Responsible innovation: Managing the responsible emergence of science and innovation in society

Volume XLIV, Number 2
Mr. Robert William Caverly
Villanova University

by Richard Owen, John Bessant, Maggy Heintz (Eds). (2013). John Wiley & Sons, LTD. Print ISBN: 9781119966364

Developed from the content of a workshop held at the Residence of the French Ambassador in London in May 2011, Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society, is a collection of essays by an international cast of academics, administrators, ethicists, and scientists. Accessible for those interested in the trajectory of novelty in technique and technology, the collection is intended for decision makers and policy movers, individuals who need guidance on the unfolding of long term trends rather than specific, near term outcomes. As such, most of the essays will make it clear that they are making pains to stay away from explicit prescriptions for individual problems, and instead setting out to create management frameworks for leadership invested in innovation processes. Responsible Innovation is a textbook meant to be read early in the innovation process, ideally before ethical issues arise. The essays are very well cited and provide a wealth of information for further research. Equipped with the information found within, the text promises the watchdogs of innovative products and processes insight into the question of how innovation can and should be carried out.

Responsible Innovation (RI) as a practice gets several definitions over the course of the text, with general conclusions being as follows: that RI is a pluralistic process balancing a continuum of viewpoints, varying education levels, and degrees of political and economic power; that RI has to balance anticipation of the future with the fact that technology is by definition unanticipated; that the current market-based paradigm that dominates the world economic and political systems means that when (and if ) RI appears, it arises out of an organized chaos of competition and marketeering; and finally that RI is a collective commitment to the future. The various characterizations of RI proceed from a growing body of scholarship concerned with diligent stewardship of the research process, from academia to business.

A collection like Responsible Innovation could easily fall into length philosophical and ethical reflection and polemics, or alternatively, stale repetition of various  practical  approaches already attempted. It is fortunate, then, that the editors chose such a mix of essays as they did. Philosophical perspectives are erudite, such as the criticism of consequentialism offered in Chapter 7, Understanding the Ethnical Issues (Grinbaum, Groves 2013), and the unpacking of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between collective responsibility and collective guilt as an answer to the dominant consequentialist paradigm. The author’s referencing of Hans Jonas’ idea of technology’s influence in “our power over future generations” (127) identifies one of the primary ethical issues at hand in responsible innovation: the depth of the stakes involved in the tireless march forward that constitutes innovation, stakes that have become extraordinarily high. The various global  perspectives  that  inform  the  collection  are  helpful  in  this  regard. For instance, a European perspective is offered in Chapter 3’s A Vision of Responsible Research and Innovation (Schomberg 2013), which takes on the EU’s Lund Declaration – the final word of the Lund Conference in 2009, focused on the “great challenges of our time” - as a starting point for developing ‘normative anchor points’ for innovative product and process: that product be ethically acceptable, be developed in a sustainable manner, and be socially desirable; and that process be responsive, adaptive, and have integrated management. Relatively new disciplines, such as geo-engineering and nanotechnology, fields of study that promise transformative innovations and coeval ethical implications, are approached with maturity and nuance. One such approach is carried out in, Chapter 13, titled Visions, Hype, and Expectations (Simakova, Coenen 2013), which explores the vicissitudes of nanoscale technology’s many promises to those “great challenges”, pulling apart the tensions between visions of a robust nano-technological future and ‘hype’, that perennial conflict between expectation and reality. For the reader of Responsible Innovation, the wagers of innovation are reflected on in a way that quantifies them and makes the risks appear less daunting. Frameworks for bringing ethics to the innovation process appears early in the book, such as Chapter 4’s Value Sensitive Design and Responsible Innovation (van den Hoven 2013) which presents a Dutch methodology for embedding morals in the design process. An anticipatory  effort  to  increase  moral  choices, Jeroen van den Hoven argues, can be embedded in a  design  process,  making  innovation  a practice of unwinding moral dilemmas.

Governance is importantly given a place within the book, and the advice is appropriately dynamic. Chapter 8, Adaptive Governance for Responsible Innovation (Lee, Petts 2013) outlines issues with regulatory governance in order to provide alternatives to strict risk management, framing regulatory response in terms of soft and hard responses to innovations being introduced to society. The new governance outlined is clarified using recent case law, all to indicate that the top-down approach to innovation management is outdated. Governance is examined beyond its regulatory responsibility, as well: Chapter 9, Responsible Innovation: Multi Level Dynamics and Soft Intervention Practices (Fisher, Rip 2013) uses the ability for funding agencies to set certain standards for researchers as a potential tool for responsible innovation: NSF’s Broader Impact and Intellectual Merit criteria are cited as an example of responsible innovation best practices making their way into the innovation culture in government agencies. The authors end their chapter with the conclusion that what started as policy discourse, “may lead to arrangements and behaviors that endure, their actual forms shaped and reinforced by the multi- level dynamics, rather than through policy specification and its implementation as such” (179). It is clear that governance strategies to date have been lacking, a theme taken up in the book’s chapter on financial innovation, Chapter 10, Responsible Innovation in Finance: Directions and Implications (Muniesa, Lenglet 2013). Governance is characterized here and elsewhere as primarily reactionary, always behind the curve of innovation. The goal of Responsible Innovation is clearly to begin a slow transition away from traditional regulatory management in favor of a culture of responsibility built in common by the wide range of stakeholders.

This responsible innovation culture that crosses industry, government, the public, and  the scientific community is perhaps the book’s most problematic and  ambitious  goal.  David Guston of Arizona State University writes in Chapter 6 that practitioners of responsible innovation should cultivate a  practice  of  mindfulness  toward  innovation,  and  not  sink into “empty exhortation or insipid sloganeering” (116); furthermore, he hopes his son will learn the principles of responsible engineering from “his science teacher, and his art teacher, and a whole host of others, and not just from me” (117). The collection is both at its best and at its absolute limit when it attempts to address what the new culture of responsible innovation would look like. The struggle comes from its intended audience: the leadership that Responsible Innovation aims to inform is also the constituency that will find it hardest foster the “bottom-up” approach imagined by the editors. Public dialogue is brought up time and time again as being necessary for responsible innovation to take place, but at every juncture that this occurs, it appears inadequate. This is spelled out in detail in Chapter 12, Deliberation and Responsible Innovation: A Geoengineering Case Study (Parkhill, Pidgeon, Corner, Vaughan 2013), an essay that goes to great lengths to show that public dialogue can be very valuable, but also concludes that prevailing attitudes in the selfsame public about the dialogue’s usefulness leaves its products (whether in the form of reports or guidance) lacking any audience. The unrealized culture of responsible innovation was simultaneously the most frustrating and  the  most  rewarding  aspect  of  the  book.  A  world  that  increasingly  depends on technological solutions for its problems requires congruent cultural  change,  and  I  look forward to more reflection on this theme from these authors.

Author’s Note

Our reviewer for this issue is R. Will Caverly, MA, CIP (2013). He is the Research Information Officer at Villanova University’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, where he is responsible for pre and post award administration and acts as ex-officio committee member to the IRB and IACUC.

Mr. Robert William Caverly
Research Information Officer
Villanova University
Office of Research and Sponsored Projects
800 Lancaster Avenue
Middleton Hall, 1st Floor
Villanova, PA 19085 United States
Phone: 610-519-6127