Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society is a central book in the RRI literature (Owen et al. 2013). Its core theme is the ways in which the dimensions of RRI can be conceptualized and operationalized. These dimensions are very broad and vary throughout the book. In addition to the four dimensions described earlier, the book highlights, for example, the importance of democratically governing the purposes of innovation (Owen et al. 2013) and provides a theory about how by reflecting values of the EU the innovation processes will ensure that outcomes become ethically acceptable, sustainable, and societally desirable (von Schomberg 2013). Yet, while the book continually discusses how to achieve responsible innovation, the question of what innovation means is rarely raised. In the opening chapter, questions specifically revolve around where and how to innovate (Bessant 2013), thus overlooking the very question of what it means to innovate. To what concept of innovation are the four dimensions applied? What type of innovation processes is being democratized? These questions call for an investigation into what concept of innovation is presupposed to be self-evident by the RRI discourse. This is an important step as it enables us to ask whether this concept of innovation is at all compatible with the dimensions that the RRI discourse so eagerly endorses.
The opening chapter, entitled ‘Innovation in the Twenty-First Century,’ is written by John Bessant. He is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Exeter University and is considered to be a top researcher in the field. In this chapter, he elaborates on the context in which the discussion of RRI has to take place, namely the changing environment and challenges of the twenty-first century. Even though he does not explicitly account for the concept of innovation as such, he does provide an interesting distinction between incremental innovation and radical innovation. In his words:
Innovation is about change and this can take place among a spectrum of increasing novelty. From simple incremental improvements – “doing what we do, but better” – through to radical, new to the world changes. (Bessant 2013, p. 1)
Noticeably, incremental innovation, ‘doing what we do, but better,’ and radical innovation, ‘doing something new,’ are both understood in terms of technological advancement. At the level of incremental innovation, Bessant specifically refers to improved technologies, that is, technologies that already exist but that have been made to supposedly work more efficiently: Windows 10 replacing Windows 8, for example. At the level of radical innovation, Bessant speaks of innovations that are completely new to the world technologies, such as the first speech recognition program. In both instances, innovation is therefore conceptualized as technological innovation.
This conception stretches further into later chapters of Responsible Innovation. This is certainly the case in ‘A Vision of Responsible Research and Innovation’ (2013), written by Rene von Schomberg, who as a Directorate General for Research at the European Commission introduced the concept of RRI at the level of the EU and thereby plays a dominant role in the RRI discourse. Here he characterizes innovation within a distinction that presupposes from the start that innovation is necessarily technological. On the one hand, he accounts for mere technical inventions, which specifically refer to the development of a new technology, such as Bartolomeu’s “machine for sailing through the air” (p. 52). On the other hand, R. von Schomberg accounts for modern innovations. Also in this respect the use of the term ‘technology’ continues to prevail. In fact, throughout the text, R. von Schomberg alternates between the words ‘innovation’ and ‘technological innovation’ as if they are self-evidently the same. For example, when speaking of the impact of innovations, he argues that “technological innovations are unpredictable” (p. 55). This association between innovation and emerging technologies is further illustrated by the particular innovations that R. von Schomberg takes into account, such as video-gaming technology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the electronic patient record system (EPRS), body-scanning technology, and nanotechnology. His view on innovation is also reflected in official documents of the European Commission, in which emerging technologies are considered to be the main innovations that shape our future (cf. Matter 2011).
Technological innovation prevails throughout any framework of RRI. In fact, the four dimensions—anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and deliberation, and responsiveness—originate from public debates that explicitly concern new areas of technology (Owen et al. 2013; cf. Stilgoe et al. 2013). In other words, this framework is grounded in the presupposition that enhancing responsible innovation is ultimately a matter of creating responsible technologies. Similarly, Grinbaum and Groves (2013) argue that while innovation involves a “process of bringing something new into the world” (p. 119), in order to understand the meaning of responsible innovation we have to reflect “on the ethical significance of technological innovation” (p. 119).
Another crucial characteristic of the presupposed concept of innovation in the RRI discourse is its inherent economic structure. Although Bartolomeu’s machine is referred to as a ‘mere’ technological invention, it is also stated that “modern innovations are distributed through market mechanisms” (von Schomberg 2013, p. 54). In other words, modern innovations are not simply conceptualized in terms of emerging technologies, but more specifically in terms of technological products that are essentially shaped by the successes they make on the market. This is confirmed by Bessant, who argues that radical innovation is managed by entrepreneurs and smart firms who set up “the competitive dynamics which characterize innovation” (Bessant 2013, p. 5, own emphasis). The terms ‘innovation,’ ‘technological innovation,’ and ‘technological products’ are used interchangeably throughout the RRI literature; again, as if they are self-evidently the same.
Technological innovation, understood to mean commercialized technologies, also plays a central role in EU-funded RRI governance projects, such as ‘Promoting Global Responsible research and Social and Scientific innovation’ (ProGReSS). The project aims to establish a global network for RRI involving academia, SMEs, international organizations, policy advisors, research funders, NGOs, and industry. Therefore, ProGReSS initially seems to go beyond the scope of commercialized technologies. In an attempt to ensure this, the project categorizes RRI into three building blocks: innovation should be (1) ethically acceptable, (2) sustainable, and (3) societally desirable. See Table 1 for an overview of how ProGRess has interpreted these building blocks.
Beyond ethical acceptability and sustainability, ProGReSS focuses on what the project believes is the underexplored and least converging part of RRI, namely achieving societal desirability. The project aims to advocate a European normative model for RRI globally, using constitutional values as a driver to inform societal desirability. Accordingly, ProGReSS has delivered reports in which it describes and analyses how research funding can drive innovation toward positive outcomes, especially with regard to societal desirability. Through comparing innovation policies in Europe, the US, China, Japan, India, Australia, and South Africa, the project shows how, on the one hand, societal desirability differs from country to country. On the other hand, it stresses that we are ultimately globally linked through the societal desirability of tackling certain grand challenges, such as climate change. While ProGReSS thus admits that the definition of societal desirability is contested, defining it in terms of tackling the grand challenges “allows a comparison and a glimpse of how RRI could become a global framework where the attempt to guide innovation toward resolving humanity’s challenges functions as a common denominator” (ProGReSS 2014a, p. 5).
However, when it comes to understanding the concept of innovation itself, no such comparative scheme with a common denominator is suggested. Instead, ProGReSS unquestioningly reports on case studies that focus on the societal desirability of technologies that are particularly economically beneficial (ProGReSS 2014b). These specifically involve synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and information and communications technology (ICT). With regard to ethical acceptability and sustainability, ProGReSS reports on these exact same technologies.
Res-AGorA is another EU-funded project that has the objective of developing a comprehensive governance framework for RRI (Lindner et al. 2016). Instead of providing top-down normative anchor points, which tend to contradict each other, Res-AGorA attempts to provide a framework in which responsibilities are reached through shared and agreed understandings. In order to reach shared responsibilities, during the project’s three-year life cycle, Res-AGorA, practitioners, and strategic decision makers co-constructed an orientating governance framework called the “Responsibility Navigator” (Kuhlmann et al. 2015). Through ten identified principles and requirements—see Table 2—the Responsibility Navigator should support decision makers to govern research and innovation activities in a more responsible way. Unlike virtue-based frameworks of RRI, the framework of Res-AGorA acknowledges the contested definition of responsibility and the role it has within the different contexts of Europe. The project advocates for a constant renegotiation of and deliberation about what the definition of responsible should be.
While Res-AGorA is strategically different from ProGReSS, its overall focus is also on the ‘what is responsibility?’ aspect of RRI. Conversely, the research and innovation aspect is hardly explored. Instead, the ethics that are formulated specifically apply to economically beneficial technologies. The Responsibility Navigator is supposed to guide innovation processes through the application of ten principles, but most of these principles are exemplified and applied within the context of market-based technology (see Table 2).
The above analysis shows that the RRI literature does not yet consider the concept of innovation to be an object of reflection. Instead, innovation is uncritically presupposed to be technological. This is reflected in the vocabulary used to denote innovation and in the particular innovations to which the dimensions of RRI are applied. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that within the context of RRI, technological innovation has two main characteristics. First, as the term itself implies, technological innovation refers to the creation of new technologies. Second, it is specifically concerned with technologies that contribute to the market, and can for this reason also be understood as commercialized innovation. It is important to note, therefore, that while the dimensions of RRI are broad and varied, innovation processes coupled with these dimensions are essentially limited to a technological and commercial context (Table 3).Footnote 2