Responsible Innovation for the global challenges of the 21st-century
In the essay below, Professor Jeroen van den Hoven, member of the NWO-MVI programme board and on behalf of this board sets out the MVI approach and discusses the potential of responsible innovation for global challenges.
Over the past few decades, the Netherlands has gained international recognition for its research approach for responsible innovation and new technology: MVI. This way of innovating is desperately needed because scientific and technological developments proceed so rapidly and are so far-reaching for society and human relationships that innovations which do not explicitly address ethical and social aspects meet with resistance, leave opportunities to solve problems unutilised, have limited legitimacy, and undermine the support for and confidence in policy.
1. The global challenges of the 21st century
Societies in the 21st century are high-tech, hyper-connected and extremely dynamic. Due to our own interventions, the world has become extremely complex. Over the past few centuries, people, organisations and countries have become increasingly interconnected via energy, communication and transport infrastructures. They also use the same common pool of resources, such as fishing grounds and biomass. This makes them highly dependent on each other. Furthermore, digital connections in the form of social media, mobile Internet and the Internet of things bring not just advantages, but also new vulnerabilities.
The international community has produced a consolidated list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are further specified in 169 sub goals. The goals concern a wide range of problems for the world population in the 21st-century: water, food, energy, biodiversity, climate, conflicts, peace and justice, hunger, poverty, education, child mortality and epidemics.
2. The role of technology and innovation
No progress can be made in solving these global problems if we fail to recognise that technology can be both a part of the problem as equally a part of the solution. It is therefore encouraging that the United Nations currently attaches considerable importance to the role of innovation, technology and scientific research with a strong multidisciplinary character. For example, blockchain is making new organisation models, incentive structures and forms of supervision possible in the area of food and relief supplies. It can also play a large role in combating corruption, enforcing international agreements, providing accountability and creating transparency around cash flows and logistics chains.
3. New science needed: Complexity Science and Global Systems Science
An important aspect of the work on the SDG agenda is that the problems cannot be tackled in isolation, but need to be viewed in relation to each other. For example, the reduction in child mortality, education for women, poverty alleviation, security, sanitation, vaccination, affordable care and the availability of water and food are inextricably linked with each other. In view of the relationships between energy, water and food, people refer to the "water-food-energy nexus". There are numerous other examples of relationships and dependencies between problems and between solutions. Working on the SDGs is therefore particularly complex because it does not concern a list of separate problems, but a collection of problems that are related to each other in a highly intricate manner. That applies equally to both our interventions and our policy measures.
Tackling these problems on a world scale in the 21st century requires multidisciplinary science to understand the complexity. The problems always concern systems (social, financial, technical and ecological systems, and combinations of these) and for a systems approach, integrated knowledge from a large number of disciplines is needed. That is because the really big questions do not simply present themselves neatly according to disciplines. Slowly, there is a growing awareness that a Global Systems Science is needed to gain a better understanding of the cross-linked, complex systems that we intervene in. Our interventions in social, economic and ecological systems often have unexpected negative consequences. The uncertainties are very large and our attempts to limit negative effects can actually exacerbate these or lead to the emergence of new problems. We cannot affords to make such mistakes in combating climate change, cyber warfare, hunger, poverty, epidemics and illiteracy.
For example, we need more insight into unexpected feedback mechanisms, tipping points, information cascades, network structures and non-linear phenomena, which can be decisive for the success of a policy. Also human behaviour, human motives and incentives, the effect of regulation and incentivisation, the effects of advanced technology, the dynamic properties of ecosystems and the consequences of human intervention must be better understood in relation to each other.
4. Major challenges
The SDGs imply not just gigantic scientific and technological challenges, but they also articulate formidable ethical and societal changes: the alleviation of hunger (SDG2) and poverty (SDG1) and the advancement of health and well-being (SDG3) and gender equality (SDG5). Combating inequality is also a general goal (SDG 10). Energy must be "affordable" (SDG7), there is a right to "decent work" (SDG 8), and production processes and consumptions must be "responsible" (SDG12). Terms such as equality, affordability, responsibility, well-being and decency refer to values that generate much room for discussion.
5. Responsible Innovations
We now know that not every innovation yields a solution that is ethically and societally acceptable, however noble the intentions of the inventor are. The SDGs deserve responsible innovations: innovations that fulfil ideals of peace, law, security, sustainability, justice and other broadly shared ethical and societal values. Responsible innovations are:
- inclusive and try to prevent their use resulting in the prevalence of the interests of some the world's population at the expense of others on the basis of age, gender, nationality or race;
- emerge from efforts to view subsidiary problems in their mutual relationship and therefore to prevent the solving of problems leading to new and more serious problems arising or existing problems exacerbating;
- manage, moreover, to create win-win situations (instead of further building upon zero-sum patterns) and succeed in reconciling conflicting values, breaking through ethical and societal stalemates and solving dilemmas without undermining fundamental values or legal principles.
To ensure that all relevant values are represented in the final design, all relevant direct and indirect stakeholders should be involved in innovation processes.
An example can make the potential of responsible innovation clear. After decades of criticism of the strict European data protection approach, Europe, by continuing to adhere to ethical and legal principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights, has now received commercial and political support from all sides. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has also suggested that citizens and consumers are probably better off with the European data protection regime. The international industry often now adheres to the EU standards in the area of data protection. This is no longer a matter of good will alone, but increasingly a matter of designing systems that reduce the chances of privacy breaches. Privacy-enhancing technologies and privacy-respecting technologies are good examples of responsible innovations.
6. The Dutch Responsible Innovation approach
The basic idea in EU-thinking about responsible innovation (in the Horizon 2020 programme) originates from a research programme of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), entitled Responsible Innovation (MVI). In this programme, knowledge institutions, industry, government and societal parties fruitfully work together on responsible innovations. In the period 2007 to 2019, NWO has invested about 40 million euros in research in this field and more than 60 projects have been realised.
The NWO Responsible Innovation approach is based on several pillars. One of those is integration of humanities, natural sciences and social sciences disciplines, each of which makes a necessary contribution to our ability to reflect in a complex and dynamic high-technology world on our own actions with a view to responsible interventions. A second pillar is that ethical and societal aspects are considered right from the start in the design and innovation process and these influence the choices made. The third pillar is that stakeholders are actively involved in the entire process so that valuable knowledge from daily practice can be included and the research results can be valorised.
At present, the possibilities for NWO Responsible Innovation research lie mainly in specific research programmes/initiatives within the top sectors to which the Responsible Innovation approach is linked. For example, for the projects awarded funding within the 2019 call for the Top Sector High Tech Systems and Materials (HTSM) and within the call Electrochemical Conversion (ECCM) it will be possible for the applicants to apply for a grant to involve NWO Responsible Innovation research in their projects. Another example of the specialisation within NWO Responsible Innovation research is the call launched in 2019 – with a budget of 3.5 million euros - about the safeguarding of public values for a digitalising government, in which NWO is collaborating with four government ministries, the municipality of The Hague and civil society organisations and companies. The background to this is that the importance of responsible innovation is increasingly recognised and calls for it to be linked to specific research initiatives are being made more often.
Furthermore, the Dutch employers' federation VNO-NCW recently decided to set up a so-called "company ambassadors' roundtable" around responsible innovation. Also in his letter to the Dutch House of Representatives, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy referred to the importance of the NWO Responsible Innovation programme in relation to the mission-driven top sectors and innovation policy for the coming years with a view to linking the agenda of the top sectors with social innovation.
7. Responsible Innovation in the European and international context
The idea of responsible innovation, deliberately trying to give technology and innovations a form to solve societal problems and letting values play an important role in the design, is now embedded in the innovation policy of the European Commission. Directly and indirectly, Brussels has made about 500 million euros available for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the period 2012-2020. For example, the recommendations from the High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence connect with the key dimensions of responsible innovation. They emphasise the importance of the design approach, the involvement of all stakeholders, the importance of the system perspective, and the multidisciplinarity.
8. Economic perspective
For both the Netherlands and Europe, a large economic potential underlies responsible innovation. It is undesirable and impossible to make room for innovation by weakening or giving up the binding European treaties in which fundamental rights and ethical and societal values are established. Problems will have to be solved while doing justice to core values and fundamental rights. According to developmental economist Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) economics and economic policy can only find its feet again if ethical and societal goals determine the direction of economic growth driven by technological innovations.
According to innovation economist Maria Mazzucato (The Value of Everything) the role of the government and other public institutes is decisive in this. Not just as a regulatory power, but mainly as a driver and fundamental source of technological innovation. Eminent research from innovation expert Michael Porter (Harvard) reveals that societal and ethical values can also play a decisive role in innovation processes in the private sector.
Water management and hydraulic engineering are concrete Dutch textbook examples. In areas such as coastal and port management, flood management, water purification, irrigation techniques, water accounting, water diplomacy and water education, the Netherlands leads the way internationally with commercial activity and entrepreneurialism, science and responsible innovation. This not only concerns objects such as quay walls and pumping stations, but first and foremost the added value of these for society in terms of safety, liveability, sustainability and efficiency.
Such an approach is also needed in the area of cyber security, transport and logistics, robotics, energy, self-driving cars and industry 4.0, the Internet of things, blockchain, waste processing, circular economy, urban planning, smart cities, fintech & finance, data science, and emergency relief and development cooperation. The years of experience from the NWO Responsible Innovation programme can help to give this direction.