Part 9, Case Study 2, The Scientist’s Narrative

Chapter 7 of the book is dedicated to Prof. Jos Malda, a world leading biotechnologist based in the Netherlands.

The Laboratory

Prof. Jos Malda heads a research group that focuses on biofabrication and biomaterials design, in particular for the regeneration of (osteo) chondral defects. The team is investigating regenerative means for repairing damaged joints in humans and animals, with particular interest in the knee. The team works alongside and within both the medical and veterinary facilities at Utrecht University, studying wear on both animal and human joints and have designed and built a production facility that allows for the 3D printing of living cells to make live repair implants that can be surgically implanted.

The chapter recounts the work from Malda’s perspective. He has long been involved with responsible innovation and its practices, and trains all of his team in ethics.

The chapter takes the model and issues addressed in the furniture restoration workshop and compares them to the laboratory and the narrative that Malda offers through recorded interviews.

The use of tools and the layout of the laboratory is compared, with the use of skilled visions and similarities in problem solving techniques also highlighted. The comparative shows how research in the lab can be seen as following similar lines of development to those in the workshop. The use of different generations of tools, based on a nuanced understanding of their capabilities and possibilities, the practice of building tools for specific uses, the application of techniques from other fields in problem solving and the view of the finished product within its lifespan (an implant seen not as a finished product but as something has to grow and survive wear, very much as the restorer sees the choice of materials and techniques used in the workshop).

Malda’s own Words

The second half of the chapter (like those previous) offers an interview transcription with Prof. Malda himself. He describes the reaction to his laboratory producing a 3D printed skull that was fitted to a young woman, delving into the problem of expectations for future medical treatment, the printing of organs and the thin line between repair and enhancement.

Malda narrates the network capacity necessary for such work, reflecting the furniture restoration experience from the previous chapter, the value of teamwork (ditto) his visions and aims and financial value of his work for the university. He describes his push towards standardization which leads him on to EU funding and finally protocols, which leads us to the very point of the book and this series: Some are international but others are internally created within the project!

This brings us back to the conversation with the furniture restorer. The protocols that are created within Malda’s project reflect the philosophies and goals and aims and personal beliefs of the team. Just as the restorer carries out unseen work, reflecting the workshop philosophy (workshop protocol), the scientists also share an understanding, and it is one which they themselves create. Both teamleaders are striving for the right way of proceeding, within their own set of beliefs that is constructed through their networks. They are both using a set of tools, many of which they have constructed themselves, and they both see their work within a broader and longer term view.

Part 8, Case Study 1: Furniture Restoration

Chapter 6 of the book Responsible innovation, A Narrative Approach is dedicated to fieldwork carried out in Manchester UK with a furniture restorer. This is a descriptive chapter, based on recorded conversations that took place in a workshop I used to work in myself. The question that the whole book tries to raise is about why certain people choose to work in particular ways, while others do it differently. This is fundamental for the question of responsibility.

The Restorer’s Narrative

The use of the word ‘narrative’ in the book title relates to how people narrate their working practices and how they make their decisions and choices, this chapter presenting the first of two extended narratives. The second comes from a scientist, with my personal question asking how closely the narratives of a furniture restorer match that of a scientist, the first carrying out high quality restoration work and the second biotechnology experiments.

Both chapters contain photos, as one aspect that appears similar is the layout of the workspace and how this both reflects and enables particular forms of working practices. The restoration workshop is compared to other workshops in the area, and as I am a furniture restorer myself, I draw conclusions based upon the relationship between tidiness and quality (I have 17 years’ experience in the trade).

The chapter contains an explanation of tacit knowledge acquisition (as discussed in part 7 of this series) within a setting that I know well, before the question that forms the central pivot of the book as it is applied to working practices; what matters to people and why? Ideas such as ‘for the good of all parties involved’ come up, as does the concept of skilled vision from chapter 5.

The skilled vision of the restorers allows them to share and talk about the workmanship and choices made during the restoration process using beauty as a measurement. A piece can only be beautiful if it has been done technically correctly, with flair and style, no corners cut, and with all of the decisions taken during the process in mind.

Only if the right questions were asked and the right decisions made, the work done well and the end product of high quality and fitting for the house that it will live in, can it be beautiful.

If any of the above is not right, it is not beautiful. Aesthetics as a measurement of correctness and quality, but also morality (no corners were cut, even though the customer will not and cannot know that).

The Recordings

The second half of this chapter consists of the transcription and analysis of several hours of recorded conversation between the furniture restorers and myself. They are discussions rather than interviews, wide-ranging and based upon shared understandings and shared knowledge. Topics covered include:

  • The relationship between the community and a small business
  • Aims, goals and company policy
  • Work as an art form
  • Investing unseen time
  • Using the ‘correct’ methods (doing it right)
  • The importance of style
  • Customer relations
  • The importance of being able to share your reasoning with others
  • The importance of having learned the work through an apprenticeship (situated learning, tacit understandings and knowledge)

Although all of this might seem far from technology and innovation, it is not really. All of the above relates to decision-making at work, driven by values rather than rules. In cutting-edge scientific research and innovation settings we find similar situations occuring, in this case driven by the fact that the rules have not been made yet. The process is driven by the values of the researchers, they strive for a goal that is much bigger than just a result and within a framework that is constantly being constructed in the workplace.

Part 7, Poiesis-intensive Innovation

Poiesis-intensive Innovation

The concept of poiesis-intensive innovation has been developed by Piero Bassetti, President of the Bassetti Foundation, over the last decade. It is central to the book, as it brings responsibility within innovation into the workplace. The short chapter in the book explains its importance as an analytic framework that can be used when looking at processes constructed at work.

We can think of poiesis as the addressing of ethical and aesthetic issues combined via a production process. This is an idea that comes from Plato, and we can see it as related to the modern world of the maker: the making addresses every aspect of being, so not merely producing something but making something in a way as if it grows out of both knowledge and skills, but also philosophies, beliefs and aims.

This form of innovation is driven by soft forms of knowledge such as design, function, organizational patterns, aesthetics and worldviews, and is often associated with small worplaces such as workshops and small-scale laboratories.

It relies on the situated learning of tacit knowledge.

The Role of Tacit Knowledge

We can see tacit knowledge as knowledge that cannot be explained, but is either shown or seen, learned through the experience of working in a particular setting. If we think of an apprenticeship or someone who goes to work in a small research group we can imagine that they learn how to proceed through the experience of being in the situation, things are not necessarily explained but are experienced.

It’s not just technical skills that we are interested in here though. The junior member of the group also learns why things are done in this way, the reasoning behind everyday choices and decisions and also aims and goals. They learn through being a member of a community of practice, with this learning experienced and understood through the practices lived.

If we think a little broader, we can apply this idea to research settings and to many situations where innovation is carried out. If the learning mechanism described here can be applied to these settings, we might be able to find something that we might call poiesis-intensive innovation; an innovation process driven through shared understanding of the goals, aims and ways to proceed, through the application of a broad range of skills held by those involved.

From here we can make a leap to thinking about poiesis-intensive responsible innovation, an innovation form that reflects the various models of responsible innovation that we have seen so far in this series, but is not based on following a set of rules. It grows out of the working practices and beliefs held in the workplace.

This communication (within the workplace) requires a language and a mechanism for appreciating and communicating actions taken. In the book I use the concept of ‘skilled visions’ to describe one possibility. A skilled vision is shared by those in the workplace, it is the learned ability to see the choices made during the process in the product but also within the process. It is vision based, fellow workers see the process and the decisions made during the process and understand how they were made and more importantly why.

Why was a particular material used? Why was it sourced from here and not there? Why was a particular standpoint on privacy taken? Each individual working in the process sees what happens and can interpret developments within the (understood through practice but not explained) aims of that particular project.

Case Studies

Chapter 5 in the book also contains two short case studies, Roadrunner Engineering and Officina Corpuscoli.

Roadrunner Engineering produces bespoke prosthetic legs and feet, using an interesting mix of high technology, personal experience and old-school mechanics and engineering skills. Their approach is personalized, but at the same time pushes research in the field to the limit. They publish the findings of their research online, open-access, and operate within a philosophy that we might imagine is driven by the aim of making life better for users of their products.

Officina Corpuscoli works within the field of synthetic biology, synthesizing fungus that are used to produce a host of different materials for both industrial, artistic but also educational use. Reflecting the responsible innovation approach, projects include trying to produce materials that will be able to degrade plastic in order to turn it into an energy source, provoking public debate around synthetic biology and environmental issues, and replacing plastics wherever possible.

All the links for further exploration are in the book.