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Home > Focus > Rethinking Responsibility at the Brookings Institute

Rethinking Responsibility at the Brookings Institute

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 11 June 2013

Last week on behalf of the Bassetti Foundation I attended the Brookings Institution [2] in Washington DC for their public forum to discuss the role of social responsibility in each stage of the innovation process.

The event was well attended, with several of Washington's leading thinkers on the issue in attendance. After a brief introduction, moderator Walter D. Valdivia [3] of the Center for Technology Innovation asked a series of questions to the panelists before opening the debate to the attending public. Audio of the proceedings is available here [4].

In his introduction Valdiva argues that wellbeing and innovation are linked, but that examples of unanticipated dangers brought by innovation litter history. He asks the question of who is responsible and how to structure responsibility in innovation, raising the problem of uncertainty as crux to the issue.

Valdiva goes on to describe Richard Owen [5]'s definition of the 4 dimensions required for working towards responsible innovation:

1 anticipatory, disposition towards uncertainty through imagining plausible futures in order to debate and manage them
2 reflective with respect to underlying motivations and assumptions
3 deliberative, through stakeholder involvement in debate
4 responsive, a process of adaptive learning with reflexivity

He argues that we must focus on governance, methods of evaluation, investment that goes beyond simply profit making, how responsibility is divided among participations, and which institutions can be created to help in the mission of creating more responsible innovation.

His first question is addressed to David Guston [6], who followers of the Bassetti Foundation mission will know well.

His question relates to Guston's work at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. He states that Guston's work involves testing new forms of governance, asking what are the key ingredients for responsible innovation?

Guston's response raises the question of how to study something that is yet to happen. He argues that their vision of Anticipatory Governance may help. Although it may be difficult to predict future applications of innovations, we have to take different positions and work towards understanding different scenarios. Anticipation is different that looking to see the future, we must generate a variety of futures through imagination. He talks about building capacity in a logically prior way, and acting in the presence of a variety of futures through scenario development. This is done through workshops, many of which lead to changes in the way research is conducted. The results lead to a reorientation of strategic approach.

He also argues the need to build integration, building social science and humanities into the lab, to engage in dialogue upon how, why and who might be effected. The goal is to open the lab as a place where governance happens. He also argues the need for building capacity for public engagement.

The second question is addressed to David Chu [7], President of the Institute for Defense Analysis. The question relates to the problem of evaluation as a key activity in R&D, asking if consequences that go beyond the mission are considered (in terms of national defence spending).

He answers that yes they do think about it but uses and applications are difficult to predict. He makes the example of the military based development of prosthetic limb technology that is now advancing this form of technology in the civilian world. This type of development is relatively easy to predict, the example of the development of GPS was much more difficult to see. His third example really puts the debate into perspective however, as the case is Opennet, a military development that became the Internet. He also pointed to the risk that giving too much thought to this argument may lead to cuts in development, as it invites speculation about how organizations may create something that they cannot control or gain from.

The third question is addressed to Bennett Freeman [8], Senior Vice-President of Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments.

The question is whether Freeman sees a trade-off when dealing with responsible investment funds.

He answers that there is now a move towards responsible investment arguing that company engagement and public policy are moving towards responsibility. He explains that some funds operate according to guidelines addressing problems of environmental impact, human rights etc. and are working also towards transparency.

He argues that institutional design, incentives and values and interests are 3 important concepts. An investor interested in sustainability and ethics accepts a balance. The question of how to deal with fear of informing stakeholders about decision-making and other issues is also raised.

The next question asked David Chu about how to induce agencies and individuals to take on thinking about issues that may seem outside their jurisdiction.

His suggestion is the continued expansion of giving the staff some degree of patent rights, so they have an interest in the future applications of their developments. They should also make actors in the governing agencies aware so that they think about these issues.

David Guston is then asked about institutional design in universities and particularly his Arizona experience, how can the experiment be scaled up?

He answers that universities have been in innovation for a long time. Government has been moving towards making making research more responsible for several years now, through the introduction of institutional review boards in the 1970s and then the 1990s technology transfer legislation. But he raises the question of if the government could fund responsibility. He envisages centres for responsible innovation, possibly government promoted and funded as a support for reflexive research.

He argues the need for a life-cycle analysis or assessment. Innovation and its products must be viewed over their life-cycle and within a global context. He offers the example of the effects upon mining communities in South Africa of the possible replacement of platinum with new synthetic materials.

The question is then raised of promoting the same goals within agencies.

The issue is raised of who has the expertise to embark upon this idea? Do scientists have these capabilities or are others better geared up for it? Scientists and entrepreneurs should be encouraged to participate and think about these issues, but can third parties offer a better base for perspective?

The debate was then opened to questions from the floor.

The question is asked of how responsible innovation and anticipatory governance differ from what has been called adaptive management and in 5 years how will big data have informed what we are doing and know things?

Guston replies first the anticipatory governance and adaptive management are interrelated, but that anticipatory governance is launched prior as it recognizes the lab as the arena.

Regarding big data the panel come to the conclusion that all bets are off, and that it is not clear whether the tools for accessing the wealth of information will be available. The debate moves into health care and issues over operating costs with all of this new data.

A question is then posed related to what to incentivise, should outcomes, research goals or success be the measuring blocks?

The panel responds that outcomes should be the focus, although many government incentive schemes are about input. The need to think in the long term is highlighted, and the idea that awards of recognition and not money may be a more powerful incentive.

The issue of the European legal idea of non trade-able moral rights is then raised,as a possible way to create moral responsibility in science.

The panel responds that the problem is that institutions own most of it in the USA. It is also argued that this approach may suppress interesting developments. Govt intervention such as taxation and banning may work better.

The example of stem cell development in which a non governmental set of restrictions was created is offered. In this case the regulations exists at licensing level. The problem of will writing is given though, 100 years later a good idea may no longer seem so good.

The question of disruptive innovation is then posed. With it leading to development in some cases how will moving upstream with responsible decision-making effect these outcomes?

The panel describe the difficult problem of balance between innovation and morality and public acceptance. They controvercially argue that we might not want to stifle innovation through looking for public acceptance.

The debate wraps up with a few comments related to the poor design and implementation of innovation, with health care as the focus, before closing remarks and thanks.

An interesting debate that raised many questions. I would like to thank the Brookings Institute for their hospitality and all those who participated for their insight.

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(photo: Brookings Institution [9] by Eric Brown from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.brookings.edu/
  3. 3] http://www.brookings.edu/experts/valdiviaw
  4. 4] http://www.brookings.edu/events/2013/05/30-rethinking-responsibility-innovation
  5. 5] /en/focus/2013/04/responsible_innovation_managin.html
  6. 6] http://archive.cspo.org/people/bio/guston/
  7. 7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_S._C._Chu
  8. 8] http://www.calvert.com/about-sri-analysts.html
  9. 9] http://www.flickr.com/photos/politicalactivitylaw/4275416118
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cc - photo by Eric Brown from Flickr
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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