How Responsible Is Responsible Innovation?

30 Nov 2017

Do Responsible Innovation (RI) approaches do enough to guide emerging technologies towards the good of all? Where might their conceptual and practical limits lie?

STI Experts
STI Experts Meetings

In research prepared for the Technology and the Good Society experts meeting, Anne Kerr and her coauthors use examples of the complexities of precision medicine to suggest areas that typical RI agendas do not address.  The full article, with citations, is available on open access in a special issue of the journal Technology and Society. The following excerpts from “The Limits of Responsible Innovation: Exploring Care, Vulnerability and Precision Medicine,” lay out the question:

Public and policy concerns about the risks of emergent technologies have led to the development of a range of policy tools to guide the innovation process. One such approach which has gained popularity in recent years is Responsible Innovation (RI). A variety of frameworks and initiatives have emerged under this broad banner. Typically these are focused on encouraging, supporting or in some cases requiring researchers to be reflexive about their research practices, to consider the implications and applications of their actions, and to involve and engage with publics and their concerns through the research process. Social scientists have been actively involved in developing and embedding these initiatives in Higher Education and research funding institutions across Europe and the USA. Their work has focused on helping researchers and innovators to assess and respond to a plethora of evidence concerning the extent to which emergent innovation meet societies' needs, and fostering appropriate modes of engagement for stakeholders to help to anticipate and mitigate the risks which might arise from the development of the technology.

RI has had particular currency in research and policy communities concerned with environmental and bio-technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and geoengineering, especially those associated with large EU and/or national research funding programs. A range of detailed models or frameworks for RI have been proposed in order to achieve the dual goals of more ethical and engaged research and innovation.

The broad consensus around the benefits of these approaches to research and funding processes notwithstanding, a range of critical concerns have been raised about the limits and problems of the notions of responsibility and innovation which underpin these kinds of approaches to RI.

These critical interventions suggest that contemporary RI agendas might be based on rather limited conceptualization of responsibility, innovation and care for the future. Although these approaches champion researchers', innovators' and funders' responsibilities to consider the consequences of their work for society, there is little scope for these and other involved actors to engage with or intervene in the wider systems of distribution or exchange of any products or technologies which might arise from their efforts. Although there is clearly an openness to mitigating risks or slowing the innovation process, the emphasis in much of RI remains on investment in technological (as opposed to social) innovation and on innovation rather than ethical forms of inaction. And efforts at deliberation or public engagement conceived around ‘stakeholders’ and consensus limit the kinds of voices and considerations of responsibility and innovation.

In order to further our understanding of the limits of contemporary approaches to RI, we can also turn to feminist and STS writings on innovation, care and vulnerability, Martin et al. argued that to fully engage with what care might mean in relation to science and technology we need to focus on who is asked to or able to care, for what kinds of things and futures and to open up consideration of the kinds of social actors, things and contexts we engage with as part of these processes. So rather than thinking primarily in terms of stakeholders and technological innovations, we need to consider those who might be absent or marginalized from engagement processes or markets through which technologies might develop, and care about these markets and other kinds of things and processes they involve or interact with too.

These arguments are also developed in a rich and diverse literature on vulnerabilities

Vulnerability, or the human capacity to suffer, brings with it certain kinds of moral and political obligations to intervene, innovate, care. This reminds us to consider how innovations, be they technological or social, address vulnerabilities, meet material, bodily and psychological needs; how they prevent exploitation; and how they protect us from hazards. However, thinking with vulnerability also focuses attention on the dynamics of inequality, power and dependency. Crucially, this invites us to consider what kinds of vulnerabilities might be produced by innovations, once more extending the ‘matters of care’ that RI typically focuses on – risks, benefits and impacts - to consider how innovations impinge on the psychosocial and existential as well as the values and dynamics of the collective.

From an STS perspective, Hommels et al. emphasizes the ‘natural’, social and the technical dimensions of vulnerability, casting vulnerability as an ‘emergent property of systems’ which is neither intrinsically positive nor negative. These scholars are particularly interested in the vulnerabilities engendered by dependency on complex technological systems, highlighting the problems of ‘rule following’ in engendering a lack of care or responsiveness in relation to hazards as they develop. Once more this asks us to engage with a wider repertoire of caring practices and responsibilities than RI agendas might suggest. It also raises the possibility that innovations and indeed frameworks for RI might engender carelessness – i.e. dependency, insensitivity and a lack of reflexivity - despite the best intentions of their innovators.

Together these critical approaches to responsible innovation, care and vulnerability raise three particular challenges to frameworks for responsible innovation which emphasize responsiveness and collective care for the future.

First, this requires that we consider the role of the market in addressing and generating vulnerabilities and what this means for responsible innovation. We also need to consider how the market provides technological solutions to want and disease via innovations sold as commodities and how these processes can generate vulnerabilities because they distribute resources unevenly on the basis of ability to consume not on the basis of need.

Secondly, this literature suggests the need to grapple with the problems that arise when innovations designed to empower or enable individuals or groups labelled as vulnerable or in need of care are experienced by individuals as disempowering, or paternalistic. We need to consider what disconnection between the intentions of innovators and the experiences of users means for agendas for responsible innovation.

A third area for further consideration is the vulnerability of innovations and the technological systems they are part of and how this impacts on users and innovators alike.

Precision medicine is an exemplar of the kind of multi-layered processes of technological and social innovation, and the complex regulatory and market systems in which innovators are currently working. It is also an example replete with numerous vulnerable actors, and complex dynamics of care. As such it provides fertile ground for thinking about the conceptual and practical limits of RI. In the remainder of this paper, we seek to move beyond thinking of responsibility and innovation only in relation to technological innovations, or innovations which generate economic growth, at the same time as reflecting on the complexities and paradoxes of care involved in innovation practices. We then turn to explore complexities of vulnerabilities associated with markets, patient and carer experiences and data networks.

This suggests that responsible innovation initiatives need to be more open ended and creative about the ways in which they provoke new ways of thinking about and practicing innovation, including alternative social innovations which complement or address other kinds of needs. There is a pressing need to critically engage with markets and the kinds of choices and responsibilities they bring, and to exercise caution around involvement and engagement agendas which create more work for particular kinds of patients and publics. There is also a need to consider the dependencies and inter-actions between different kinds of innovations, both social and technical, and to think about the sorts of innovations in, for example, healthcare delivery, financial models, data and profit sharing and other infrastructures of care that need to co-evolve alongside technical innovations to ensure their benefits are widely distributed and shared. At the same time, there is a need to appreciate the limits of what any kind of responsible innovation agenda might achieve: it is possible for critical reflection to stimulate other ways of innovating and supporting individuals and communities affected by ill-health, but RI needs to be part of a wider program of social change in order to be successful in this regard.