy: consensus conferences and social inclusion. Dissertation, School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology

  5. Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7):739–755

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Guston DH (2004) Forget politicizing science—let’s democratize science! Issues Sci Tech Fall: 25–28

  7. Guston DH (2008) Innovation policy: not just a jumbo shrimp. Nature 454:940–941

  8. Milford R, Wetmore JM (2013) A new model for public engagement: the dialogue on nanotechnology and religion. In: Hays S, Robert JS, Miller CA, Bennett I (eds) Nanotechnology, the brain, and the future. Springer, New York, pp 97–111

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  9. Rip A, van Lente H (2013) Bridging the gap between innovation and ELSA: the TA program in the Dutch nano-R&D program NanoNed. NanoEthics 7(1):7–16

  10. Guston DH (2011) Participating despite questions: toward a more confident participatory technology assessment: commentary on: ‘questioning “participation”: a critical appraisal of its conceptualization in a Flemish participatory technology assessment’. Sci Eng Ethics 17:691–697

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Kearnes M, Stilgoe J (2007) Nanodialogues report: report of an experiment in upstream public engagement. Demos, London

    Google Scholar 

  12. Fisher E, Mahajan RL, Mitcham C (2006) Midstream modulation of technology: governance from within. Bull Sci Technol Soc 26(6):485–496

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Collins H, Evans R (2008) Rethinking expertise. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

  14. Robbins PT (2007) The reflexive engineer: perceptions of integrated development. J Int Dev 19:99–110

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Clarke AE, Star SL (2007) The social worlds framework: a theory/methods package. In: Hackett E, Amsterdamska O, Lynch M, Wacjman J (eds) Handbook of science and technology studies. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 113–137

  16. Wiek A, Guston DH, van der Leeuw S, Selin C, Shapira P (2013) Nanotechnology in the city: sustainability challenges and anticipatory governance. J Urban Technol 20:45–62

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kjolberg KL, Strand R (2011) Conversations about responsible nanoresearch. NanoEthics 5(1):99–113

  18. Selin C (2013) Futurescape City tours: incorporating the temporal, sensual and material in public engagement with nanotechnology. Presentation, Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of science. San Diego, CA. October 9-12

  19. Selin C, Campbell Rawlings K, de Ridder-Vignone K, Sadowski J, Altamirano C, Gano G, Davies S, Guston DH (2017) Experiments in engagement: designing public engagement with science and technology for capacity building. Public Underst Sci 26(6):634-649. doi:10.1177/0963662515620970

  20. Schot J, Rip A (1997) The past and future of constructive technology assessment. Tech Forecasting Soc Chang 54:251–268

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Walker RL, Morrissey C (2014) Bioethics methods in the ethical, legal, and social implications of the human genome project literature. Bioethics 28(9):481–490. doi:10.1111/bioe.12023

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Rip A (2009) Futures of ELSA. Science & society series on convergence research. EMBO 10(7):666–670

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Fisher E, Schuurbiers D (2013) Midstream modulation. In: van de Poel I, Gorman ME, Doorn N, Schuurbiers D (eds) Opening up the laboratory: approaches for early engagement with new technology. Wiley-Blackwell, New York, pp 97–110

  24. Hamlett P, Cobb MD, Guston DH (2012) National citizens’ technology forum: nanotechnologies and human enhancement. In: Hays S, Robert JS, Miller CA, Bennett I (eds) Nanotechnology, the brain, and the future. Springer, New York, pp 265–284

    Google Scholar 

  25. Bors PA, Brownson RC, Brennan LK (2012) Assessment for active living: harnessing the power of data-driven planning and action. Am J Prev Med 43(S4):S300–S308

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Corburn J (2007) Community knowledge in environmental health science: co-producing policy expertise. Environ Sci Pol 10(2):150–161

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Buckland ST (2006) Point transect surveys for songbirds: robust methodologies. Auk 123(2):345-357

  28. Miaux S, Drouin L, Morency P, Paquin S, Gauvin L, Jacquemin C (2010) Making the narrative walk-in-real-time methodology relevant for public health intervention: towards an integrative approach. Health Place 16(6):1166–1173

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Van Oudheusden M (2014) Where are the politics in responsible innovation? European governance, technology assessments, and beyond. J Responsible Innov 1:67–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rittel HWJ, Webber MM (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sci 4:155–169

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2011) Key competencies in sustainability—a reference framework for Academic Program Development. Sustainability Science 6(2):203–218

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Wiek A, Bernstein M, Foley R, Cohen M, Forrest N, Kuzdas C, Kay B, Withycombe Keeler L (2016) Operationalising competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In: Barth M, Michelsen G, Rieckmann M, Thomas I (eds) Handbook of higher education for sustainable development. Routledge, New York, pp 241–260

    Google Scholar 

  33. Scholz RW, Tietje O (2002) Embedded case study methods: integrating quantitative and qualitative knowledge. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks

  34. te Kulve H, Rip A (2011) Constructing productive engagement: pre-engagement tools for emerging technologies. Sci Eng Ethics 17:699–671

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Wiek A, Foley RW, Guston DH (2012) Nanotechnology for sustainability—what does nanotechnology offer to address complex sustainability problems? J Nanopart Res 14:1093

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Foley RW, Wiek A (2013) Patterns of nanotechnology innovation and governance within a metropolitan area. Technol Soc 35:233–247

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Dalrymple M, Bryck D (2011) Energy Efficiency on an Urban Scale. Accessed 12 Jan 2017

  38. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Motorola 52nd St. Superfund site five-year review completed. Environmental Protection Agency, San Francisco

    Google Scholar 

  39. Mountain Park Health Center (2012) The fruits of our labor: 2012 diversity, Inclusion and Cultural Competency Assessment. Accessed 12 Jan 2017

  40. United State Department of Justice (2011) United States’ Investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff Office. Accessed 25 Oct 2013

  41. Kalinowski T (2013) Technical, economical and social aspects of moving treatability studies for in situ bioremediation of contaminated aquifers from the laboratory to the field. Dissertation, Arizona State University

  42. Foley RW, Wiek A, Rushforth R, Kay B (2017) Ideal and reality of multi-stakeholder collaboration on sustainability problems: a case study on a large-scale industrial contamination in Phoenix, Arizona. Sustain Sci 12(1):123–136

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Wiek A, Xiong A, Brundiers K, van der Leeuw S (2014) Integrating problem-and project-based learning into sustainability programs: a case study on the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Int J Sustain High Ed 15(4):431–449

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Bernstein MJ, Wiek A, Brundiers K, Pearson K, Minowitz A, Kay B, Golub A (2016) Mitigating urban sprawl effects: a collaborative tree and shade intervention in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Local Environ 21:414–431. doi:10.1080/13549839.2014.965672

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Delgado A, Kjolberg KL, Wickson F (2011) Public engagement coming of age: from theory to practice in STS encounters with nanotechnology. Public Underst Sci 20(6):826–845

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Harsh M, Bernstein MJ, Wetmore J, Cozzens S, Woodson T, Castillo R (2016) Preparing engineers for the challenges of community engagement. Eur J Eng Educ. doi:10.1080/03043797.2016.1270902

  47. Hartley S, Gillund F, van Hove L, Wickson F (2016) Essential features of responsible governance of agricultural biotechnology. PLoS Biol 14(5): e1002453. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002453

Download references


The authors would like to thank the reviewers and editors for their helpful suggestions and comments. This research was undertaken with support by CNS-ASU, funded by the National Science Foundation (cooperative agreements #0531194 and #0937591). The findings and observations contained in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rider Foley.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Foley, R., Wiek, A. & Kay, B. Nanotechnology Development as if People and Places Matter. Nanoethics 11, 243–257 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: