The MVI practice: Anticipating the future
Responsible innovation (MVI, from the Dutch Maatschappelijk verantwoord innoveren) means taking ethical and societal aspects into account as early as the design phase of a new technology. Paulien Herder, professor at Delft University of Technology, explains what the NWO-MVI approach means in practise.
Responsible innovation involves much more than researching acceptation or human behaviour, says Herder, professor of Engineering Systems Design in Energy & Industry at Delft University of Technology. “We consider ethical, legal and economic aspects in an early phase of technology and system development.
Take, for example, the introduction of a sustainable energy system. The cost structure of this system is very different from that of current forms of energy and is highly supply-driven. This requires new market models and pricing systems. We are also faced with new ethical considerations, the best-known example in this area probably being the privacy and cyber security aspect of the introduction of smart energy meters.”
From pipeline to co-evolution
As professor in the department of Engineering Systems and Services at Delft University of Technology, Herder recommends an integrated design approach. “The pipeline approach, whereby you first develop a technology or system and only then begin to think about how it could be implemented, is thankfully very much outdated.
What we do, therefore, is to consider the impact of a new technology on stakeholders before we start. We then design a system that also takes into account how various actors may, in turn, influence the way in which the system works. This allows us to anticipate predicted behaviours, remove hurdles or even make use of opportunities as early as the design stage.” This mirrors the proactive NWO-MVI approach.
Herder’s research group often makes use of agent-based models to simulate what may happen when a new technology or system is implemented. In these models, an agent represents the behaviour of a stakeholder in a simulation. “We first identify the stakeholders, their roles and values, their codes of conduct and their interactions with one another.
Take, for example, the introduction of smart energy meters. As part of this process, we spoke to technology platform providers, network operators, housing associations and builders, users and new service providers such as Google Nest. Each of these actors is represented by an agent in the simulation model, with its own value system, code of conduct and decision algorithm.
However, a simulation model can also include other models, such as meteorological models to predict solar panel output, or economic models. A whole series of simulations can therefore provide us with a good idea of the contracts that stakeholders will draw up with one another, for example, which technology will become dominant, or which partnerships will develop, as well as the conditions under which this will all take place. Simulations therefore do not predict, but provide insight into typical behaviours of the system as a whole.”
This allows us not just to study the decision-making behaviour of people and households, but also to pinpoint conflicts of values. “Philosophers help us analyse these conflicts of values so that we can determine which may be solvable and which are not,” continues Herder. If, in theory, it is possible to resolve a conflict, the researchers discuss it with the parties involved. “These could be network operators or the government, for example, and we could draw their attention to the fact that we see a conflict of values in the majority of our simulations. We therefore remain in constant dialogue with stakeholders during the simulation process.”
Influencing the future
The models can be used not just to explore system behaviour given a certain set of baseline values, but also to show which parameters have the most influence on the end result and the actions that could be taken to achieve broader support. The ability to positively influence the future is important, says Herder. “It gives you an idea of what the future could look like. The main benefit of the MVI approach is that you deliberately include ethical and moral considerations. In addition, if you see that developments may founder because of a conflict with certain values, it is possible to develop alternative solutions that anticipate this. You may also decide not to do anything after all as it leads to a dead end in 10 or 20 years’ time.”