In a global marketplace that thrives on technological innovation — incorporating ethics, responsibility and sustainability into research and development is a critical priority.
Last month saw the launch of the US National Science Foundation funded Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation. Housed at Arizona State University, VIRI “was created to accelerate the formation of a community of scholars and practitioners who, despite divides in geography and political culture, will create a common concept of responsible innovation for research, training and outreach – and in doing so contribute to the governance of emerging technologies under conditions dominated by high uncertainty, high stakes, and challenging questions of novelty”.
VIRI is a part of an NSF initiative called “Science Across Virtual Institutes”. Virtual institutes are designed to facilitate worldwide collaboration among scientists and engineers on topics of common interest. Funding for this particular project is in the region of half a million dollars, and its founders state that it will a wide reaching and interdisciplinary institute. The project has a host of Institutional Partners and Affiliates, including the Bassetti Foundation, the institute that I myself work for.
VIRI’s mission is to develop and disseminate a sophisticated conceptual and operational understanding of Responsible Innovation by facilitating collaborative research, training and outreach activities among a broad partnership of academic and non-academic institutions. VIRI will be Led by ASU faculty members David Guston and Erik Fisher.
The website states that “Responsible innovation is an emerging term in science and innovation policy fields across the globe. Its precise definition has been at the centre of numerous meetings, research council decisions, and other activities in recent years. But today there is neither a clear, unified vision of what responsible innovation is, what it requires in order to be effective, nor what it can accomplish”.
The following extract is taken from an interview between myself and Erik Fisher in which I raise questions regarding the work of VIRI and its relevance to members of the IX community.
JH: How will the development of VIRI and its output effect practitioners in the sector?
Erik: VIRI is meant to help develop and improve our understanding of what responsibility innovation does, can and should mean. Innovation practitioners have a stake in how RI is defined for a number of reasons. My sense is that they want to know how their innovations can be responsive to the needs and values of society at large, without taking on additional liabilities. I assume most of them would prefer a framework that rewards creativity and care.
JH: How should/can community members relate to the argument and this institution in order to help and benefit its work?
Erik: Members can tell us about the challenges and opportunities they face for simultaneously reflecting and innovating. They can help us test and refine the tools we have developed for generating synergy between innovation and responsiveness.
JH: What will the institution and awareness raising of Responsible Innovation do for them?
Erik: Ideally, member participation in VIRI can help identify and develop responsible innovation “sweet spots.” These would increase the public value of innovation without increasing the risks taken on by private individuals and firms. The alternative to a truly effective voluntary framework for governance and assurance is, of course, a more restrictive set of regulations.
JH: How is it different from an academic think tank in terms of practicalities and working practices?
Erik: Well, for one, we are attempting to build a community of innovation scholars, stakeholders and practitioners. We will also focus on practical problems and real-world work environments. For instance, the project team has a track record of outcomes-oriented collaborations with scientists and engineers.
JH: How will the project impact in the marketplace?
Erik: I would not want to try to promise or predict anything. I think it’s clear that the marketplace is changing, and that consumers and citizens are increasingly able to identify and follow their interests. Innovators have an opportunity to start a pre-market dialogue that will not only build trust but will also improve products from the standpoint of social and public values.
JH: What is the role of industrial partnerships and entrepreneurs in the project?
Erik: We want to expand our collaborations with industrial R&D firms. We’re looking for partner who will allow us to test our tools of “midstream modulation.” Research has shown that this approach to social and ethical aspects can simultaneously improve industrial R&D. That’s counter intuitive for most people, and needs further development.
JH: How will the project move regarding education within innovation?
Erik: We will be collecting and disseminating curricular and pedagogical best practices from numerous educational institutions engaged in responsible innovation. These will cover both formal curricula as well as hands on research training and certification. We hope to draw from institutions throughout Europe and North America – as well as South America.
On behalf of myself and the Innovation Excellence community I would like to thank Erik for his participation in this interview and wish he and his team all the best for this new venture.
image credit: cns.asu.edu/viri
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Jonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. 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.