What is Responsible Innovation?

The notion of “responsible innovation” is certainly multifaceted. There exist multiple definitions and even multiple definitional quandaries: see for example the various aspects of this notion captured in Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society (R. Owen, J. Bessant & M. Heintz, eds., 2013, Wiley) or in the pages of the Journal of Responsible Innovation (Taylor & Francis).

How can we recognize responsibility and irresponsibility in innovation? Our two cents: we defend the view that responsible innovation means a culture of testing, of democratic deliberation, and of shared knowledge.

A culture of testing,…

One first characteristic crucial of responsible innovation is testing. Innovating responsibly requires a culture of testing, a culture of precaution and vigilance: in short, a laboratory culture. Of course, we all know that what one can control inside a laboratory can become unmanageable when it is released into the wild. The behavior of an innovation can become uncertain when it reaches the market. Unintended hazards, unforeseen developments can take place, often in an irreversible manner. How can we take responsibility for this? Pre- and post-marketing testing, vigilance networks and recalling programs are good examples of how players in the industry and regulatory agencies can organize the reversibility of a situation gone wrong.

… of democratic deliberation,…

A second vital characteristic of responsible innovation is deliberation. Innovating responsibly requires a culture of democratic assessment and of public debate. Going ahead with an innovation means taking into account the remarks and objections of potentially affected parties. Why? If the risk is collective, then the decision to go ahead should be collective too. Making innovation publicly debatable is what characterizes today the most critical areas of science and technology policy in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere. Deliberative poling, consensus conferences and national debates are among the regular instruments for policy making in a number of crucial areas. These procedures are far from perfect, but they appear as the guarantee of collective, mutual responsibility.

… and of shared knowledge.

A third important characteristic of responsible innovation is distributed knowledge. Innovating responsibly requires a culture of shared knowledge, of mutual awareness and of the multiplication of viewpoints. An innovation that is crafted inside the comfort of an opaque silo is likely to fall outside the scope of responsible innovation. Why? Because when it gets out of the silo just a handful of experts will be able to understand it and cope with it, and the others will be left just facing a monster, a monster not of their own design. Complex innovations behave in a complex manner and in order to reach a state of collective awareness, all stakeholders need to have access to detailed descriptions of this behavior and of the risks associated with them. Responsible innovation relies in this sense in a culture of open data repositories, of the multiplication of models and assessment techniques, perhaps also in a culture of distributed calculation.

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