Using Participatory Technology Assessments (PTA) to Respond to Extreme Heat

Many areas of the country, particularly the Southwest, are seeing record-high temperatures this summer. Scientists are quick to warn that heat waves are likely to increase in frequency and intensity as climate change gets worse. But some are taking a unique approach to explore policy solutions to combat the issue: Participatory Technology Assessments (PTA). This approach brings together policymakers and public citizens to foster new ideas – and it can be applied to a lot more than just climate change.

What is a PTA?

A participatory technology assessment is designed to break down the walls between science and technology experts and citizens, with the goal of gaining insights into public policy dilemmas. But this kind of gathering is not the same as a town hall meeting. In town halls, a few participants tend to dominate the conversation, and policymakers are often left to defend themselves. In a PTA, the gathering is deliberately organized to encourage broad participation and open conversation.

What’s an example?

In Phoenix, Arizona, in 2017, a PTA was organized with more than 70 residents consisting of students, teachers, nurses, retirees, and others. Decisionmakers from local government bodies and the state of Arizona were also present. Participants were divided into subgroups to discuss the story of a fictional community called Heattown – topics included the different characters living there, vulnerabilities of the emergency response and infrastructure systems, and strategies for dealing with those issues.

What’s the result?

In the 2017 Phoenix PTA, participants shared personal stories and engaged in conversations – and disagreements – about various topics related to the extreme heat. Some participants changed their minds through the course of the gathering, while some did not. But all participants had the opportunity to see the views of others not as right or wrong, correct or incorrect, but as examples of differing values.

Each subdivided group came up with plausible outcomes and then discussed and compared them with others. Often, diverse members of the public came up with different values and options than those that were mentioned by experts. In this way, the PTA model is valuable for offering discussion from both sides of the coin – the people on the ground dealing with the day-to-day realities of climate change and extreme heat, and the policymakers in charge of implementing solutions.

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