Responsible Innovation, Part 2

ESSEC Publishing Xavier PavieProf. Xavier Pavie’s article on Responsible-Innovation continues with Part 2

If you wish to return to Part 1 of this article, please click HERE.

The three principles of responsibleinnovation

Today, if responsible‐innovation is to be truly successful, we need to develop a new strategic approach to responsible‐innovation, one which follows three important principles. Responsible-innovation should:

  • Question solutions provided to individual needs;
  • Measure the direct impact of innovations;
  • And finally, it should measure the indirect impact of Innovation.

The first principle resides in questioning and challenging solutions developed in response to a specific need of individuals. For example, air conditioning for cars was born from a simple need: being able to travel from point A to point B without sacrificing comfort. When Cadillac implemented this innovation in 1953, its impact was considered at the time. Scientific knowledge, especially the understanding of possible environmental impacts or carbon emissions, was still in its infancy, so naturally, questions like this were simply not asked. Today, 90% of all cars in the USA are equipped with air conditioning, even though each of these cars generates 15% more carbon emissions than one not equipped with this option. Its impact on the environment, our lifestyles, on our daily life and on citizens as a whole is significant. Today, these risks to our health and to the environment are known and clearly identified. This naturally leads to a key question: what then should car manufacturers do? Should they sell only cars without air conditioning? The role of responsible‐innovation is to question this response to a given need.

Light bulb with drawing graphWhen Apple launched the iPod in 2001, Apple had clearly identified a need (being able to listen to music anywhere, anytime), to which the response was the iPod and the iTunes platform. However, to what extent was it necessary to launch 20 variations of the same product? Was that “responsible”? The role of responsible‐innovation is precisely to assess the extent to which all needs should be addressed, as well as questioning the solutions provided. In other words, responsible‐innovation should bring us discernment.

The second principle of responsible‐innovation is measuring the direct impact of innovations. For example, the direct impact of cell phone waves should be further analyzed. Many people argue that holding a blackberry or a cell phone so close to your brain can be dangerous due to the waves emitted by these phones. An easy solution might have been to design a way to maintain connectivity without having to hold the phone so close to our brain, thereby removing the potential hazard. However, scientists decided not to explore this option, or simply discarded it, maybe due to business and marketing motivations. It is important to understand that innovators are responsible for what they bring to the world.

Similarly, do we fully understand the risks of a database of nearly one billion connected users being owned by a private company? If the risks are not clearly identified at present, this does not mean that the situation can be ignored. On the contrary, we should imagine hypotheses to forestall possible dangers and misuses. If we look back at the past there have been various examples of registers being misused that help us understand the need for responsibility; for example, school registers during the Second World War. We could also mention how, during the same period, IBM machines were used to help collaborators of the Third Reich make a census of the population in particularly efficient ways, based on ethnic and religious data (Edwin Black IBM and the Holocaust, 2001).

If the risks cannot necessarily be measured at the beginning of an innovation, nor can the full extent of opportunities it represents be grasped. For example, the “Arab Spring” revolution of 2011 only came into being thanks to Facebook, and actually became a true counter‐power to the powers in place.

Finally, the third principle of responsible‐innovation consists in measuring the indirect impact of innovations. For example, a number of studies have been conducted on the direct impacts of being in close proximity to an air corridor. A lot of research has explored the impact of planes on pilots, the crew, the passengers, people at the airport, etc. However, no assessment has been made of whether this might have a negative impact on the ecosystem and wildlife surrounding airports.

The three pillars of innovation Council on Business and Society

The three pillars of an innovation… the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Nanotechnology has already become a part of our lives. Today, you can buy odor‐eliminating socks, i.e., socks designed using nanotechnology with odor‐fighting properties. While the direct impacts have been assessed (contact with skin, comfort, etc.), some scientists call for caution because the environmental impact and possible health implications of such indirect exposure have not been fully assessed. These products are designed to be machine washable. Some scientists suggest that when this kind of clothing is washed, particles could be released into and travel through waste water, possibly contaminating natural waterways where they might have unforeseen or unwanted effects on aquatic organisms.

These three pillars illustrate the importance of and need for a responsible approach, in keeping with the imperative of responsibility as defined by author Hans Jonas: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life” and its corollary “Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life(Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, 1985).

Conclusion: responsibleinnovation as a strategic goal

In today’s competitive and rapidly evolving society, business strategies focus on facing environmental pressures, addressing consumer needs and satisfying market demand, all in order to satisfy possible partners, shareholders or boards. However, it is paramount we learn to integrate responsible‐innovation as another, just as important, strategic goal in order to face the challenges of our new world. This can only be possible if we learn to question needs and solutions, measure the direct impact of innovations and try to assess their potential indirect impact. Then and only then will we be able to truly achieve responsible‐innovation, which will have a direct impact on the market and might forever change the fabric of our society.

Prof. Xavier Pavie: Links

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an ongoing international dialogue between six of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, students and journalists from around the world. #CouncilonBusinessandSociety

2 responses to “Responsible Innovation, Part 2

  1. be careful in the first section, there is a typo mistake, it is written direct impact instead of indirect impact

    • Dear Robert – many thanks for spotting this. We have since rectified the typo in question.
      Kind regards.
      The Council editing team

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.