Part 1, Responsible Innovation, an Overview

The first part of this introductory course looks at chapter 1 of the book Responsible Innovation, a Narrative Approach, free to download here.  These posts offer a guide to the book, a kind of online lecture series. The questions raised in the book relate to the development of new technologies, from the governance perspective but also from the perspective of those working within various research and development projects.

Responsible Innovation, an Overview

The aim of this week’s post is to introduce the concept of responsible innovation and some definitions that we find in use today, look at the aims and goals proposed and the backgrounds (both political and academic) that allowed the development of the concept and the definitions.

We can understand responsible innovation as having the goal of managing the development of technology while it is still possible to do so, so at its early stages of development. It grows out of a tradition of technology assessment, a process put into place (often by governments) whose aim is to assess new technologies before they come to the marketplace in order to address possible risks and suitability for introduction.

Responsible innovation adds an idea to this approach: Rather than just looking at risk and suitability it proposes the idea that innovation could be steered towards public good. So it should have public good as a goal, as well as not being risky etc.

In order to be able to do this there must be a possibility of developing and adapting the development process. In its design stage it should take into account this goal and aim at resolving pressing public issues. To do this though the process must be flexible and steerable. This brings into discussion when in the process these things can be done, presenting us with a dilemma: If the intervention comes too late, the development process will be fixed and difficult to change, but in the very earliest stages it may not be possible to see how the developments will be used. In the one case change is difficult to bring, in the other it may be difficult to determine what we are actually dealing with.

Nanotechnology development offers an easy to understand example, and it has been a driver in the thinking process. But in general terms we can see the move to responsible innovation one from assessment of technology to the management of its development.

This has been implemented here in Europe by the European Commission and various other UK Research Funding bodies. In order to get a more precise idea of what we are dealing with, we need some form of definition .

Definitions in Common Use

As we are dealing with a new and emerging field, there are several definitions in use today. We start with the most widely used, that of René von Schomberg, who describes responsible innovation as:

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).

This definition has been influential within the European Commission as von Schomberg works within the Directorate General for Research and Innovation. The Commission has also published various papers and its own variations, links to which you can find in the book.

The definition here refers to several of these EU documents, and is drawn from an understanding of the actual treaties and agreements that make up membership of the European Union and have been agreed by the nation states (the Treaty of Rome and Lund declaration for example). It uses what von Schomberg calls normative anchor points that can steer towards positive benefits.

The second most widely used definition comes from Stilgoe, Owen & MacNaghten. This definition comes from a research council background, and was devised based upon public debate on science and technology in the UK:

Responsible research and innovation means taking collective care for the future, through stewardship of innovation in the present

This definition comes from an article that describes the idea in more detail, a description of which is in the chapter. The definition is based on an idea of science for society, and has 4 dimensions that have become fundamental for responsible innovation. It should be:

anticipatory (describing and analysing both intended and potentially unintended impacts); reflective (on underlying purposes, motivations and potential impacts); deliberative (inclusively opening up visions, purposes, questions and dilemmas); responsive (a collective reflexivity process sets innovation direction and influences its trajectory)

These ideas have led to a lot of public involvement at early stages in development processes.

Van den Hoven offers a vision of the role of design (read more in the book) describing the process as one of moral overload: How can you design something that is user-friendly, secure, cheap, durable, environmentally friendly, stylish and saleable at the same time?

There are several other definitions in the book too, from different backgrounds and which use different language.  I think that’s enough for today though.

It’s not a complicated subject. It’s a question. Could innovation work better for society, and if so how do we get it to do so?

Responsible Innovation, a Free Introductory Course (with book)


As readers might know, I am a great champion of open access publications. One of the great things that the inclusion of the concept of Responsible Innovation into European Union policy has been the explosion of open access reports and books.

These reports etc. are written by people who are at the top of their fields, and they have generally been written in a more accessible way so that non experts can understand them. If you scroll back over the last year you will find many of them reviewed on the website.

Last year I was fortunate enough to work on editing a book, it is available as hardback, or on download, but is not free. It is a commercial publication and I have to admit in my line of work that we do need publishers, and they need to make money. So it’s not free.

Last month I had another book published through the University of Bergamo. This time though it is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle format but also on free download via the University. Therefore, anybody who would like to download it and have a look is free to do so. And I would like to offer a guide through it.

But what is it about? I hear you say.

Follow The Book Online

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts that offer an overview, to see if I can tempt you into buying a paperback or downloading it. But we could say that it’s about decision-making in innovation. Broader than that it is about how people who work together cooperate to build and share an understanding of what the right way to do something is.

Can we see this ‘right way of doing it’ as being constructed right there, in the workplace? What if some of the team changes and new people with new ideas come in? How might that change the way things are viewed?

These questions can be addressed to any workplace, but (as we might imagine on Technologybloggers), my interest is in how technology is developed and how the trajectory of this development path is steered.

This might not seem like an important question at first glance, but I think it is. The development of systems and disruptive technologies brings huge changes, and the questions asked during this development process change it, making its possibilities change.

Ask not what the technology can do for you, but how you can affect its development.

The COVID crisis had led to innovation across entire systems. The trajectory of a wide range of technologies has been changed by users. We have expanded the list of the right ways to work with tools (that may be programs or infrastructure, 3D printers or networks.

Returning to the book. The chapters can be read independently, so I am going to offer an overview each week of the questions raised. If you would like to follow the narration with a book, just download your free copy here. I will try to provide you with a University level Introduction to Responsible Innovation course.

I hope to make you curiouser and curiouser.

Responsible Innovation. Business Opportunities and Strategies for Implementation

One of the changes that the introduction of Responsible Innovation into EU funding practices has brought is the wider offering of open-access academic and project publication (free books). This is because under the RI approach, publications should be made available to anyone who wants to read them, and therefore costless.

A good example to get your teeth into is Responsible Innovation: Business Opportunities and Strategies for Implementation, a new offering in the SPRINGER BRIEFS IN RESEARCH AND INNOVATION GOVERNANCE series (not all of which is available on open access however).

Edited by Katharina Jarmai, it is available in paper version or as a free download and offers a lot of food for thought for anyone interested in responsible innovation approach and application within business.

The primary focus of this short book is on small and medium enterprises and how they have adopted responsible approaches to their businesses (and also the problems they face if they want to do so).

The main perspective taken is one of looking at the overall objectives of RI approaches in order to apply these approaches in real-life situations. The goal for RI is thus described as ‘to increase positive societal impact and minimize actual and potential negative impact to the highest degree possible’, moving away from the abstract academic definitions and into practice.

Sounds perfectly reasonable.

This move hopes to involve businesses and business people who want and need guidance or to demonstrate their various good practices.

The book contains several case studies and practice examples that show how RI can be implemented in companies. In many cases described the companies go beyond guidelines and expectations. This is down to the personal beliefs of their management teams or workers, and it has a positive effect on the workforce as a whole: People want to work for responsible organizations.

Sustainability-oriented innovation (a topic that is important for this website as a look back through the posts shows) is compared to RI, as is social innovation.  The particular problems that small businesses find themselves in in relation to RI and the investment required are also described and solutions offered.

Real life case studies provide examples of reduced costs, reputational gains, employee retention, faster market entry, access to previously unavailable stakeholders, higher acceptability of end products, and higher innovation potential through diverse employees.

The chapters are short, well written and easy to follow. The book is 100 pages and certainly worth a couple of hours in order to gain an overview of RI in action within business.

Get yourself a free copy!