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Home > Focus > Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation

Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation

by Jonny Hankins [1], 26 July 2013

Last month Jack Stilgoe [2], Richard Owen [3] and Phil Macnaghten [4] published an open access article in the Research Policy journal that is available through the Science Direct website entitled 'Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation'. [5] Readers will probably know Stilgoe from various references made on this site including his 'Year (and a bit) in responsible Innovation' [6] post that I reviewed in January, and Owen as joint editor of the recent book 'Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society' that includes an overview by myself and that I reviewed on the website here [7].

Although aimed at an academic audience, the article is not difficult to read and offers an overview of current developments as well as a very interesting case study. It is divided into 3 parts.

Part 1 is an introduction, that raises several historical and philosophical questions, offering a description of the development of ideas surrounding the theme of responsible innovation. This section also goes on to raise the question of a new scientific governance.

Part 2 is entitled '4 Dimensions of Responsible Innovation'.
In this section the authors firstly offer their own definition of Responsible innovation before moving on to its dimensions.

Their definition states that "Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present."

The 4 dimensions are presented in an easy to comprehend table, with the authors stating that "The four dimensions of responsible innovation we propose (anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and responsiveness) provide a framework for raising, discussing and responding to such questions" (those presented in the table).

Under anticipation the authors call for improved anticipation in governance, the limitations of risk based models and for the actors involved to pose the question of "what if?".

They also point to the problem of responsibility in hype (a realistic presentation of the possible advantages a of pursuit) and offer the examples of upstream public engagement and Constructive Technology Assessment as "two techniques that involve anticipatory discussions of possible and desirable futures". They also point to 'Real-Time Technology Assessment' as another model of what they (and others) call 'anticipatory governance', and raise the idea of scenario planning as a possible approach.

This is an academic paper though, very much a review of approaches and not (I feel) meant to be seen as prescriptive.

Under the reflexivity section the authors ask what type of reflexivity is needed? How could it be defined? They quote Wynne [8] as arguing that responsibility makes reflexivity a public matter, going on to ask the question of whether it can be built through conversations in the lab?

Whilst addressing inclusion the authors offer a critique of public engagement practitioners, and raise questions of power relations within the organization of dialogue, but seem to argue that public engagement although imperfect, politicized and uneven, it is also somehow "good".

The responsiveness section contains a nice table that explains the 4 ingredients.

They argue that "for responsible innovation to be responsive, it must be situated in a political economy of science governance that considers both products and purposes".

The final section of Part 2 is entitled 'Integrating the dimensions of responsible innovation'.

The authors state that "responsible innovation demands their (the 4 dimensions outlined above) integration and embedding in governance". They go on to argue that "the dimensions therefore do not float freely but must connect as an integrated whole" and that "institutional commitment to a framework that integrates all four dimensions (with no a priori instrumental conditioning) becomes vital, rather than relying on piecemeal processes that highlight particular dimensions and not others".

Part 3 is a case study. The case in question is the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project. The authors worked along side the project, allowing them to develop, embed and deepen their thinking. The authors offer an overview of the project and the socio-political context for the case study then the history surrounding it, before moving on the a section entitled 'Embedding the dimensions of responsible innovation within SPICE'.

The process of embedding involved the development of a stage gating system based upon the dimensions described above. "The decision gate involved an independent panel evaluating the SPICE team's response to the criteria and recommending to the Research Councils whether the testbed should proceed and, if so, under what conditions".

The criterion are presented in a table as follows.

1. Risks identified, managed and deemed acceptable
2. Compliant with relevant regulations
3. Clear communication of the nature and purpose of the project
4. Applications and impacts described and mechanisms put in place to review these
5. Mechanisms identified to understand public and stakeholder views

Point 3 to 5 above are most directly related to responsible innovation, with the stage-gate itself seen as a process of responsiveness.

The authors state that the "EPSRC created the institutional conditions for this new governance mechanism and were willing, with leadership from senior staff, to interrogate their own institutional responsibilities. There was a visible degree of the institutional reflexivity demanded by Wynne".

They continue by arguing that "There were over-riding assumptions that Research Council decision-making should be science-led, in the service of national competitiveness. Outside the Research Councils, policy bodies such as the European Parliament and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity were urging caution on field" and that the stage gate system became great forum for debate.

As the project developed this level of debate seems to have effected proceedings, with the testbed (testing of a small scale distribution system using a balloon) being postponed upon advice from stage gate panel. Secondarily, the symbolic and political implications of the test were also realized through external forces entering the debate further adding to discussions.

During preparation for a presentation a patent was discovered that had been filed by a co investigator, leading to discussions of a conflict of interest. The debate above culminated in the testbed being canceled with regulatory issues also cited as a potential problem.

The authors clarify that it was the SPICE team chose to cancel the test themselves, it was not an external order. The implication is that reflexive thought effected the process, evidence of which can be found on blogs written at the time.

The paper concludes with a reflections section in which the authors state that "In the case of the SPICE project, the responsible innovation approach introduced reflection, anticipation, inclusive deliberation and responsiveness, materially influencing the direction of a contentious, charged and highly uncertain area of emerging technoscience"

They go on to describe both the achievements and limitations of their approach, and are not trying to prescribe a path towards responsible innovation, but that they hope to constructively inform a debate upon responsible research and innovation, and go on to warn against the instumentalization of the phrase and process.

I personally feel that this is an important article. It describes a process that brought results in terms of responsibilizing a process, and as such offers some evidence for possible developments. If as we argue at the Bassetti Foundation it is the process that should be the object of a move towards responsibility, involving decision makers within the project, Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten seem to be offering evidence of the validity of this argument through evidence.

The authors are also aware that their involvement in the project came about after it had already been funded and given the institutional go ahead, and that involvement in these processes is necessary in a move towards responsible innovation, an argument that we have made many times at the Foundation.

A highly recommendable read.


(photo: Take Care [9] by tomthejet from Flickr)


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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonny Hankins
  2. 2] http://jackstilgoe.wordpress.com/
  3. 3] http://business-school.exeter.ac.uk/about/whoswho/index.php?web_id=Richard_Owen
  4. 4] http://www.dur.ac.uk/geography/staff/geogstaffhidden/?id=4323
  5. 5] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733313000930
  6. 6] /it/segnalazioni/2013/01/a_year_in_responsible_innovati.html
  7. 7] /en/focus/2013/04/responsible_innovation_managin.html
  8. 8] /en/focus/2008/02/a_seminar_on_governance_and_sc.html
  9. 9] http://www.flickr.com/photos/64582365@N03/7255892316
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Articles by:  Jonny Hankins
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