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Responsible Innovation / Sustainable Innovation

by Redazione FGB [1], 2 February 2011

This is the paper that Jeff Ubois [2] presented last November 2010 at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The presentation was part of the panel organized by Cristina Orsatti entitled 'Sustainable Innovations: Forging Partnerships, Knowledge Exchange, And Reciprocity'. Soon we shall publish the abstract of the other contributions.

Responsible Innovation / Sustainable Innovation
Jeff Ubois, The Giannino Bassetti Foundation
(read and download [3] from Issuu [4])

Innovation is a special kind of power: it assumes different forms in different contexts, is shared and applied by diverse actors, and by continuously reshaping our environment, our institutions, and our values, it acts on us all.

In an ideal world, power brings responsibility. But the connections between innovation and responsibility have never been less clear. Responsibility for innovation is diffused among an ever-expanding number of actors, each of them caught between their own hopes for the future relevance of their work, and the impossibility of knowing the effects - good and bad - their work may have.

For more than ten years, the Giannino Bassetti Foundation of Milan, Italy has been exploring the nature of responsibility in innovation. Through conversations with innovators and politicians, public meetings and events, publications, and the creation of a network of individuals in government, industry, and academia, the Bassetti Foundation has engaged with this question at the personal, organizational, and societal level, and I want to offer synthesis of what we've heard so far.

We have found that asking "what is responsibility in innovation?" invites discussion about critical issues now facing us individually and collectively. Rather than proposing some final answer, this paper explores how engaging with the question may clarify research priorities for innovators and funding organizations, bridge the gap between innovators and policy makers, and reframe debates that have been gridlocked.

Innovation and responsibility exist in every political and scientific domain, from the most theoretical to the most prosaic, and at every level of social structure--from the individual and the small group, to the multinational, nation state, or disciplinary field. But clearly defining the terms "responsibility" and "innovation" is difficult; the meaning of both is in flux.

Innovation has been described as the ability to achieve the improbable (1); as a reconciliation of contradictions (2) ; as "the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth"; as a process extending from initial concept to eventual changes in practice by individuals and institutions; and as the application of capital to scientific discovery (3). Innovation has been typed in various ways--e.g., radical or gradual, linear or network- based--and differentiated from discovery and invention by a requirement for application in the practices of institutions and individuals.

Responsibility is harder to define. It may be a power and a limit; to "be responsible" may mean to cause; to have the power to choose between different actions (response-able); a duty or obligation; a goal for which one is accountable. As it relates to innovation, responsibility exists throughout the process of innovation, from initial concept to final application, from inventor to engineer to vendor to the end user, from investor or grant-maker to final buyer, from theorist to manufacturer.

Assessments of responsibility for particular innovations-- whether defined as credit, blame, or agency--evolve over time, and may involve subjective or aesthetic judgments. Were the theoretical physicists of the 1920s and 1930s responsible for Hiroshima? That question may seem naïve (or tired), but after more than 60 years, our answers continue to evolve: in 2008, physicist Freeman Dyson announced he had changed his mind about the role played by atomic weapons in ending World War II based on new information recently released by the U.S. government, writing, "Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no." (4)

To the extent that innovation shapes our individual and collective futures, all of us are stakeholders in the answers to questions about responsibility. So are there "recipes" and processes that can be applied across different domains? What kinds of societal ills might be attributable to a lack of responsibility in innovation (or cured by an increase in it)? Do recurring issues and approaches exist across different disciplines? And do basic questions about responsibility reliably generate new insights?

The discussions on the Bassetti Foundation's web site indicate that dialog on the question "what is responsibility in innovation?" can illuminate the nature of technology and society, law and ethics, economics and power, and can serve as an organizing theme for a wide variety of ethical questions about technology.

Related concepts and Perspectives on Responsibility

If the question of responsibility in innovation is fundamental, then it should be found in other guises across a wide variety of disciplines. That turns out to be the case; law, economics, engineering, design, administration, and others all address facets of the problem. For example:

Legal scholars sometimes frame the issue of responsibility in terms of liability, or proximate cause (5).  Economists think in terms of externalization of costs (6), risks, minimax, and moral hazard (7).  Engineering and medical societies may operate under codes of ethics or practices that address responsibility, and designers have searched for answers with "user centered" approaches, and argue that responsibility can rest with the end user (8).

University administrators may simply delegate the problem to their Institutional Review Board. To them, responsibility in innovation means avoiding liability, and secondarily, protecting human subjects of research. Responsibility rests with experts (9).  Researchers in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) have grappled with issues of agency and unintended consequences, public policy and innovation (10).

Each of these approaches sheds light on questions of responsibility, but it is rare for more than one or two to be applied to any single circumstance.

In addition, there are three related concepts--sustainability, accountability, and the Precautionary Principle--that are sometimes referenced in discussions related to responsibility.

Sustainability, the prospect for indefinite continuance, is now invoked as a useful value for everything from fisheries to libraries, from national healthcare systems to neighborhood non-profit organizations. The UN General Assembly's Brundtland Commission noted in 1987 that sustainability "implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," and that sustainability "should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, Governments and private institutions, organizations and enterprises ..." (11).

"Sustainable innovation" is also the subject of numerous academic conferences, papers, books, and academic programs (12), and is becoming a part of the academic curriculum of engineering and business schools as a more refined set of concepts once grouped mostly under the term "green." The problem with "sustainability" is that as it becomes a universally accepted value, its meaning is becoming increasingly nebulous.

We have definitional problems with the word sustainable. In digital preservation, sustainability there can mean "green computing." Or a continued flow of funds to cultural heritage institutions (we're not begging for money, we're ensuring future sustainability.) Or it can be technical: the ability to write indelibly on an indestructible medium of some kind - which is quite the opposite of the "leave no trace" philosophy embraced by environmental advocates for sustainability.

Or maybe "sustainable" simply means "morally good."

"Innovative" has got a bit of the same problem: it's really starting to mean "smart and rich." Or "successful." If necessity is the mother of invention, maybe success is actually the enemy of innovation. That was true for General Motors.

Like sustainability, accountability is subject to various definitions, ranging from liability to reporting functions (accountability is often paired with transparency) to enforcement (13). The concept presupposes some type of authority; it may also imply an assumption of responsibility.

The Precautionary Principle, in all of its many different varieties, is another effort to engage with questions of responsibility, risk, policy, and law. Essentially, it argues that the burden of proof for the safety and desirability of a new technology rests with the innovator, and in the absence of such proof, restrictions on the technology are appropriate. For example, the February 2, 2000 European Commission Communication on the Precautionary Principle (14) notes that the precautionary principle applies "where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU."

In sum, discussions around responsibility in innovation should take into account different interpretations of responsibility, as well as concepts, policies, laws, and other governance mechanisms that touch on responsibility, as innovators are likely to be affected by one or more of them to varying degrees.

There is also the question of which fields may be candidates for studies in responsibility, or sustainability. Seen in retrospect, many predictions about the course of science and the impact of science on society seem naïve or misguided: moon colonies, power too cheap to meter, and flying cars never came to pass. Others have far exceeded expectations: air travel, birth control, and television have changed society far more profoundly than predicated.

But any effort to get upstream in the innovation process involves making predictions about which technologies are likely to have broad social effects. For the purposes of the following conversations, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and computer science stood out as among the most potentially transformative technologies of the next fifty years. That is not to downplay the significance of energy, aviation, or other fields; rather, the point is that by engaging in fields that already have proven to be changing society, and which seem likely to continue to do so, issues of responsibility may become more visible. In other words, because these fields generate widespread effects, issues of responsibility are more likely to be apparent.

A SummIng Up
A number of consistent themes come through our discussions.

The first is that while innovation is relatively easy for most people to comprehend (or at least, most people have a mental model of it), responsibility comes in many forms that are much harder to gauge. Still, innovators themselves tended to have working definitions.

Several noted that only by remaining engaged outside their field--by making an active, ongoing effort to do so--can innovators be said to be responsible. Specialization can therefore lead to deterioration in the capacity for responsibility.

Other discussions led to alternative definitions of responsibility. For example, responsibility might be defined the sum total of our downstream effects; considered in terms of research focus, that is, as wise allocation of limited intellectual, economic or environmental resources; as engagement with others in an active search for other stakeholders outside one's normal sphere; or a refusal to yield to particular political, religious, and economic powers.

Using something of Michael Twidale's "design by negation" approach, it's possible to approach responsibility (and maybe sustainability) in another way--that is, choosing to work on or to fund technologies with minimal payoffs or high social costs may be irresponsible. Indiscriminate acceptance of research funding from sources without clearly defined, consistent policies around downstream effects of innovation and responsibility around it might be seen as "irresponsibility in innovation."

A second theme that emerged during discussions was the possibility for approaches to responsible innovation that are not unique to particular fields, but which translate remarkably well from field to field. In addition to universal questions of value (e.g., who might be negatively affected by a particular innovation?), some specific practices to enhance responsibility can be identified. For example, researchers in most fields can consult the UN Declaration of Human Rights and think about the potential impact of their research; seek out interested parties in different fields; work to educate policymakers; and engage in public dialog.

The similarity across fields can be analyzed more closely by examining the mechanisms for responsibility that exist in different fields. Several authors have described different multistage models of innovation21, but consider a simplified example involving stages of basic research, applied research, commercialization, and broad adoption. Responsibilities at each stage and in each field may be universal, or quite specific.

A third theme that emerged from discussion is that there is nearly universal dissatisfaction with existing mechanisms intended to ensure some level of responsibility. While IRBs came in for particular criticism, researchers were also pained by the limits of understanding in the legislative sphere, of oversimplified public dialog, and the ineffectiveness of whistle blowing.

Several researchers touched on the issue of incentive structures, particularly in academia, that rewarded specia- lization, and the power of incumbent political and economic forces to promote questionable research or retard good work (especially in politically contentious fields such as climate studies and biosciences).

Questions For Further Research

Based on these conversations, a number of possible strategies for enhancing responsibility in innovation deserve further investigation. Many could be further developed at a relatively low cost.

Cases. The diversity of fields involved in innovation, and the rapidly changing theoretical landscape (especially with regard to sustainability), suggest that case-based approaches to expanding understanding of responsibility and irresponsibility are needed. Much of the Foundation's work in the U.S. so far has focused on innovators' perspectives, but a similar set of conversations with policy makers would be helpful.

Methods. The handful of cases described here point out techniques that might be applied more widely. Can new measurements of negative externalities help improve technology regulation? Can scenario planning be a useful approach for developing and communicating possible futures? Is the UN Declaration of Human Rights a useful reference document for innovators?

Boundaries, edge cases, and disruptive technologies. Are there technologies that should be relinquished, or conversely, technologies that should receive more funding and attention? How can they be identified? When and how will it be possible to get beyond the "utopia versus oblivion" mindset that seems to dominate many conversations about new technologies such as enhancement?

Additional fields. What do the greentech bubble and the current mania for "sustainability" imply about possibilities for responsibility in innovation? Is the green-tech industry powered by people with intrinsic motivations that should be factored in, or which might be looked at as responsibility?

Improving existing mechanisms. Institutional Review Boards, ethics committees, the precautionary principle, sustainability as a value, and other efforts that touch on responsibility might be tied together in new ways. IRBs in particular seem in need of repair.

Building communities of practice through engagement with policy makers, and with other innovators. "Community of practice" has often implied a narrow discipline, but encouraging responsibility means reaching beyond a particular specialty. Generalists may have credibility problems in particular scientific and academic environments, but specialists seem to be part of the problem. The fields of science and technology studies (STS), innovation studies (as done in business schools), and bioethics all seem particularly promising.

Language. Researchers in different fields often use different terms to describe similar concepts related to responsibility in innovation, while terms like "sustainability," "responsibility," and "innovation" take on different meanings in different fields. Some effort to unify the language around responsibility in innovation would clarify discussions and strengthen the most widely applicable ideas.

Media strategy. Debates over complex bioethical points conducted in 15-second soundbites on television are not capable of conveying the nuances involved in decisions facing policy makers. Finding ways to engage in public discussion without oversimplifying the issues is critical.

Cherry picking. Are there areas where it might be possible to bring more social responsibility into the innovation process (keeping in mind our broad definition of innovation)? Genetics, nanotechnology, robotics (GNR) and design, seem particularly promising areas to follow; it is less clear if there are policies that might be tracked in the same way.

Taking responsibility for the power of innovation by anticipating the future, and finding ways to improve the likely effects of innovation, is a desired goal for most innovators. Pursuing these and other questions may give them the means to do so.


1. A concept of the Bassetti Foundation: "L'innovazione è la capacità di realizzare l'improbabile." (up)
2. See the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) and the work of The Altshuller Institute (http://www.aitriz.org/), and Genrich Altshuller (1996), And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared: TRIZ, the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (paperback). (up)
3. The quote is from Peter Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985). Drucker also defined innovation as "Change that creates a new dimension of performance." The final two arose in various informal conversations at the Bassetti Foundation. The last two arose in various informal conversations at the Bassetti Foundation and elsewhere. (up)
4. See "What Have You Changed Your Mind About?" (http://www. edge.org/q2008/q08_2.html) "...did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no." (up)
5. SeeGerhart,Peter(2008)"ResponsibilityandProximateCause"(http:// works.bepress.com/peter_gerhart/4), accessed November 26, 2008. (up)
6. See Whittingham, R.B. (2008). Preventing Corporate Accidents: An Ethical Approach, p 24 discusses externalities as "... the innate propensity of the corporate body, as far as possible, to 'externalize the costs' of doing business in order to maximize profitability. Historically, this process of externality has taken place at the expense of the vulnerable and less powerful sections of society, such as the workforce and the public as well as the environment. It operates on the principle that every cost that can be externalized is a cost that the company does not have to pay, thus increasing the amount of profit that can be generated..." (up)
7. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good discussion of this issue; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_hazard, accessed November 26, 2008. For purists who discount Wikipedia as a source, this article contains a good set of other references. (up)
8. See the Usability Professionals' Association's discussion of user- centered design at http://www.upassoc.org/usability_resources/ about_usability/what_is_ucd.html, accessed November 27, 2008. (up)
9. See, for example, the IRB Forum, http://www.irbforum.org/, accessed November 27, 2008. (up)
10. See the STS Wiki at http://en.stswiki.org/index.php/Main_Page, and the web site for the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology at http://www.easst.net/, both accessed November 26, 2008. (up)
11. See Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42- 187.htm, accessed August 5, 2008. (up)
12. See, for example, Sustainable Innovation 08 (http://www.cfsd. org.uk/events/tspd13/tspd13_programme.htm); Real Innovation, (http://www.realinnovation.com/theories_strategies/sustainable_ innovation.html); and Sustainable Innovation: The Organisational, Human and Knowledge Dimension (Contributing Editor: René Jorna)(http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail. kmod?productid=682), all accessed November 17, 2008. (up)
13. The Wikipedia discussion on accountability is surprisingly good. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accountability. (up)
14. See Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle (http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/library/pub/ pub07_en.pdf ). (up)

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.ubois.com/
  3. 3] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti/docs/jeff-innovation-aaa-2010-2
  4. 4] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti
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