We are talking about ethics, in that ethics is responsibility-taking for future consequences of present actions. One problem is that we have great difficulty visualizing the consequences of our actions. We may see our new innovative path working beautifully, but it may be more difficult to see any collateral damage surrounding our new process. In a world as interconnected and fast moving as today the effect cause by related events (both positive or negative) can be enormous.
Innovative new uses will be found that may be completely unrelated to the original purposes of the product design. Some software companies try to include clauses in their user agreements so that their products will only be used for the good of society, but I personally do not believe that this is a viable way to proceed. What I believe we should aim for is responsible behavior and ethical decision-making practices.
If we agree that a precautionary approach may well not be the way forward, and the innovation community in general certainly does not believe in it, what is required is reward. Could incentives work? Financial support for innovators who develop responsible, ethically defend-able processes? Or could an ethical and responsible process bring its own financial rewards?
Decision-makers are not the only important players in this process of working towards ethical and responsible innovation, particularly if we are going to implement some kind of payback scheme. We also need to forge a new cultural framework of responsible thinking, so that it becomes common sense to question the innovation process, its objectives and outcomes, so that it is the general public who demand a responsible approach and appreciate one when they see it. In this way innovators could profit from their behavior and approach which is, in itself, a sale-able commodity.
The Observatory for Responsible Innovation in Paris does in fact give a prize. This year it went to the Reserve Bank of India for its activities and preventive dimension of regulation, considered a benchmark for other countries. There are several other awards and prizes on offer, some involving large sums of money, but innovators have to be informed about their existence if they are to compete.
So the question arises of how to sensitize both innovators and the public to such issues. There are many blogs dedicated to Responsible Innovation and related topics, Alongside my own at the bassetti Foundation there are Jack Stilgoe’s Responsible Innovation blog and Richard Jones’ Soft Machines to name just two. The obvious question is whether critical thinking can be nurtured using these means and to how great an extent?
Another imperative must be to involve the public in decision-making processes. This obviously requires an opening up on the part of both the public (the aim described above) and those working towards innovation, as well as achieving a shared understanding between all parties involved. This requires a public that is willing and able to converse about science, innovation and ethics and push politicians and regulators into action. For this they need to have the cultural baggage necessary for an informed debate. Would more openness in the process mean that greater public accountability might lead to greater responsibility? Once achieved could it be marketed? Present copyright and patenting practices would have to be re-thought if a financially viable movement of this type were to be practical.
If education is another key to responsible thinking then we must think about how to further disseminate the argument into schools and Universities. Business Schools, Engineering faculties, the Natural Sciences, Computing – all skills enter into the innovation process. Students attending innovation courses may be offered a course in responsible innovation but a much broader swathe of society must be involved if the problems caused by irresponsible innovation (I am thinking about banking practices here as well) are to be avoided, and best practices appreciated.
My organization the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation has been working to promote these ideas for 15 years, and recently many other institutions have latched on to the idea of responsible innovation. Universities such as Exeter and Ecoles des Mines have dedicated departments, and, there are many centres in the US with interests spanning the issues around Responsible Innovation (such as the Hastings Center and the Arizona State University Center for Nanotechnology in Society etc). The Netherlands is coming to the fore in governmental investment with its ambitious Responsible Innovation project and conference.
What we and they all need to do is to share these ideas with you the innovators, while offering you all a good (financial) reason to think about what we are trying to do.
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Jonny 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 Massachusetts where he is also a professional musician, actor and street performer.