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Home > Focus > OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, December 2021

OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, December 2021

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 16 December 2021

In this post I would like to offer some take-aways and personal thoughts on the recent OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, held on the 6th and 7th of December 2021.

Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions

The conference rationale was Innovating Well for Inclusive Transitions, based upon the supposition that the world faces unprecedented challenges in health, food, climate change and biodiversity, solutions for which will require system transition or transformation. The technologies involved may bring fear of negative consequences and problems with public acceptance, as well as raise real issues of social justice (primarily of equal access, thinking today about covid vaccination inequalities as an obvious starting point).

Good governance and ethics will therefore be necessary to harness technology for the common good.

Towards a framework for the responsible development of emerging technologies

The following is taken from the rationale page of the conference website:

Accordingly, the conference will explore values, design principles, and mechanisms that operate upstream and at different stages of the innovation value chain. Certain policy design principles are increasingly gaining traction in responsible innovation policies, and provide an organising structure for the panels in the conference:
Inclusivity, diversity and stakeholder engagement.

Stakeholder and broader public engagement can be means to align science and technology with societal values, goals and needs. This includes the involvement of stakeholders, citizens, and actors typically excluded from the innovation process (e.g. small firms, remote regions, certain social groups, e.g. minorities etc.). The private sector too has a critical role to play in governance.

Goal orientation

Policy can play a role in better aligning research, commercialisation and societal needs. This implies investing in public and private sector research and development (R&D) and promoting "mission-oriented" technological transformations that better connect innovation impacts to public policy needs. At the same time, such innovation and industrial policies need to be transparent, open and well-designed so they foster deliberation, produce value for money, and do not distort competition.

Anticipatory governance

From an innovation perspective, governance approaches that engage at a late stage of the innovation process can be inflexible, inadequate and even stifling. More anticipatory kinds of governance -- like new technology assessment methods, foresight strategies and ethics-by-design - can enhance the capacity to govern well.

The conference included round-table and panel events alongside institutional presentations, introductions and scene setting as well as wrap-ups. Video of each event is available via the conference website [2] or directly through the title links.

Each session is described below. Under the title you will find the description taken from the agenda followed by my own (personal) take-aways and a link to the videos.

Welcome, Scene-Setting and High-Level Roundtable: Rethinking Technology for Inclusive Transitions [3]

How to drive systems transitions in energy, food, global health, and transport is a critical challenge for the world. Systems change must be simultaneously social and technological and novel technologies - whether digital, material, biological or all three - will certainly play an important role. However, based on previous experiences, the impacts of new technologies are often both positive and negative and these impacts can be unevenly distributed, with potentially disruptive consequences. For this reason, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and a number of related declarations and agreements urge countries to foster innovation and technological development within a broader context of poverty eradication, responsible consumption and production, and inclusive and sustainable growth.

● What values, principles and policies must be operationalised to ensure a just and values-centred technological transformation?
● How can public policy and governance help ensure that both the development and implementation of technology in these sociotechnical systems will be inclusive?
● What kinds of discussions and policies will be necessary to align sociotechnical change with societal values and address concerns?

Take-aways from the Opening Remarks

Need to anticipate the effects of the development of technologies on society in the broadest sense
Embed social responsibility and human rights into development strategies
Advance international cooperation
Today we are experiencing the slowest that development will ever be (as it is in constant acceleration), so we need to try to get in front of the curve, to guide it rather than react.

Issues addressed in the Roundtable Discussion

● What values, principles and policies must be operationalised to ensure a just and values-centred technological transformation?
● How can public policy and governance help ensure that both the development and implementation of technology in these sociotechnical systems will be inclusive?
● What kinds of discussions and policies will be necessary to align sociotechnical change with societal values and address concerns?

Take-aways from the Roundtable

The need for co-creation was expressed in various forms by several speakers
The trade union representative offered a valuable perspective that is rarely seen in such debates.

Keynote: Science and Emerging Technology for Inclusive Transition: New Directions [4]

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Sheila jasanoff delivered the conference Keynote, Science and emerging technologies for Inclusive Transition: new directions. Jasanoff has collaborated with the foundation several times over many years as regular readers will know. For an overview of her approach see here [5] (written by Mariachiara Tallacchini) and for her 2008 seminar follow this link [6].

Take-aways from the Keynote

Scientific progress takes place in an unequal world
There is a need for co-production
critique of the linear model of innovation within a discussion of a post WW2 form of social contract for innovation and technology
Context (in its broadest sense) is missing from the discussion
There is a need for new questions: what are the assumptions behind the approaches proposed, which knowledge was included or not, who loses and who wins, and in which context can the solution be set?

Panel 1. Building Inclusivity Upstream: Engaging Diverse Actors in the Development of Emerging Technology [7]

This panel was moderated by the Bassetti Foundation's Angela Simone and produced a wealth of points and proposals.

Inclusivity in science and technology is an important design principle for innovating well. Inclusivity is often framed in terms of access to knowledge and equitable enjoyment of technological benefits. This panel, however, frames inclusivity in terms of access to the processes of technology development, where enriching diversity of participants is linked to the creation of more socially relevant science and technology.
● What are tools and mechanisms for involving more diverse actors "upstream" in the development of emerging technology?
● How can involving new actors - such as knowledge-producers, entrepreneurs, co-creators, co-owners, and research participants etc. -- present pathways towards more just and inclusive transitions?

Take-aways from Panel 1

The importance of grounding public participation and technology within society
Need to begin with more expansive questions, what type of world do we want to live in?
A call for transdisciplinarity as these problems are too complex for a single discipline
It is a challenge to know how and when to involve stakeholders and the public as this is contextual
Many groups are not aware of developments or think of them as not being useful, leading to lack of inclusivity
Many developments do not contain public voices
Local knowledge is often not taken into account
There is a need for more Institutional support
There are challenges brought by the dramatic increase in the speed of developments and increased complexity
There is convergence between policy and technology (think about e-health)
The importance of Justice and equality, co-creation of policy and the development of quicker funding tools including new actors
EU values should be followed
How to incentivize technology development and research system which seems to be lagging behind
How to scale up and out
The importance of networking EU regions and projects so that they can work together
There are still questions about what real engagement might look like and the related need to learn from the field and develop suitable methods
There is a constant need for showcases and dialogue related to the Importance of trust
How do we build capacity?
There is a pressing need to rethink research setting policy and system solutions
We can promote world-wide experimentation
Address the governance deficit
Build high quality and well-designed stakeholder processes after understanding what we want them to achieve
Inclusive sustainable directionality for policies
Develop more monitoring and progress assessment
Findings and developments must be applied
Inclusion: Offer development to the poor and rural
Developers need to participate in difficult discussions.

In Conversation: Values-Driven Development of Emerging Technologies in an International Context [8]

The day closed with what James Wilsdon called a 'fireside chat' (including cardigan) with Tarun Chhabra, Senior Director for Technology and National Security of the United States National Security Council.

The chat revolved around the Biden administration's view on technology and development, with the main question 'Can democracy deliver solutions?'

Take-aways from the Conversation

The speakers discussed a 3 phase digital revolution:
1 technology leads to democratization
2 technology brings an authoritarian revolution
3 technology delivers for democracy

Introduction to Day 2 and Panel 2 [9]

This short session will distill key insights from day 1 on values and introduce day 2 that focuses on goals and tools. The item concludes with a brief introduction to panel 2 - developing emerging technology for critical missions. It takes place in three concurrent thematic panels: on neurotechnology (2a), on carbon neutrality (2b) and on global health (2c). Present calls for "goal-oriented" and transformative innovation display a new level of urgency to better connect emerging technologies to specific challenges and goals like the SDGs.
● How can policies and practices by government and other stakeholders help ensure that the development of novel technologies addresses the most important problems?
● How might governance and inclusive processes help meet this challenge?

Douglas Robinson presented the summary.

Take-aways from the Summary

The accelerating pace of change and policy cycles requires the development of strategic intelligence for rapid decision-making
EU Values remain front and centre, as should the challenges to these values
Approaches should be goal driven and mission oriented
Intervention must be a balance between top down and bottom up.
How can progress be measured?
Inclusivity requires the move from engagement to co-creation
Societal buy in and democracy within the processes help in harnessing potential
Capacity building is necessary.

Panel 2 ran 3 sessions in parallel, a,b,and c. I attended 2b Realising Net Carbon Neutrality: The Role of Carbon Management Technologies [10]

Reaching net carbon neutrality is one of the central global challenges we face, and technological development will play a key role. A carbon transition will necessitate policies that promote sustainable management of the carbon stored in biomass, but not exclusively so: technology is increasingly making it possible to recycle industrial sources of carbon, thus making them renewable. The idea of "carbon management" may capture the different facets of the answer: reduce the demand for carbon; reuse and recycle the carbon in the bio- and technosphere; and remove carbon from the atmosphere. But a reliance on technologies for carbon capture and usage (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) may present barriers for other more radical transformations.
● What knowledge is necessary to better guide national and international policy communities as they manage emerging technology portfolios for carbon management?
● What can more holistic approaches to carbon management offer for developing technology pathways to net carbon neutrality?
● What policies could ensure that one technology is not a barrier for implementation of another?

Take-aways from Panel 2b

What kind of technology and knowledge is necessary when steering the development of emerging technology?
There are both opportunities and challenges for finding the right mix between technology and policy
Carbon capture alone will not be viable, we have to reduce emissions
The energy transition will have to be dramatic but there is no international agreement on the phasing out of carbon fuels
There is an immediate need for investment, social acceptance and political will
Use technology that is available today rather than using language about innovation
Policy-makers have to see a whole picture, just cutting carbon from some of the big emitters will not be enough
Real structural change is necessary
The old economic sectors and the poor should not be those who pay
Success requires not only information, but communication
The truth about both economic and social costs should be made available and known.

As the panels were run in Parallel they were followed by a Rapporteur and Wrap-up in which speakers summarized the discussions which is available here [11]. It offers an overview of the three panels in 15 minutes.

Panel 3. Setting Goals and Agendas Through Foresight and Participatory Processes [12]

In the face of pandemics, climate emergencies, and the digital transformation, it has never been more important to develop anticipatory capacities and strategic intelligence for setting goals agendas for science, technology and governance. The future of both technology and society carries great uncertainty, so tools like anticipatory technology assessment and foresight will be critical, especially if we seek to innovate towards key challenges.
● What are the current gaps and needs in capacity for strategic intelligence for emerging technologies?
● What kinds of diverse actors and practices will better foster this intelligence?

Take-aways from Panel 3

The need to define participatory foresight processes
Avoid technological determinism
Teach foresight to a broad spectrum of the workforce
Work towards less social exclusion
Address the problem of digital rights
Foresight needs to be embedded in democracy systems
Think about underlying narratives and bias
How to combat the growth of the anti-scientific movement
Issues around scale and scaling up recurred throughout the session
This has to be an ongoing process, with genuine inclusion
Work with narratives to create conversation.

Panel 4. Tools of Upstream Technology Governance: Soft Law, Standards, and Ethics-by-Design [13]

Governance of emerging technologies too early in the development process can possibly be constraining; but governing too late can make technologies harder to govern as they become institutionalised. This panel will explore a range of tools that seek to enable "innovating well" by working through tool and mechanisms of upstream governance. Communities of technological practice have become more creative in the embedding of social values, not just safety but also ethical considerations, into the development of emerging technology using techniques like soft law, private governance, standards and ethics-by-design.
● What are current trends and best practices for enacting agile and robust approaches to upstream governance that enable innovation but align technological development with societal goals?
● What are the advantages and disadvantages to different forms of upstream technology governance?

Take-aways from Panel 4

How can technologies be directed so that they are socially useful and responsible and trustworthy? Who is responsible for this and what should they be doing?
What does the design process look like?
Soft law requires follow up, but a lot of it is just guidelines without any support
Soft law can be used as a stopgap or because legislation is not possible
The importance of self-regulation and ethics by design.
Regulation as an attempt to change the future
The need to include SME's which are an underrepresented catgory
Regulations should be evidence based, clearly communicated and inclusive
Study how to make upstream engagement effective
Publication should be open source
Funders could pay for open access publication of research plans
Create a register of emerging technologies
The involvement of multiple stakeholders is key
We don't know what we don't know
Work on the culture of ethics within the workplace
Move away from control to a principle-based approach
How far upstream do we need to try to get to?
Governance mechanisms cannot remain stagnant but have to innovate.

Concluding Remarks and Next Steps [14]

Concluding remarks were offered by Yongsuk Jang, OECD CSTP / Science and Technology Policy Institute (Korea), Françoise Roure, Ministry of Economy and Finance (France) and Andrew Wyckoff, Director, Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (OECD).

The speakers summarized their own take-aways as follows:

There is an urgent need to address governance gaps
Global and glocal awareness is required
A culture of technology convergence should be developed
Importance of long-term investment in science and technology to address grand challenges
Need for policy experimentation and improvement of policy-makers knowledge of new and emerging technologies
Wider citizen engagement
Importance of worker rights
Information and awareness raising for those working throughout the technology sector
Need to build trust among stakeholders
Think about the problem that Foresight is linear
Do not understate the importance of incentives
Identify actors and communities.

Some Personal Thoughts

This was an extremely high-level conference, involving Ministers and Directors from a host of countries and organizations. More than 600 members of the public participated raising a broad spectrum of questions for the panelists and bringing lots of experience of their own to the discussion. The panels were interesting and as shown above there were a lot of take-aways.

The concluding remarks offered by the various OECD employees (and those made throughout the conference by OECD representatives) certainly imply that the organization will take stock of what has been learned over these two days.

The OECD itself did come in for criticism at certain points, particularly in its position of involving mainly wealthy participant member states, a position that was defended by its representatives (collaboration is much broader than just membership). I would say however that regardless of what could be seen as a somewhat elite position (and I in no way suggest elitist here) it seems clear to me that the OECD has a major role to play in steering technological development in the present and future, has the resources and influence to carry out this role and does have very positive aims.

This was an entertaining and stimulating conference, and all of the videos available are worthy of watching.

Parallel Panels
There were a further two health related parallel panels that I could not attend, links to which are provided below.

2a) Harnessing Responsible Neurotechnology for Brain Health [15]

Hundreds of millions of people suffer disorders of the brain and neural systems. Meanwhile, brain science and the associated ability to manipulate the brain and neural systems are deepening. Advances in so-called neurotechnology have the potential to enhance the treatment of brain disorders and build human capabilities, opening new ways to diagnose and treat brain disorders and improve health and well-being. But there are ethical, legal and social challenges associated with the advance of neurotechnology related to privacy, human enhancement, autonomy, and distributive justice. Recently the OECD Council enacted Recommendation on the Responsible Innovation in Neurotechnology to help guide the development of these technologies.
● What kinds of tools and policies are needed to help ensure that emerging neurotechnology advance the mission of brain health in an ethical fashion?
● How can the recently enacted OECD Recommendation best be implemented?

2c) Innovating Global Health: Collaborative Action Where Markets Fail [16]

This panel will discuss how new kinds of collaboration could bridge research, economic, and societal priorities to achieve a key societal mission: to strengthen health resilience. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary and multisector collaboration to address unmet medical needs and emerging societal priorities. When markets and return of investment are limited, for example in novel antibiotics, pandemic vaccines, and some diagnostics, innovators find it difficult to secure funding, develop a sustainable pipeline, and to ensure financial returns. New business models are needed to strengthen health resilience.
● How can collaborative partnerships and novel business models between governments, public research institutes, industry, funders and philanthropy help overcome economic barriers to sustainable health innovation where traditional markets do not deliver?
● How can these mechanisms become more anticipatory of resilience challenges?


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society
  3. 3] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/9802aaff-c4d5-eb11-94b3-000d3a21a507
  4. 4] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/9602aaff-c4d5-eb11-94b3-000d3a21a507
  5. 5] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2008/04/the_politics_of_science_and_th.html
  6. 6] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/focus/2008/05/sheila_jafanoff_in_fgb.html
  7. 7] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/1f76ada1-05eb-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  8. 8] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/3ee794c2-05eb-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  9. 9] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/bba41a2c-03eb-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  10. 10] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/1cee689b-c700-ec11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  11. 11] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/2b07a470-c500-ec11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  12. 12] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/7f01ff51-22e6-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  13. 13] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/bf35c623-04eb-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  14. 14] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/3dde3131-04eb-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  15. 15] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/c4d8272e-0bee-eb11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
  16. 16] https://oecd-events.org/technology-in-and-for-society/session/70ae5ebc-c700-ec11-b563-a085fc3e7f45
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OECD Conference on Technology in and for Society, December 2021
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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