Responsible Innovation, Part 1

By Prof. Xavier Pavie, Professor at ESSEC Business School, Director of ISIS (Institute for Strategic Innovation & Services) and research associate at the IREPH (Research Institute in Philosophy) – Université Paris Ouest. 

In the first of a two-part article on Responsible-Innovation, Prof. Xavier Pavie looks deeply at the challenging issues facing business, society and the environment when confronted with innovation.


Before discussing responsible‐innovation, it is important we understand each of its component concepts: responsibility on the one hand; and innovation on the other. The notion of innovation stems from the notion of progress (René Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1953), whose meaning and connotations have evolved over time. The notion of progress was marked by two major phases. First, philosopher René Descartes analyzed how science and society relate to one another. He wrote that we were to become the masters and possessors of nature in order to do whatever was necessary to preserve life and health, and so, control nature. Later, Nietzsche argued that in order to survive, humanity had to perpetually produce superior individuals, with as a consequence the development of the “will to power”. While each of these philosophers takes a different approach to the notion of progress and the interrelation between progress and mankind, both are bound by the notion of scientific progress, the progress of knowledge, with a view to preserving life and sometimes even reproducing it. The notion of progress becomes intimately linked with medical advances. What these examples illustrate is the extent to which progress is a full part of who we are and it is what has guided people across centuries: progress has always been and still remains the way that humanity faces the challenges ahead. But the question remains: how can we do so responsibly? What tools and strategies can researchers and innovators implement in order to take account of responsibility, and so protect the well‐being of citizens?

The three challenges facing humanity

Today, the challenges faced by humanity can be grouped into three categories. The first challenge is preserving or maintaining our environment and ecosystem. Today, with the number of inhabitants on the planet increasing exponentially, the foreseeable exhaustion of critical raw materials and withering source supplies along with increasing energy consumption and deforestation, it has become paramount to address this challenge if we are to prevent the predicted death of our ecosystem and environment.

The second is the interplay between techniques and politics. Progress comes in the form of innovation, and these innovations all have an impact on the world: from the infinitely small, with nanotechnology for example; to the infinitely large and global, with 65,000 CCTV cameras in London watching citizens’ every move or a database of 850 million users private users as is the case with Facebook; and the infinitely fast, with ZEHST, the supersonic passenger airliner connecting Paris to Tokyo in only two and a half hours.

The third challenge pertains to human beings and ways in which they can be transformed. Today, we can reconstitute transplanted organs; we have a better understanding of how human beings work thanks to neuroscience; we can even reproduce human beings by cloning, or change and select specific DNA combinations, as is the case with the so‐called “designer babies”.

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3 challenges and spirituality

The role of spirituality

At the crossroads of all these concerns, there lies a fundamental notion for mankind: that of spirituality. The dimension of spiritual capacity has become increasingly complex in the professional sphere, where the individual is under constant pressure to meet targets, generate profitability and innovations while trying to preserve a certain “work/life balance”, avoiding crossover between professional and private life. This results in a dichotomy within the individual, which is pervasive insofar as it interferes with action and consequence assessment. When I am a citizen, am I a manager at the same time? And reciprocally, when I am a manager, do I consider myself as a citizen? Then, how can one establish who, how, when, where, and where responsibility lies?

As citizens and professionals, the question facing humanity no longer is “are we able to do it” but rather “to do or not to do”, i.e., should we do it or not. When faced with challenging ethical innovations, spirituality is what can guide us in our decision processes. You may wonder why spirituality. The answer can be found in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh! The first lines of this famous book go as follows:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the

back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the

only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is

another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t.

A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh (1962)

This is representative of the situation we face today: maybe there is another approach; maybe there is a different way of doing things altogether that can help us address these three major challenges for society.

“Sustainable development”

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Addressing these three challenges was the starting point of the famous Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future. It was commissioned by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in an attempt to promote “sustainable development”, which is defined as “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This Report, which has been adopted worldwide, defines a set of criteria by which countries must abide in order to foster sustainable development (environmental, social, economic, financial, pollution, raw materials, etc.). However, it is undeniable that the term “sustainable development” is bandied about and misused on occasions, leading to greenwashing, when sustainable actions are seen and used only as a marketing tool, as opposed to a goal, requiring the implementation of the business processes necessary to minimize their impact on the environment.

Part 2 of Prof. Xavier Pavie’s article covering the 3 principles of Responsible-Innovation coming soon:

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