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Home > Focus > A Conversation with Hilary Sutcliffe of Matter

A Conversation with Hilary Sutcliffe of Matter

by Jonny Hankins [1], 4 April 2013

Hilary Sutcliffe is the Director of Matter [2], described on the homepage as " a new 'action tank' whose aim is "Bringing Responsible Innovation to life". As a follow up to his review of their "Report On Responsible Research and Innovation" Jonny Hankins posed a series of questions regarding the future of Responsible Innovation to the Director in a telephone interview. The following is a summary of the points raised by Sutcliffe based upon a recording of the conversation.  
 
On the current situation and future of Responsible Innovation.
 
Looking  at the current situation, the focus of attention is very much on academic debate, particularly around the research area.  This is where the funding is and this is where the attention is set.  Businesses, and the application of research does not get much attention.  This is partly because there isn't the funding to involve business, but I think mainly because the events and discussions around the subject are run by academics for the purpose of generating citations, not to engage the wider world in considering and developing solutions.  They do invite businesses to the events, but the language and the focus is so academic, it doesn't look relevant to a business audience.

If you look at what the public want on the other hand, you find that they are keen on innovation, but they mean the applications of innovation. For me the success of responsible innovation depends upon it getting out of this purely research land, into the real world, so in my report that you reviewed on the website [3] I was saying lets get round the table with businesses, with  DG Sanco, DG Enterprise and DG Connect and co-create this thing together. 

The future depends upon prising it out of the hands of academics and making it useful. From the public's point of view it is about focusing research and innovation on socially beneficial solutions and getting appropriate products, responsibly produced. The research side is the engine of this, but they need to work together better and be more connected.  I don't see that happening at all at the moment. 
 
On the importance of stakeholders 
 
With our Building confidence in innovative technologies report (available for download here [4]) we were looking at the business side of the argument. We did a lot of round tables and discussions with stakeholders, we held meetings with stakeholders - the consumer group Which? hosted one, as did the Royal Society, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (now defunct) and New Scientist, and it became apparent that engaging the business community was a real gap.  So we went to ask the businesses what they wanted to know to help them engage with society on these important issues.  
 
They told us that what they were concerned about is society's expectations of business in terms of responsibility in innovation. So we decided to go out and ask.  Businesses paid for the research to explore this questions of 'What's fair to ask of business and what's fair to expect them to share with the outside world.'  We spoke to Investors, NGOs, retail buyers and analyzed most of the public dialogues in the UK and some in Europe around emerging technologies to assess the public's view.
 
Much of the expectation was about focusing products on socially beneficial aims and being open and honest about risks and what has been done to ensure products are safe. Nothing very dramatic, but requiring researchers and businesses to be much more open about their products and processes than they are at the moment. 
 
On how to get the stakeholders more involved from the start of the process 
 
The academics are doing good work on trying to get stakeholders involved. There are projects like the EPSRC [5] Nanomedicines dialogue, public attitude research into views on Synthetic Biology, Nanotech, stem cell research and others.  I'm involved in something in the UK which looks to explore how to connect stakeholders and universities. This is one of a number of Catalyst for Public Engagement projects funded by the UK Research Councils with the university of Sheffield. In Sheffield we are trying to look at every part of the University focusing very much on the research side of it to see how they can interact with stakeholders at different points. What we think is that sometimes involvement will be a sensible option and sometimes it won't. We have to think on a case by case basis about where it might be appropriate to involve stakeholders, why, how, and at what stage in the process. For example the University of Oxford are doing the same looking from the point of view of ICT.  So where can stakeholders be involved in innovation through ICT?  But again they talk about innovation but what they actually mean is research.
 
There is also another distinction to make here because when academics talk about the public they mean the general public, but actually the public doesn't necessarily want to be engaged at every point. They want people like us and NGO's, consumer groups and unions, specialist groups to intervene on their behalf. So I like to use stakeholder and not public, as these are all stakeholders.
 
On academic involvement 
 
A lot of the academic work is so high end and theoretical that I really don't think they themselves know what they are asking. I query our UK research councils because they have these impact frameworks, there is a recent one the Technology Strategy Board Synthetic Biology Responsible Innovation Framework [6], but I'm not sure they really know what they are expecting or even what they are wanting to know.   This is fine if everyone is clear that this is a pilot or something, but it is people's livelihoods at stake, so they deserve that we think about these things better in advance before we make them jump through hoops.   
 
Similarly with stakeholder involvement. I think we owe everybody a favour by thinking through what we really mean by involvement and what we genuinely expect of people rather that just stating that 'the public must be involved at every stage of the innovation chain', which is a phrase I hear a lot.  Why should I get out of my cozy house after a hard day's work to give input to some boring research project?  It had better be a very good use of the public's time. You cannot do this for every product so we must ask what is the value for them, the stakeholder, the NGO and what is the value for the project?  More thought needs to be directed at what could make this more viable and good practice rather than relying on a theoretical framework from academics. 

On shortcomings and the future 
 
The future for RI is all up to be shaped by those who have the mind to do it. There are new and old institutions working in this area.  People like yourselves and new bodies - I heard of an international group being set up called the Center for Emerging Technology Intelligence , a joint venture between institutions and business organizations in the US, Europe and Asia. They are trying to look at what society actually needs and what information is necessary in order to make good judgment regarding emerging technologies.  So I think RI will be taken on as a theory, the research community is doing interesting work, but at the end of the day its 'success' comes down to what really are we going to do differently tomorrow than we did yesterday.  Which products or solutions are we going to incentivise in new ways, and which products are we going to say no to. This isn't a straightforward or easy issue.  It requires everyone from governments, researchers, NGO's, businesses and even us the general public to think carefully about what we prioritize and which solutions we really want to some of the pressing issues of the day. 
  
On Matter and its work and the future 
 
We are currently focusing on this concept of trustworthiness. This was crystalised by Baroness Onora O'Neill in a recent BBC radio broadcast who said "..the slightly plaintive question 'How can we restore trust?' is on everyone's lips. The answer is pretty obvious. First: be trustworthy.  Second: provide others with good evidence that you are trustworthy." 
 
Everybody is asking how to build trust with the public, but we say how do you become more trustworthy so that we can trust you? We are trying to switch the argument round to the trustworthiness of the organizations.   
 
For example we are working with small companies on Synthetic Biology; exploring the concept in relation to Biosciences and looking at how the thinking behind Responsible Innovation might have potential as a lens with which to explore the benefits and risks and societal engagement with an old technology in a new context - Food Irradiation.   
 
I am also chair of the advisory board of a Framework 7 project which is exploring if it is appropriate and useful for there to be a 'Responsible Innovation Framework for Europe' and working with the Chemical Industry forum CEFIC to explore responsible innovation in their context in relation to nanotech (in partnership with the Institute of Occupational Medicine). 
 
One of the most interesting areas also is our work with the European Environment Agency on engaging stakeholders in thinking through the really important area of 'early warnings' in support of their Late Lessons from Early Warnings report.  It is my view that we are never going to be able to anticipate all the uses and even problems which arise from using new technologies, so we'd better get better at anticipating and responding quickly to problems when they arise. 
 
So lots of things going on - I hope one day we could do something with the Bassetti Foundation - who knows! 
 
On behalf of the bassetti Foundation I would like to thank Hilary Sutcliffe for her time and involvement in producing this post. Readers might like to take a look at her blog debate entitled A New Old Definition of Responsible Innovation [7], featuring contributions from many of the global leaders in this debate.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/schedabiografica/Jonny Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.matterforall.org/
  3. 3] http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2013/02/a_report_on_responsible_resear.html
  4. 4] http://www.matterforall.org/projects/walking-with-stakeholders/
  5. 5] http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/Pages/default.aspx
  6. 6] http://www.innovateuk.org/content/competition/advancing-the-industrial-application-of-synthetic-.ashx
  7. 7] http://www.matterforall.org/blog/2013/03/12/a-new-old-definition-of-responsible-innovation/
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Hilary Sutcliffe
Articles by:  Jonny Hankins
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