I have been trying to think through the potential impact and intended and unintended consequences of Responsible Innovation – which is of course the responsible thing to do!
Here are a few of the things I have identified. I would be very interested in others. I have no idea of these have been considered in advance by those involved in related projects, but would be interested to know.
1 Anticipating negative impacts skews funding to those who don’t do it properly
Let’s say there are two research projects up for tender which have made the final shortlist and the adjudicators are looking to make a decision on which to fund.
- Would you pick the one which had identified and articulated a number of potential negative social and environmental impacts of the technology or the one which had a few minor ones, but nothing really scary looking?
- How would an adjudicator know if one was underestimating the potential negative impacts or not?
- How could an adjudicator justify picking the one with the most risks if the benefits looked equally compelling?
- What has the tender issuing organisation done to clarify acceptable risk and help adjudicators make those decisions appropriately?
- Who says what appropriate is?
- What’s in it for anyone to do a thorough job thinking up and disclosing the negative impacts?
- When it comes to raising further funding from outside investors, venture capitalists and banks – they REALLY don’t want to know about such things, so would there be repercussions for the organisation in future funding rounds?
2 Are their legal implications of anticipating negative impacts?
Let’s say a research project turns into a successful company, but something goes wrong and one of the potential impacts cited in the funding document actually happens, despite the company or research organisation’s best efforts. What are the legal implications of that?
- Does one become liable because one has anticipated an issue, but not been able to address it? This may not be an issue that the company itself could have done anything about alone? It may still be outweighed by the benefit?
- What does one disclose about the potential for impacts for insurance purposes?
- What’s in it for anyone to do a thorough job thinking up and disclosing the negative impacts in advance?
3 Who’s job is it to consider and address the potential negative consequences?
So you got your funding, the adjudicators thought your project beneficial and deserving of cash, but there were some potential risks which could prove very tricky. The potential is huge, but addressing the potential risks is far beyond the scope of the little organisation given the money.
- Who’s job is it to keep a track of the societal risks, particularly where they are beyond the remit of the single organisation? Is it the Research Council who funds it? The government who’s strategy on innovation this may (or may not) be fulfilling?
- Who tracks the impacts? Who funds that?
- How does a single, usually small company approach such issues?
- Who is going to help them?
4 What if keeping quiet works best?
Responsible Innovation is big on openness and the involvement of the public.
A surgeon I met says he wouldn’t dream of telling his patients that a robot will be doing much of the surgery on them, because it is better at it than him. They really don’t like to know that, he tried, and it undermine’s their confidence in the surgery, which is important to their recovery.
- When is it justified not to involve the public?
- If we value transparency in all cases, then who’s job is to involve us with thinking through these issues? What happens if we still don’t want it?
- Are there things which actually we would just rather not think about, but would be happy went on without our knowledge? We can’t scrutinise everything – is that what we put trust in organisation for?