Rethinking Responsibility in Innovation
Emerging technologies have the potential to promote significant change in public health and national security and the economy, particularly in manufacturing. But innovation can pose serious risks and have unintended consequences. Who should manage those risks? Who is responsible for those consequences? What kinds of institutions and policies can be implemented to ensure responsible innovation?
On May 30, the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings hosted a public forum to discuss the role of social responsibility in the field of technological innovation. A panel of experts—comprised by professor in political science David Guston, former undersecretary of Defense and head of the Institute for Defense Analysis David Chu, and former deputy assistant secretary of State and executive of Calvert Investments Bennett Freeman—shared their perspectives on socially responsible innovation with emphasis on the governance of emerging technologies, the evaluation of research and development programs, and socially responsible investment. Brookings Fellow Walter Valdivia moderated the discussion.
Panelists held as a common premise the fact that it is difficult to predict how emerging technologies will impact society in the future. The inability to predict is however not a reasons for passivity. Action can be taken to develop the social capacities to shape technology in a way that is more sensitive to social needs and public values, and panelists discussed the possibilities and challenges for developing these capacities.
Other event highlights included:
- Guston observed that emerging technologies such as synthetic biology may be at this point unpredictable but not ungovernable. He offered as an example the pioneering techniques developed at the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University for anticipating the potential consequences of new technologies through “informed imagination.”
- Chu agreed with Guston’s call for anticipation, yet he expressed concern with rendering key decisions too open to third-party input and involvement because this openness could stall innovation.
- Freeman discussed the trend in recent decades toward socially responsible investment, which he believes is an effective way to encourage technology companies to make sound decisions that promote sustainability and good citizenship.
- Guston further suggested that universities could establish centers for responsible innovation parallel to institutional review boards to encourage scientists to consider the social implications of their research.
“The 21st century has revalued these small geographies. That’s what the 21st century demands,” Katz said, noting that these days, “[w]e aren’t innovating in isolated business parks” in the suburbs.