The Feed4org app attempts to advance the scientific ecosystem by improving how feedback flows to and within the ETH Library. It is a fellowship project of the ETH Library Lab, and aims to contribute to the broader movement of transformative science.

Transformative science seeks to obtain a deeper understanding of ongoing societal transformations by actively initiating and studying change processes via experiments [6]. However, the science system needs to change in order to properly capture, analyse and understand the ongoing societal transformation processes [6].

The world is changing at an increasing rate and the number of scientists involved in research is growing. As a result, current processes for publishing, evaluating and reporting findings require a transformation [8]. For this, the co-creation of scientific knowledge by involving the broader public would be particularly beneficial [8]. The advancement of crowdsourcing methodologies [9] and citizen science approaches [10] in science indicate a shift into this direction.

The ETH Library Lab – a Real-World Lab that Connects Researchers and Creatives with the Library Ecosystem

Besides crowdsourcing knowledge or engaging citizens, another option is to involve the public in transformative research processes by so called “real-world labs” [11; 12; 13]. In these labs real-world experiments can be conducted under controlled conditions that support the understanding and the facilitation of transformation processes [6]. According to Schneidewind et al. [6], these labs “create socially robust and socially acceptable solutions for actual problems, they serve as a testing ground for new knowledge and solutions, and they can facilitate transferability of solutions to other contexts.”. These labs need to be defined by a high level of transparency and reflexivity [6]. Without these two attributes, the mutual co-creation of scientific knowledge between researcher and the general public may be impeded. In the worst case, the non-academic partners could be instrumentalised as “lab rats” [6], which would hinder an unbiased understanding of the analysed transformation processes.

The ETH Library Lab connects researchers from leading academic institutions with artists and the library ecosystem to create interdisciplinary output that benefits all parties involved. Since its founding in 2019, 16 innovator fellows have been hosted at the lab.

Feed4org – an Interdisciplinary Output that Benefits Both, Research and the ETH Library Ecosystem

This year’s Innovator Fellows, which include researchers from ETHZ, UZH and Paris as well artists from Zurich, have been working closely with various stakeholders of the ETH Library. One of these collaborations involved the Library’s Innovation & Networking team and resulted in the creation of the feed4org app; a decentralized application that attempts to improve the feedback provision of customers and non-customers to the ETH library while providing valuable insights into the impact of crypto economic (“blockchain-based”) tokens on the intrinsic motivation of humans.

The software tool enables the contextualisation of feedback by stating importance of and satisfaction with the feedback and by giving the possibility to comment on it (B.Sunderland CC BY 2.0)

Nature as a Role Model for Feedback Flows

The project was motivated by the observation that complex systems in nature such as a flock of birds or the human body tend to self-organize, resulting in decentralized systems that are resilient and efficient at the same time. For instance, a flock of birds supports efficiently both (i) the protection from predators and (ii) the localization of food resources, while also being resilient: Removing any individual bird from the flock would have little negative effect as no single bird has control over the whole flock. The flock is rather controlled by local feedback mechanisms: If a bird is flying too close to another bird, then it flies away, if it is too far away, it flies back. By such simple mechanisms the flock moves through space. Or in other words, feedback mechanisms are required for a complex system to self-organize [1].

Flock of Birds: A complex system found in nature that self-organizes and which inspired the project (“Flock of birds over lake at sunrise from cabin 5 Lake Anna State Park” by vastateparksstaff is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In contrast to nature, human organisations are often structured hierarchically which, due to power structures and other barriers, impedes communication [5] and results in suboptimal feedback flows within the organisation. This reduces the capacity of the management and thus the whole organisation to act on changes in the environment [7].

Natural Feedback Mechanisms Transferred to a New Software Tool

The wish to improve these feedback flows in human organisations was the starting point for the feed4org research project. Inspired by the observation that technology can actually be utilized to support the self-organisation capacity of a system [2], we wanted to create a software tool that would help an organisation adapt organically to changes in its environment (e.g., new emerging technologies). The ETH Library Lab offered us the possibility to develop such a tool in close cooperation with a real-world organization – the ETH Library.

For this, we applied a Value-Sensitive Design Science Research methodology [3] that facilitated both, the value-alignment of the created tool with the affected stakeholders (value-sensitive design) and the iterative validation of the tool at different project stages (Design Science Research), e.g., validations in terms of novelty or user acceptance.
The former is important because feedback systems such as the social credit system in China [4] or the discussed “Bonussystem” in Germany [14] could be misused for totalitarian control to which this project did not want to contribute. The latter facilitates the creation of a tool that actually improves the state of the art.

After an extended literature review, we interviewed library employees from entry-level to upper management to identify a space where the handling of user feedback could be improved. These interviews identified a real need from the library for a software tool to support the collection, analysis and handling of external feedback, both from customers and non-customers of the library, primarily researchers of ETH Zurich.

Log of user interactions with the software artefact (M.Ballandies CC BY 2.0

In two design and requirements engineering workshops with library employees, we identified key values that a feedback provision tool should embody. Based on these values, we defined the design and finally implemented it in a software artefact. After obtaining an ethics approval from the ETH Zurich Ethics Commission, we evaluated the software artefact in a longitudinal study with around 140 participants via the ETH Decision Science Laboratory.

We believe that the solicited and unsolicited feedback that we collected from students and researchers in the study (#22400 unique feedback items) will provide the library with valuable insights into their users’ experiences. Furthermore, the data on the participants’ usage and interaction with the software artefact will form the basis of two academic papers. In the first paper we will be reporting on the potential benefits of blockchain technology for the value-sensitive construction of feedback systems, and the performance and user adoption of the developed software. In the second paper we will analyse the impact of blockchain-based incentives in the form of cryptoeconomic tokens [15] on the human motivation to provide high-quality feedback.

A preliminary analysis of the experiment results indicate a high-usability of the feed4org app and interesting, even counterintuitive dependencies, between different types of cryptoeconomic incentives on the intrinsic motivation of humans to share information. The results will inform an improved way to construct our future that considers human values and incorporates them ethically in digital innovations.
Stay tuned for updates as we advance further with our work.


Chair of Computational Social Science (ETH Zurich), Hilti Chair of Business Process Management (Universität Liechtenstein), ETH Library, ETH Library Lab, ETH Decision Science Laboratory, ETH Ethics Comission, Benjamin Degenhart, Valentin Holzwarth, Kevin Pluut, Barry Sunderland

1: Kaj-Kolja Kleineberg and Dirk Helbing. A “social bitcoin” could sustain a democratic digital world. The European Physical Journal Special Topics, 225(17-18):3231–3241, 2016.

2: Lämmer, S., & Helbing, D. (2008). Self-control of traffic lights and vehicle flows in urban road networks. Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment, 2008(04), P04019.

3: Ballandies, M. C., Dapp, M. M., Degenhart, B. A., & Helbing, D. (2021). Finance 4.0: Design Principles for a value-sensitive Cryptoeconomic System to address sustainability.


5: Anderson, C. and Brown, C.E., 2010. The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organizational behavior, 30, pp.55-89

6: Schneidewind, U., Singer-Brodowski, M., Augenstein, K., & Stelzer, F. (2016). Pledge for a transformative science: A conceptual framework (No. 191). Wuppertal papers.

7: Khatri, N., 2009. Consequences of power distance orientation in organisations. Vision, 13(1), pp.1-9.

8: Helbing, D., & Balietti, S. (2011). How to create an innovation accelerator. The European Physical Journal Special Topics, 195(1), 101-136.

9: Estellés-Arolas, E., & González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, F. (2012). Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition. Journal of Information science, 38(2), 189-200.

10: Bonney, R., Shirk, J. L., Phillips, T. B., Wiggins, A., Ballard, H. L., Miller-Rushing, A. J., & Parrish, J. K. (2014). Next steps for citizen science. Science, 343(6178), 1436-1437.

11: Schneidewind, Uwe; Singer-Brodowski, Mandy (2014): Transformative Wissenschaft: Klimawandel im deutschen Wissenschafts- und Hochschulsystem. Metropolis: Marburg (2. leicht aktualisierte Auflage).

12: De Flander, Katleen; Hahne, Ulf; Kegler, Harald; Lang, Daniel; Lucas, Rainer; Schneidewind, Uwe; Simon, Karl-Heinz; Singer-Brodowski, Mandy; Wanner, Matthias; Wiek, Arnim (2014): Resilienz und Reallabore als Schlüsselkonzepte urbaner Transformationsforschung – Zwölf Thesen. In: GAIA Jg. 23 (3), S. 284 – 286.

13: Schäpke, N.; Singer-Brodowski, M.; Stelzer, F.; Bergmann, M.; Lang, D. J. (2015): Creating Space for Change: Real-world Laboratories for Sustainability Transformations. The Case of Baden-Württemberg. In: GAIA 24/4, S. 281– 283.


15: Ballandies, Mark C., Marcus M. Dapp, and Evangelos Pournaras. “Decrypting distributed ledger design—taxonomy, classification and blockchain community evaluation.” Cluster Computing (2021): 1-22.


Mark C. Ballandies

PhD student Computational Social Science, ETH Zurich

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