‘An idea whose time has come’
Jeroen van den Hoven and Kees Linse, chair and member of the programme committee
The Responsible Innovation programme is now entering its sixth year. In January a fourth round of research projects will start. Jeroen van den Hoven, professor of ethics and technology at Delft University and chair of the programme committee, reflects on the past five years and takes a look forwards. Kees Linse, a member of the programme committee and board member of Technology Foundation STW, adds his comments. Linse speaks from the perspective of his extensive international experience in industry.
Jeroen van den Hoven
In your opinion, what are the main achievements of the Responsible Innovation programme so far?
Van den Hoven: 'We have had quite a few projects where multidisciplinary and ethical analysis has led to requirements for design solutions. That is the core of Responsible Innovation research. It's not just about understanding, it's also about intervening in the world: using innovative technologies in a responsible way to do what you ought to do and what you could not do before.'
Linse: 'As far as I'm concerned the relevance of the programme is that it brings to the surface the societal and ethical questions that need to be asked about technological innovation. In the past companies introducing an innovation would just bluntly ask themselves: can this backfire? Or they asked no questions at all. Genetically modified food is a good example: the debate only started after the introduction. The Responsible Innovation programme helps to ask intelligent questions, to approach the innovation in an analytical and scientific manner. Companies can take advantage of this to enhance their licence to innovate and their licence to operate and, ultimately, to enhance the positive effects of the innovations they realise.'
Which projects do you personally find the most successful?
Van den Hoven: 'We have had a variety of projects that work towards a design solution that jointly serves seemingly irreconcilable aims. For instance the drone project, that we are realising in Delft together with the University of Oxford. The researchers have deigned a software agent that addresses a hugely challenging dilemma: how do we make complex and intelligent weapons that take out the enemy with minimal risk on our side, while still maintaining human accountability for what these weapons do? The cyberbullying project at Leiden University is another example, in a completely different domain. This team has designed a virtual buddy that is a step towards solving the dilemma: how can we let children socialise on the internet, while at the same time protecting them from being bullied?'
Linse: 'I am fascinated by the project on human enhancement. Can professional people be held responsible for the consequences if they decide against taking medication that enhances their performance? And I think the smart meter project is very successful. The first version of the smart meter flopped, because people felt that an Orwellian Big Brother had entered their homes. The Responsible Innovation project has articulated five requirements that are scientifically and morally well-founded. Now energy companies are reconsidering their approach.'
What do you see as the main challenges for the future of Responsible Innovation research?
Van den Hoven: 'It's great that Responsible Research and Innovation are seen as an important concept all over the world. The European Union, for instance, has decided to subsidise this kind of research. The 2025 Vision for Science published by the Dutch ministry of Education, Culture and Science also strongly underscores the importance of Responsible Innovation. That all is grist to our mill. But one of the biggest threats now is that researchers will simply re-label what they have been doing anyway. "Brussels" does not have the power to evaluate this. The challenge for NWO is to compensate for the inevitable watering down of the concept. We need to keep our focus on design, values and innovation. Perhaps even exaggerate. Plus we need to focus on the most serious societal problems, which have real owners and real stakes.'
Linse: 'A big challenge is strengthening the co-operation between researchers and industry. In academia there is still an undercurrent of thinking in terms of "them and us": "We do value-free research and industry is in it for the money." Instead, there needs to be a stronger perception that yes, industry is in it for the money, but ultimately we are all part of the same socio-economic machine. To make things better we need to join forces. Industry should be open to novel ideas and academics should positively seek industry's co-operation.'
Both the 2025 Vision for Science and the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition recommend that companies align their policy with the grand societal challenges. What does this mean for Responsible Innovation research?
Van den Hoven: 'That Responsible Innovation is an idea whose time has come, and that the Netherlands in general and NWO – where the idea was more or less articulated – in particular have a special role to play in its further development and utilisation.'