Translating public interests

As I've reflected further on the book: Acting in an Uncertain World, I got inspired by the sequence of translations pictured by the authors. Translations is a key concept from actor-network theory which contains the processes of enrolling other's interests in a different approach, alignment or role. Perhaps because the authors study the sociology of scientific practices, their sequence follows the viewpoint of scientists as they address troubling issues in the public sphere. Their first translation moves from the messy world of contaminated data, irrational outbursts and political rhetoric to the secluded sanctuary of scientific laboratories, rational procedures and collegial interactions. Their next translation occurs within this seclusion where the unknowns become established truths, the hypotheses become verified (or discarded), and their critics get answered. A final translation returns to the world where the newly formulated science can inform government policy, commercial product development and individual preventative and remedial practices.

As I pondered the dynamics of alarming symptoms and ill-defined problems getting attention, resolution and solutions, I envisioned a different series of translations. I'm seeing a sequence of five translations that I've illustrated in the diagram on the right.

The first translation comes out of an illegitimate space of silenced voices, imposed denials and suppressed dissent to a gated space of politicized rhetoric. Once the issue has been politicized, it gets covered by the press which evokes much polling, commentary, interest and support for funding scientific research. The synergy between the roles of politicians and journalists spawns a narrative of historical significance. Participants feel like they are making a difference and making history. This process fuels an asymmetry of power, roles and interests between those in the space of politicized rhetoric and those illegitimate outsiders.

The second translation leaves the politicized space to enter the walled professional space. Here we find processes of coming up with scientific diagnoses, precise problem formulations, expert research designs, controlled experiments, comprehensive date analyses and defensible conclusions. This process also fuels an asymmetry of power, roles and interests between those in the professional space of empirical validation and those hand-waving demagogues in the politicized space.

If either translation shortcuts this sequence at this point, the innovations produced will be stillborn. These intermediate translations dead-end in the illegitimate space. Having been created in either asymmetric context of superiority, arrogance and condescension, the value proposition will seem too foreign, sophisticated or esoteric for the public expected to embrace it. They will respond irrationally to the offer as unfair, misfit or useless. The following two translations are essential to adoption and utilization by the public.

The fourth translation also moves from the illegitimate space of silenced voices to a space of commercialized possibilities. The illegitimate space gets reframed as an untapped market demand comprised of under-served or misunderstood interests. The silenced voices are sought out for insights, revelations and perspectives that arise from their unique contexts where end users experience overwhelming problems, setbacks, obstacles and constraints. By now, those outsiders have been exposed to the politicized and professionalized discourse on their silenced issues. Opportunities become clear for how to provide better services, new support systems and other commercial infrastructures for this new market space. The outsiders' experience of working with these commercial interests in symmetrical relationships contrasts dramatically with the asymmetrical experiences in the prior two spaces. There is a natural inclination to trust, open up to and buy-in to the commercial interests that have taken an interest in these silenced voices.

The fifth translation takes this "working with customers" to the next level by entering an ongoing collaborative space. The customers seem like what the authors of Acting in an Uncertain World have designated as "researchers in the wild". These deeply engaged customers are closer to the end uses, more keenly observant of details and more committed to getting their purchases to work better. These customers are full of innovative ideas for better solutions, approaches, and even formulations of the problems getting solved. They feel committed to the success of the business model and contribute significantly, as if they are getting rewarded intrinsically. Next generation innovations "hit home runs" because they read the customers' mindsets accurately, serve unmet needs superbly and guard against becoming too foreign, sophisticated or esoteric for the users.

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