When the French philosopher François Rabelais claimed in the 16th century that "science without conscience is the ruin of the soul", did he imagine that, five centuries later, it would still be so topical?
Was this a warning to his contemporary, philosopher René Descartes, who lead us into Modernity by suggesting that we "make ourselves masters and possessors of nature"?
It is from these two visions offered by Rabelais and Descartes that one can start understanding what responsible innovation is - and it must be differentiated from social innovation.
Responsible innovation is often mistaken for social or societal innovation, especially in France. In the second case, the idea is to innovate in order to better grasp the problems of the most disadvantaged populations. Responsible innovation is different because it does not propound responsibility only as an end. Actually, it considers responsibility as something that must be present beyond such questions. Responsibility should not be the prerogative of social innovation, for even though social innovation is without any doubt necessary, it remains, by its nature, limited in its scope.
It is to the general public's standards that responsibility must be applied - both in terms of processes and ends. Social innovation is not in itself responsible innovation. For instance, a low-cost car might be built with polluting materials. Responsible innovation does not aim to claim a monopoly on social issues, nor to state how one needs to innovate when faced with these issues. It is not in itself the search of how to better the environment, human health, or work conditions, but it integrates all of these dimensions into whatever the innovation is.
Responsible innovation claims to invite itself in the innovation processes of every organization in order to get the measure of the question of responsibility, both in services and in the industry, in state-of-the-art technology or in manufacturing.
The goal is to integrate, at all stages of the innovation process, from conception to commercialization, using non polluting materials, sorting recyclable from non-recyclabe waste, recycling itself, protecting the workers, clients, collaborators...etc. It also means taking into account those who are going to be directly and indirectly impacted by the innovation.
How to innovate in a responsible way?
Responsible inovation is based on various well-defined and structured steps that can be summed up by three points that will help to better identify this notion.
1. Whether responding to people's needs is relevant or not
The innovator must question people's needs and how relevant the answers that he is coming up with are for them. If people are pushed to innovate, it is because they are naturally unsatisfied. Nothing seems to be able to quench their thirst for consumption and possession.
Marketing teams quite legitimately try to constantly detect today's and tomorrow's needs and to appreciate whether they constitute a market worth investing in. But the question is: should we always respond to these needs, under the cover of financial developments?
2. Anticipate the consequences of innovations
One needs to question what the direct impact of innovations is on their beneficiaries. This point is related to the undissociable uncertainy of the implementation of all innovation, whether they succeed or fail. It is also related to the inability to anticipate behaviors of products or services in the short and long term, and their impact on the health of the users and their life conditions.
For example, as a company, the aim is to ask oneself what the consequences of the sale of cigarettes or alcohol are on consumers, or what the consequences of waves are on users of cell phones, wifi networks or overhead power transmission lines. One needs to tackle these concerns with maturity, overcoming the short term economic prospects of the company.
3. Take into account the indirect consequences of our innovations on society as a whole
Innovation has an impact that goes beyond the framework from which it emerged. We need to accept the idea that we all interact one with another. Thus a new innovation can have an impact not only on its clients, but also on those who are not directly using it. This degree of responsibility demands a certain level of maturity. One needs to be capable of being accountable to individuals who appear to be outside of the realm of one's actions.
Thus, with a new faster and powerful plane that is very noisy, one shouldn't only consider the consequences of noise pollution on the crew, the ground staff and the clients, but also how it impacts the residents and the entire airport ecosystem.
Hence, innovating in a responsible way means demonstrating maturity and wisdom with regards to the necessity of innovation but not at all costs. The innovator must understand its role, its impact on the city and its citizens.
Responsible innovation's value proposition is the following: innovate while conforming to processes that are based on performance and leadership but also on methods that preserve the integrity of its ecosystem.
Translated from French.
Photo Credit: Flickr/HoriaVarlan.