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Innovation and Politics

by Piero Bassetti [1], 31 May 2007

We publish "Innovation and politics", the second lesson of Piero Bassetti for the Cross-sectional Course of Epistemology of the scientific and technical search of the Politecnico of Milan. A lesson gave in the February of 2006, that will published from Mondadori. This publication follows the previous lesson "La responsabilità nell'innovazione [2]", that you can find in this site.

Innovation and Politics
by Piero Bassetti

In our lesson on innovation (held in 2004), we found that innovation is neither discovery nor invention: its more heuristic meaning is "achieving the improbable" or "an event in which what was previously improbable actually materializes, thanks to the fusion of new knowledge and the power to put it into practice."

We saw that innovation often makes history (e.g.: the locomotive, electric motor, the car, the airplane, as well as duvets, mini-skirts etc).

Thus, those who make innovation make history and, as a result, make politics.

During our discussion, it also emerged that not all of these facts are universally acknowledged, not even among researchers themselves.

For example: those who make innovation are almost always unaware that they are also making politics.

In any event, those who make innovation do not feel politically responsible for it.

In turn, politics itself does not feel an obligation to guide innovation, as this should be left to the market. Only in a few cases (e.g.: defence, security, communications) does the responsibility fall to government institutions. Furthermore, politics is not equipped with adequate tools to guide innovation.

That said, this issue is of key importance to our future and must be faced by politicians, technologists and scientists alike.


This is why, upon reflection and following my experience at the Giannino Bassetti Foundation, I proposed this issue for this year's discussion. The result is "Innovation and Politics".

The title evokes the sensitive issue of how we can place innovation (a political matter rarely viewed for what it is) and politics (which should guide innovation, but instead often fails to do so) together in a correct relationship in which both innovation and politics coexist but also work towards common goals.

I'll begin my discussion with Innovation.

First of all, let us consider some of the mechanisms of innovation.

We have already seen how innovation incorporates advanced knowledge and advanced power.

We have seen that, in theory, advanced knowledge should be provided by researchers and advanced power by those with either the capital or authority to create the conditions to use it.

That those who do research to acquire advanced knowledge (typically, those who do research or invent, i.e., scientists, researchers, technologists, creative professionals) are usually different from those who set out to gain advanced power.

That it is one thing to work to "expand the temple of knowledge"; and another to work to make more money or pursue other personal gain; and yet another to work to lead society towards an ideal, common good, that is, to engage in politics. The motivation, operational approach, ethics and values behind all of these are very different indeed. (Let us note in passing that their epistemologies differ too).

Moreover: it is one thing to work towards perfecting something the consequences of which can be foreseen, it is another to work towards the kind of innovation the writer Callahan describes: "Once ideas or innovation technologies are out in society they often, very often, move beyond the control of their inventor". In other words, when it is difficult to foresee the full consequences of something.

Naturally, in practice this distinction tends to blur (as Nelson underscored perfectly in his lecture at the Bocconi University, organised by the Giannino Bassetti Foundation).

In practical terms, when the problem is one of introducing innovation (be it a product or process, an enterprise, hospital, or weapons system), researchers, technologists, and holders of financial, organisational, entrepreneurial or political power tend to work together.

This is not without consequences, as the confusion of roles also confuses behavioural logic: those in the knowledge camp who work towards innovation end up becoming actors and engage in practical behaviour whose epistemological basis is far more complex than that of a hypothetical, neutral "minister of science".

And vice versa: sometimes, those trained to combine the factors of production discover a taste for research.

Finally, we know that the decision to pursue or exploit innovation is taken by those who provide advanced power with an eye towards the potential success of that innovation.

In today's society, such success is usually defined by the market based on economic parameters: the only exception is public goods.

This is precisely where the problem lies in the relationship between innovation and politics.

Why? Because the market is not political. At least, it is not political in the same way that institutional bodies are.
Of course, the market also makes choices if we accept that argument that the market dictates the success or failure of any innovation placed before it.
Yet market decision-making operates very differently from decision-making in political bodies.
The continual consumer referendum of the market can indeed dictate to the success of innovation, but only once innovation has been made available to it as a finished product.
Hence, it does so after the decision has been made to bring together knowledge and power in order to make possible what had been improbable: i.e., to innovate.

As well as being formed after the fact, market choices tend to be based on short-term considerations: cost-price comparisons. The market disregards non-financial risk assessments: externalities are not considered.

In other words, we are outside politics, or at least, outside politics tied to democratic institutions.


More is needed for innovation to be determined and guided by politics.
The aims pursued and the advanced power deployed must correspond with political objectives established by politically-motivated actors.

Only then will all those involved in innovation be able to assume clear, undeniable political responsibility and political institutions to consider themselves involved. Only then will innovation be politicised fully and Innovation and Politics placed in a clear co-determined relationship.
(A case in point is the bomb built at Los Alamos.)

Can we say, however, that cases like Los Alamos, where politics clearly and deliberately assumed the responsibility of deciding which innovation to pursue and which to reject, are commonplace?

In other words, can we say that in our societies, examples of politics that inspire and control innovation are commonplace; that, consequently, politics has an influence that is both quantitative (we want more innovation!) and qualitative (let's pursue this kind of innovation)?

I believe we can state confidently that this does not occur, or occurs only rarely.



First, this is due to the intrinsic idiosyncrasy of innovation: it is the realm of the improbable, the unknown, difficulties, the unpredictable, the uncertain, risk. Innovation poses decision-making problems that contrast sharply with the modus operandi of democratic, institutional decision-making.
Typically problematic procedures - such as those that concern transparency, participation, consent, as well as regulations, protectionism, majority principle, precautions - conflict with procedures for promoting, guiding and controlling innovation that political bodies, bound by majority rule, are normally obliged to follow.

Second, politics has chosen to ignore the chiefly political content of innovation. Instead, it has decided to pool innovation with the wider problem of how best to allocate resources and has left determining factors for innovation to the market. The market is seen as the best place for creative freedom and its constant forging of new productive combinations to play itself out. The market is where the entrepreneurial spirit develops fully, where the destructive forces of renewal do their job. As we said earlier, only the market can effectively screen innovation based on the degree of approval it receives in the field.

In other words, there has been a specific separation of institutional roles: in a capitalist society, it is the market that is called upon to decide the direction development will take.
At most, political institutions, with their regulatory authority, are called upon to work upstream and downstream of this process.

Thus, the reasons behind this lack of political control over innovation are not simply accidental or contingent. They can be traced back to serious institutional reasons: our democratic institutions are not yet equipped to face the challenges posed by science and new forms of capitalism.

This is despite our nonetheless growing awareness that, in the present situation, every day science discovers its increasing lack of knowledge, technology discovers that it cannot always manage risk, and the market that it is not adapted to making ex ante choices.

Of course, politics is aware of its shortcomings.
However, used to choosing between uncertain value judgements on the basis of certain facts, politics has difficulty creating both an epistemology that enables it to choose between uncertain values and uncertain facts and skills in risk management.

It should therefore come as no surprise if governing an elusive phenomenon like innovation is increasingly difficult. (Think, for example, of recent events concerning stem cell research).

As we said at the beginning: innovation and politics are difficult worlds to combine!


Should we give up?
Naturally, my answer is no.
Although I would not presume to suggest a solution!
At most, I would like to suggest a few guidelines.

First, we need greater awareness that the problem exists. Politics, including our own, would do well to face this.

All too often, we have the impression that politics limits itself to thinking the more innovation the better. And it stops there.

However, we need only look around to see the build-up of micro and macro problems: the climate, biogenetics, nanotechnologies, and nuclear technology are just some areas that politics should be dealing with. These issues are already the subject of scrutiny (under the heading of sustainable development) within other centres of power such as the UN, multinationals and the anti-globalisation movement.

Second, scientists and technologists should become more involved in the ongoing debate in the cultural and political arena.
Galileo may no longer be enough!

Third, all of us must refuse to become embroiled in this ludicrous avoidance of responsibility.

This means:
for researchers, not opting out or isolating themselves;
for politicians, remembering that important decisions, even if difficult, cannot be delegated to anyone else; real politics consists precisely in deciding where society should go, and not just in political gamesmanship.

Fourth, politicians must be made to realise that this new problem is more complex than anything they have dealt with before.

This is due to inherent features of the issue: certain internal variables of innovation processes, such as risk, responsibility (e.g., 200 million women missing), and complexity are straining traditional tools of governance such as information, administration, law, privacy and so on.
When, in these very halls, Latour (as we recalled last year) spoke of the need for a "Parliament of Things", he did not do so simply to state that, ideally, "even the river polluted by a new chemical process… is in some way represented", but also because he was aware that the context, the scenario in which innovation is introduced helps condition its meaning.

The fifth point is about understanding the inadequate operation of majority mechanisms in difficult decisions. Here too, it is worth recalling another idea from last year, that of Amartya Sen: democracy is not limited to the familiar forms developed by the West; it is the concept of decisions developed between the authority and the demos who is affected by them.

To sum up, we must acknowledge that all of us are fairly unequipped to deal with these problems. We lack the culture necessary to move beyond the isolationism of scientists that reductionism has created across the board: among scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, administrators and politicians.

Naturally, we glimpse a degree of responsibility that frightens us and makes us feel inadequate. Yet we must understand that this is the result of something we ourselves created, that this is something we are called upon to understand and control, certainly not reject.
Declaring the limits of politics does not mean freeing it of responsibility.
In the same way, acknowledging politicians' limitations does not excuse them. By the same token, entrepreneurs, government executives and researchers cannot consider themselves absolved of responsibility simply because they opt out.

This does not mean that scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and administrators can do the job of politicians: simply, they cannot consider themselves completely separate from it.


Since we are mainly among researchers today, let's turn to you.

What comments might be more specific to your profession?

Let us begin with a general consideration: your world, the world of researchers, can no longer escape its obligation to consider these problems. It must do so with the utmost commitment.

As science moves into new fields that are liable to create profound consequences for social quality and risk (for example, biology, nanotechnologies, cognitive sciences, information technology, not to mention nuclear technologies or pharmacology), the question of scientific applications in micro and macro life conditions emphasises the impossibility of abstaining from guiding the process.
The paradoxical fact that politics is tending to lose rather than increase its capacity for awareness because it is afflicted by its own growing weaknesses - which include the crisis of governance, localisation, the crisis of the nation-state, the impact of the media, democratic pathologies, an inadequate popular culture certainly does not alleviate and indeed increases the moral and psychological tension of those who carry out research in innovative fields. As a result, such researchers cannot help but question the importance and responsibility of their work.

This brings us to an ethical consideration: how should the researcher act when politics feels it necessary to involve them?

Firstly, they should ask for clarity: this is not a refusal of co-responsibility. If those who make innovation engage in politics, then it follows that a researcher whose research is innovation-based also engage in politics.

But are politicians willing to recognise this?
Almost never.

Because your ordinary politician is almost always convinced that the supremacy of politics means supremacy of the politician.

Politicians believe that the decisions that count are made in political institutions, the institutions built around "control of legitimate force" and the legitimisation afforded by election.

Almost always, it escapes politicians that the correct application of their power to a phenomenon such as innovation requires an entirely different approach.

It is one thing to decide upon something one knows for a fact; it is another to decide upon what is unknown or uncertain. It is one thing to decide within a stable context; another to decide on phenomena that are prone to change: they are two different epistemologies.

In their ignorance, all too often politicians assume that to solve this problem all they require is a consultant. In so doing, the politician transfers the role of decision-maker to the consultant. This is absurd.
As a result, such a relationship is often harmful to both parties.

Of course, it is a politician's responsibility to make decisions based on values, interests, and opportunities applied to facts or situations which are known fully and therefore decided following normal political process.
Yet when it comes to situations that are only partially known, the responsibility for shedding light on facts in as much detail as possible (and doing so with the utmost responsibility in risk assessment) is joint, and rightly so. This relationship cannot be limited to acquiring expertise: it must clearly mean co-decision-making and, therefore, co-responsibility.

If politicians can be called upon to make a decision even when they lack information (this is part and parcel of their profession and epistemology), likewise experts, in these situations, cannot limit themselves to saying what they know. The expert must work with the politician and assume joint responsibility for that which, even together, they cannot know. This is precisely what often happens with decisions on innovation.

Only the assumption of co-responsibility can avoid reliance on the pseudo-solution of inverted roles that is typical of the technocratic situation: a pseudo-solution in which politics is no less present; it is only disguised as a technical issue to allow the technician to engage politics without saying so and without assuming the related responsibility.

But what happens to the researcher when politics is perfectly aware of the limits to its knowledge?

The researcher may be invested by the politician's attempt to delegate all responsibility to them in the scenario described above.
They may, however, find themselves involved on more sophisticated level.
Indeed, there are myriad ways in which Politics has always sought support from bastions of Knowledge: everything from wizards and soothsayers to consultants, supreme councils, corporations, academies, ad hoc commissions, universities and experts.

There was a clear plan in all these examples: in order to decide, we need to know more; transfer some of the knowledge that you should have to us.
Until now, this system has worked successfully in free bourgeois societies based on organised, professional skills as long as science and the professions continued to progress on the premise that they knew all there was to know.
However, when science, too, began to realise that there were many areas where real knowledge was knowing that you did not know, this solution also began to crumble.


And this is why a glimmer of clarity has recently emerged.
It has emerged among those who address the problem of the relationship between science and politics by abandoning the so-called "linear model" described in detail by Pielke in his recent book, "Science and Politics" as that ontological and epistemological vision of science's role in society based on the premise that science must necessarily produce political outcomes. That is, it must play a role, or perhaps the central role in political debate.

This retreat questions the excessive confidence about the relevance of presumed scientific certainty to life and history that derives from experimental reductionism: the epistemological assumption that, for years, has been a considerable obstacle to innovation management that is compatible with sustainable development objectives that can guided by politics.

It is a retreat that paves the way for the figure of the scientist or technologist as an "honest broker".

That is, a mediator who while certainly not without political opinion nor heroically objective can help decision-makers understand the range of alternatives before them, even expand them; and the probable consequences of different options." To cover this role, such figures must participate actively in policy debate and discard the idea that science can be wholly separate from policy and politics.


And politicians, in the presence of researchers who act as "honest brokers", are also forced to change the way they perform their own role.
Politician will be forced to stop thinking they can choose without knowing or knowing only values and not facts.

If the scientist is forced to remember that "all forms of knowledge that theorise secrecy in the name of inaccessibility, that view obstacles on the path to knowledge as superhuman, that reaffirm the restricted nature of access (limited to the few) to truth and the possibility of reaching the episteme, then such knowledge will seem irremediably tied to the political theory in which men are incapable of governing themselves on their own, that, like children, they need fairy tales that keep truth at bay", then politicians too will be forced to remind themselves that facts have a tough hide.

And this is why the two paths to research undertaken by this union, which cannot be delayed any longer, will begin to emerge.
If artefact seemed to have become "the transcendental category of being" and "the will to power manifests itself in the devastating productivity of technology", then perhaps today we have come to a point where everyone, researchers and politicians, find themselves, yet again, faced with ancient Greek wisdom.

It was in this context that, last year, I recalled the myth in which Minerva was born from the head of Zeus to prevent the union of science and power creating a super-power.
This year, I would like to conclude my discussion in synthesis with Paolo Rossi. In his excellent reading in memory of Carlo M. Cipolla, entitled "Dedalus and the Labyrinth - Man, Nature, Machines", he recalls the myth of Dedalus who "simultaneously offers mankind both the roads to perdition and salvation: the same person had built the Labyrinth and gave Arianna the thread to escape it. The very essence of this technology is ambiguous: it creates evil and offers solutions to it…. We too are building a labyrinth and, at the same time, trying to spin Arianna's ball of thread. The thread will not simply be given to us. We can rely on Dedalus alone."

So: today, all of you are Dedalus!

And who is Arianna?

Is she Politics perhaps?

Milan, 15.02.2006

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