A Framework for Responsible Innovation

A Framework for Responsible InnovationAs a contributor to innovation Excellence, I have almost always written about responsible innovation as a goal for innovators. Last month Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen and Phil Macnaghten published an open access article in the Research Policy journal entitled ‘Developing a Framework for Responsible Innovation‘, and I think it raises some interesting points for all of the innovation community.

Although aimed at an academic audience, the article is not difficult to read. I feel the case study in section 3* is the most interesting section for a working innovator analysis.

Part 1 is an introduction to the arguments surrounding responsible innovation.

Part 2 is entitled ‘4 Dimensions of Responsible Innovation’.

The 4 dimensions are anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and responsiveness, and they provide a framework for raising, discussing and responding to questions about responsibility in innovation.

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). They analyse various approaches aimed at promoting anticipatory discussions of possible and desirable futures and also raise the idea of scenario planning as a possible tool.

Although the aims of anticipation in this case are to promote responsible innovation, I cannot help but feel that this advice should be followed in all cases of innovation. As I have said in the past Innovation excellence should be responsible and ethical, not just because it may be right but also because it makes good business sense. In the long term responsible innovation approaches pay, irresponsibility does not.

Under the reflexivity section the authors ask what type of reflexivity is needed? How could it be defined and could it be promoted through in-situ discussion?

Whilst addressing inclusion the authors offer a critique of public engagement practitioners, and raise questions of power relations within the organization of dialogue. They seem to argue that public engagement although imperfect, politicized and uneven, it is also somehow “good”. For our purposes we might also add that knowing what the public think must be a resource.

The responsiveness section suggests responsiveness in governance, as well as in decision-making is a necessary part of a responsible approach.

The final section of Part 2 is entitled ‘Integrating the dimensions of responsible innovation’, and it argues that all of the above must be integrated if the process is to work well.

* 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 participate in and effect the decision-making process in an innovation sector that is highly contested and debated.

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 a small scale test 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

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

Although the approach may seem a little technical, it was aimed at a particular purpose, and I feel that the approach could be adapted and used in many different fields. It is the gate system itself as much as the criterion that we should be interested in.

The direct effect on the project in question was the delaying and eventual abandoning of a test to see if materials could be sprayed 1KM up into the atmosphere.

The authors clarify that it was the SPICE team who 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.

Although in this case the result may not seem to fit the aims of the innovation community, I would argue that the result of the experiment is positive. Reflexivity helped to influence a decision, and although on the surface it could be seen as a slowdown, it may have averted a serious problem (in this case an escalation in an uncharted field). In the case in question we are talking about environmental problems, but they might just as well be commercial, financial or legal. An innovative idea that causes unforeseen problems is no good for anyone.

If the implementation of the gate system does not lead to negative feelings, we may be able to say that we have made an attempt to address possible future problems, and moved some way towards designing an innovation process that thinks about responsibility not only to shareholders but to the wider society in general.

A valuable read for the open minded innovator who’s aims include averting a sticky situation in the near or distant future!

Interested readers should check out Jack Stigoe’s blog and the Bassetti Foundation’s website.

image credit: cttc-hk.com

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Innovation, Social Risk and Political ResponsibilityJonny Hankins is a researcher and writer for the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation in Milan. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.

Jonny Hankins




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