What Does “Responsible Innovation” Mean?

A new movement tries to define engineers' roles and responsibilities in the innovation process

4 min read
Illustration: iStockphoto
Illustration: iStockphoto

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

We might say that in doing their work, and through the innovation processes that they are part of, engineers are writing history. In so doing, they take on a huge responsibility. As more and more voices lend their weight to the call for “responsible innovation," and a community of scholars and practitioners adopt the “RI" cause, what role should engineers and their professional organizations play in this debate?

Last month's National Society of Professional Engineers PE magazine featured an article by Eva Kaplan-Leiserson that raised a host of interesting questions related to engineers' role in ethical decision-making processes, and their responsibility to future generations for the effects brought about through their work. The article suggests that engineers should move away from looking at their work from a purely technical point of view and ask how their developments may affect humanity's future and whether they are working towards idealized goals of societal improvement and the common good.

“Who is better equipped to understand the possible far reaching effects of these innovation processes than the engineers themselves?"

Such a suggestion raises another set of questions. How much control can a design engineer have over his or her product once it has reached the market? Can engineers provide (and implement or enforce) appropriate guidelines for the use of novel devices?

“Who is better equipped to understand the possible far reaching effects of these innovation processes than the engineers themselves?" Kaplan-Leirserson asks, quoting Sujata Bhatia, author of a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review, “Fools for Tools." Bhatia believes that “If engineers fail to carefully weigh the long-term impact of their innovations and neglect to provide appropriate guidance for novel devices, then engineers share the culpability if their machines are used in ways that harm the public good."

The Responsible Innovation (RI) community shares an interest in the debate, although from a slightly different perspective. The goal of RI is to make the entire innovation process responsible, and not merely individual engineers, scientists or entrepreneurs.

A decade ago RI was practically unheard of, with scattered individuals in universities across the globe connecting through a loose network of interests, or working with non-academic partners on the fringes of policy-making and politics. Today the community boasts RI university chairs, dedicated blogs, book series, and a growing global network.

The concept is still in its infancy, and as a result definitions abound within a rapidly expanding body of literature both from academic and non-academic sources. One of the most commonly cited definitions of Responsible Innovation comes from Rene von Schomberg, team leader of science policy at the European Commission:

“Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)."

Another broader and somewhat simpler definition comes from Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen and Phil MacNaghten:

“Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present."

These definitions address the concept of RI in terms of science, technology, and industrial production and include the distribution and supply processes, end products and their use. But unlike Kaplan-Leiserson, who emphasizes individual actions, these RI advocates stress process.

As with any other young concept, RI draws from a broad base of methodologies, interests and experiences. Current research includes placing social scientists in laboratories to enhance scientists' own understanding of the complex consequences and ripple-effects of their innovations; the construction of ethical frameworks to bring RI considerations to bear onto both funding and research practice areas; and the investigation of grass-roots models of production that seem to fit the various RI models.

The RI debate has also evolved to incorporate those interested in entrepreneurship and small business, banking, science and scientific research and a host of other fields. The European Commission has included the concept in many of its research calls, as have various engineering and academic funding bodies. The Netherlands government also has a large funded RI project, and it seems that the concept is quickly becoming institutionalized.

The growth of the community led to the creation of the NSF-funded Virtual Institute of Responsible Innovation (VIRI), now headed by David Guston and based at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. VIRI brings an expanding network of both academic and non-academic partners together to work towards the diffusion of scholarly and action study around various RI related topics. The network holds an annual conference, with longer terms aims including the creation of teaching materials and courses in RI, and the website hosts a large downloadable library of related articles.

To Probe Further

One of the best-known studies of researchers in-situ involved placing social scientists into a geo-engineering project. Interested readers can find a short article that describes the process and results. I don't want to spoil the end but the scientists themselves chose not to conduct the final experiment due to ethical issues.

Here's an open access article on grass-roots initiatives as case studies for responsible innovation. It addresses the issue of food procurement and asks how closely the organization and practices of alternative food provisioning networks fit an RI model.

The Journal for Responsible Innovation is published three times a year, and showcases a broad range of articles from many different points of view. Submissions include book and film reviews as well as research articles and personal perspective pieces, very much reflecting the eclectic nature of the community.

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