Innovation: to be or not to be responsible?

How should the concept of responsibility be defined at a time when innovation prides itself on providing answers to major societal issues? For organizations, the concept of responsible innovation is not quite the same as for the scientists studying the issue. Cédric Gossart is among the latter. He examines what responsible innovation really is.

 

Companies are quick to call themselves ‘responsible’Cédric Gossart observes with amusement. A researcher in management science at Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, he has noticed that organizations like to promote their innovations as meeting the criterion of responsibility. However, this self-evaluation gives rise to a certain problem, since the word responsibility takes on almost as many definitions as there are companies boasting about it. It is therefore necessary to carefully examine what responsible innovation really is.

This is part of the task that Cédric Gossart has set himself. On 21 June, he took part in a scientific seminar on “Research and responsible innovation: interdisciplinary issues” led by LITEM, a research laboratory in management and economics and organized in interdisciplinary collaboration with five other laboratories from the Saclay group and supported by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme of Paris-Saclay. His talk on “are digital social innovations responsible?” closely compared the concept of responsibility as perceived by businesses with the more theoretical view of responsible innovation upheld by the academic sphere.

End use is an important aspect in the concept of responsibility,” explains the researcher. Technological, social or organizational disruptions must provide answers to challenges raised by sustainable development or inclusion. But although organizations see this criterion as being sufficient, there is a crucial aspect missing. “It is essential to take account of the way in which an innovation is carried out,” insists Cédric Gossart. The inclusion of eco-design, privacy-by-design and non-discrimination right from the development phase is equally important.

However, this second aspect is too often left out from businesses’ claims of responsibility. The researcher at Institut Mines-Télécom Business School recalls the case of a start-up developing pollution sensors. The young company adopted a participative approach: the sensors were carried with the users as they traveled throughout the day to assess the quality of the air and establish maps of the areas least exposed to fine particulate matter and volatile compounds. In this case, the end use of this digital social innovation clearly adheres to a responsible approach. “It provides a response to an issue in society: pollution. On the other hand, no information is given on the environmental impact of the servers or the life cycle of the sensors. In a truly responsible approach, the beneficial impact of this start-up would offset its environmental footprint” argues Cédric Gossart.

Who should be the judge of responsibility?

For a stricter assessment of responsibility, companies should not evaluate themselves. Currently, organizations use responsible innovation as evidence of how they meet the challenges raised by sustainable development. It is one of the topics covered by annual activity reports. “Businesses themselves present, in a communication context, the actions they undertake and how they carry out self-assessment” explains Cédric Gossart. “In a few rare cases they go one step further by undergoing certification by independent bodies.”

But responsible innovation does in fact have a strict academic definition. In 2013, the British researchers Jack Stilgoe, Richard Owen and Phil Macnaghten published an article in the journal Research Policy in which they attributed four criteria to it. Anticipation consists in considering the consequences of the developed innovation. Reflexivity allows examination of the development itself. Inclusion of stakeholders is another important criterion for defining responsibility. Lastly, responsiveness must also be taken into account in order to adapt the innovation to new elements, such as a change in legislation or user feedback.

Cédric Gossart nevertheless admits that “the problem facing digital social innovations is finding a business plan. It is therefore difficult to meet these criteria and at the same time find a market.” But although the cost of responsibility may seem problematic, the researcher reminds us that even inexpensive innovations can succeed. This was the also the topic addressed by Cees Van Beers, a researcher at TU, Delft, in the Netherlands, during a seminar on responsible innovation. “For him, an innovation is responsible when it is available to even the poorest.” Perhaps this is an additional criterion to add to the notion of responsibility…

 

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