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?

Selling Surplus Food

community shop

This week I want to add a post to my food series and related posts from earlier this year.

One of the posts in the series was about wasted food.

The Scale of Waste

Just to give you an idea of the content I opened with the following: It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

And the shocking thing is that nearly all of this wasted food is edible. It is close to its sell by date, the packaging is damaged or incorrectly labeled, Christmas pudding in January. Much of it never even gets to the shops, it fails a quality test because the label is not correctly attached or the packet printing is wrong, and it is discarded.

This week the first UK based Community Shop opened, and in this shop they only sell discarded food. Sounds like a great idea, they take food that is lost during the preparation stages, on its way to the supermarket, and food that is discarded once it has arrived or sat on the shelves for a while, and they re-sell it. Very cheap (70% less), you can make a profit and waste problem resolved I thought. Great!

But of course it is not that simple.

Supply and Demand

One problem is that if you sell this food at a fraction of the previous price, people will buy it and not the full price food. This means that for every tin of beans bought at the community shop, a supermarket sells one tin less. So they might not like that, and that is why in many cases they prefer to destroy the food than to pass it on.

This problem can be seen in this case on a local scale, but it also happens on a global scale. How do you think the farmer in South Africa feels when she sees thousands of tons of free US grown grain distributed for free in a neighboring country? She cannot compete and sell her food any more. Feeding a population without charging them directly destroys surrounding markets.

This is not just a food problem. When we donate our old clothes and they turn up worn by kids in Kenya (Manchester United shirts come to mind), that means that those kids did not buy their clothes, and the local clothes suppliers, and makers, and distributors, don’t work.

So the community shop have found an answer. You have to be a member to buy food there, and to be a member you have to be receiving benefit from the government and live within a local postcode area. Only 500 members at a time, and membership is not for life. The shop also offers free courses in food preparation, CV writing, and many other things that help to manage the household and improve quality of life. Sounds great, but we should remember that many people are working poor that do not receive benefits, or have fallen through the benefit net, what about them? What we need is more of these shops, so that the entry rules can be broader.

This is a great idea. Let’s use the stuff instead of throwing it out. And to be honest I have little sympathy for an industry that is so wasteful and non-sustainable.

If there were a community shop of this type on every corner we could all benefit, and I for one wish them well with their endeavour.

Food, Wrapped Up

This week I would like to wrap up my series on food, and leave you with a little light reading and a film to watch.

Wrapped up Food

Wrapped up Food

My first post Technology in Food Production contained a general overview of how modern farming techniques are effecting our lives. Most of the comments made expressed surprise at the levels of GM organisms that are currently being farmed and the profits generated by the industry.

The following are taken from comments posted, from various different contributors:

“The statistics you cite are shocking. I had no idea GM was so widespread”.

“It is also scary to see the profits made by processed food companies matched with those made by agricultural businesses”.

“With so many farms producing GM foods and so much money behind it I really doubt anyone’s chances of keeping the products contained”.

The second post in the series was entitled What Actually is GM Food? In it I suggest that much of the population is unclear about what modification actually implies, and describe some of the most widespread techniques. Once more issues of money, safety and acceptance appeared throughout the comments.

The following is from Neil seems to sum up the debate quite beautifully:

“I can see the socio economic benefits of developing fast growing disease, herbicide and insect resistant crops. While on the other hand I worry about the potential long term effects on humans when we ingest the GM foods”.

And Christopher offered some thoughts on the pros versus cons debate that Neil touched upon above:

“I do however think that the reduction in pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide use is a good thing – as they all have proven negative externalities”.

The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem was the third post, and it addresses changes in our bodies caused my the consumption of processed foods and other changes in food consumption patterns.

Comments once more raised the issue of profits from processing and improved food security and opposing sides of the same debate:

“Processing has always being a big part of the packaged food. That is why the packaging services and suppliers make such big fortunes from their services. On the other end, processing is necessary for food items as it improves security and safety. Most of the packaged food is bacteria free and safe to use”.

Experts, Regulation and Food described the close ties between regulating bodies and the industries they regulate in the USA, and also referred to similar problems that may be arising in Europe. The focus is on seed companies and the regulation of GM products, but the argument is much broader than this in reality.

The perspective is that when an industry looks for experts to form a regulating body, they inevitably look within the industries, raising the question of conflicts of interests.

Once more Neil summarizes in the comments:

“It’s a tricky one as in most industries the people who know the most about the industry will always be the experts who are working within the industry. In an area like GM foods I would guess that it would be very difficult for an outsider to have the same degree of understanding”.

I am not sure that I agree with him though that there is such a need for experts. If we take the GM issue the result of non public participation in the debate and regulation surrounding their introduction lead to physical and destructive confrontation. This is not a good result for either side in the debate, but maybe if the public had been consulted during the process (and not just the so-called experts) the result might have been less violent.

The fifth post in the series is a book review and description of Alternative Food Provisioning Networks. These networks offer an alternative to mainstream participation in the global agricultural market, favouring local organic production and co-production.

It is written from experience as I am a member of one of these groups described in the book in Italy and now a similar group in the USA. Once more Neil commented on the ammount of money these groups move into the alternative economy:

“80 million Euro’s is no small amount. I guess it is a bit like reverting back to a village type structure without the village”.

GM, Blowing in the Wind is the sixth post in the series. It addresses various legal issues that have grown out of the fact that GM organisms become airborne and blow onto other people’s land and grow there. There are two different problems addressed, farmers whose land is “contaminated” who lose money, and farmers who risk legal action for patent infringement because GM seeds are found on their land. Once again issues of regulation come to the fore as I raise the question of how they effect the development of the field.

Last week’s post was Wasted Food, and it is about the amount of food that the current system produces that is not consumed. It is a harsh analysis, but I take my data from respected sources.

The post addresses ideas such as freeganism and other ways of using waste food products, and concludes with some questions about the real reason for hunger in the world. Once more Neil offers a closing comment:

“It would be interesting to see the wastage levels before and after the introduction of use by dates. Given that the producers need to have a reasonable margin for error it must have been one of the biggest contributors to the wastage.

Also, in the US you appear to have a dining culture where it is expected that you get more food than you can finish (hence the invention of the doggy bag) and people are disappointed by smaller portions. This must create a lot of waste at the catering level as well as all of the doggy bags thrown away a week or so later.

It is a shame that there is no way of redistributing that food to poorer nations”.

As a final thought I would like to recommend a film and an article, both of which add flesh to the argument that I hope to have introduced over the last couple of months.

Food.Inc is a documentary made in 2008 about the US food industry. It is available here. It goes into further depth on many of the topics I have raised through interviews and investigation. It is a great film but I warn you, it is not a comedy!

This article in New Yorker magazine tells the story of how a herbicide producer spent years trying to discredit a University of California Berkeley Professor who seemed to find side effects linked to the use of the herbicide. It is a disturbing story of how the agricultural industry (and the regulators to some degree) maintain control of information and findings published to the public. I was going to write a post about it but I wanted to finish on a more positive note.

I would like to thank everyone who read and/or commented upon the series. I hope it was informative and even maybe will go some way to doing some good in the world. A quote from the greatest of all:

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”.