Insight 6: Institutions must respond!


Without responsive and responsible innovation we can’t put society into sustainability

It won’t be enough to do all of things we’ve outlined. We must also transform our institutions of science and governance – these are too centralised and rely on top-down approaches. There’s no ‘one size fits it all’ way of governing science and innovation. We need to cultivate new governance capacities and capabilities.

Everyone needs recognise that existing (ir)responsibilities and inequalities are systemic and rooted in outdated models of science, governance and economy. 3S says science and technologies are part of society itself: science is social too! We can only achieve socially responsible innovation if we understand this.

We need to make tech innovations more responsive to society

Science, government and business currently struggle to comprehend the diversity of public engagement – as well as the effects of their own social assumptions. An example of a good response to this is the EU hosted framework on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). It promotes principles such as public engagement, open access and ethics and is a significant attempt to account for the social and ethical dimensions of science and technology.

3S researchers have contributed to this initiative, through developing new processes for societal engagement and carrying out engagement work to promote responsibility around the development of technologies such as geoengineering. However, the tendency has been to focus on high-profile and controversial emerging technologies. These include geoengineering, genetically modified organisms and biofuels.

But 3S work shows that to get responsible research and innovation around pressing issues such as climate change and the energy system, change needs to go beyond these controversial technologies.

We must also consider other forms of innovation. This means looking at more mundane and established technologies such as smart meters in the home or conventional energy supply technologies, to ask how or whether they have been responsible and addressed societal needs. For example, recent 3S work has applied the RRI approach to the development of smart grids in the UK energy system. The expectation is that these will transform the energy system so we need to test that optimism by asking fundamental questions related to societal engagement.

Social innovations need to be more responsive and responsible too

3S work also highlights the important role which social, grassroots, governance and democratic innovations have played around sustainable development. We suggest that these too need to be more responsible and responsive, attending to the exclusions they produce, and their potential future effects.

This applies to all approaches to sustainability – institutionalised practices of public engagement as well as social movements and community groups, new forms of flood governance and newly created international bodies. Often presented as being softer and more benign, these kinds of innovation can still have damaging effects. So we need to anticipate and be responsible for these.

We need a more distributed and holistic notion of Responsible Research and Innovation to make the necessary breakthroughs in sustainable development.