New concept for reintegrating technology innovation and social needs

by Ishani Hewage on May 21, 2013

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The first annual conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics has just wrapped up in Arizona, Phoenix. In his keynote speech, Technology Innovation and the New Social Responsibility, Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center called for a re-think of the relationship between technology innovation and societal needs.

“We are living in an highly interconnected world that is rapidly changing – increasing population, growing technological complexities and greater demands on harder-to-get resources,” said Andrew.

“In order to tackle evolving social challenges that range from chronic diseases to access to clean water and nutritious food, we need to find new ways of supporting technological innovations that are socially, environmentally and economically viable.  We have iPads, but we live in a world where people are still dying of malaria.”

Andrew noted that, in the distant past, technology innovation was largely driven by needs of the society.

“There was no systematic methodology behind innovation – people came up with ideas, and if they helped solve a problem, they stuck and were considered successful.”

Since the industrial revolution and more recently the Second World War, economic growth has become the main driver of innovation, resulting in a disassociation between societal needs and technological innovation.

“With innovation occurring at a rate faster than which we can appropriately regulate, we run the risk of not being able to manage the adverse consequences that inevitably arise. But a lack of responsive oversight also threatens to undermine consumer and commercial buy-in to socially and environmentally important technological innovations,”

So, where to from here? How do we get back on track?

In his keynote, Andrew suggested a new approach to reintegrate technology innovation with social needs which was developed in collaboration with Chief Scientist of Environmental Disease Fund, Steve Hamburg – a concept he refers to as Technological Innovation as Societal Insurance.

“Social responsibility is key to achieving corporate success in today’s world and with this in mind, this new concept calls for strategic up-front investment in innovation that will reduce future social, environmental and fiscal liabilities – and will re-couple innovation to societal drivers.”

In order for this concept to be effective, Andrew argues that there are four key components that need to be considered.

“Firstly, to develop sustainable innovations that are economically and socially relevant, there needs to be innovative private public collaborations. This is a powerful approach, which has already been successfully demonstrated by the Gates Foundation and their continued support for eradicating malaria. The foundation has committed over $2 billion for research and innovation for effective malaria control.”

The next component, Andrew suggests, is connecting social entrepreneurs who seek to find innovative solutions to social challenges, and technology innovators who are at the cutting edge of translating research and development into new products.

“There is a growing global community of social entrepreneurs and technological pioneers. Bringing these two communities together has the potential to lead to interactions that result in a new wave of technology solutions that are both socially responsive and economically sustainable.”

Citizen engagement is also vital component of this new concept.

“The public needs to be partners in the technology innovation process. Unless the scientific and technology community and the public engage in frequent, timely and transparent dialog on innovations, the social partnerships that are essential for success will not be fostered. Such a lack of engagement and partnership stifled the development of socially responsive genetic modification technologies for many years, and continues to limit progress in the field of genetically modified organisms.”

The final component of this concept highlighted by Andrew requires new approaches to the way in which intellectual property is used and protected within society.

“We need to explore mutually beneficial approaches to balancing the IP protections and at the same time using these new technology innovations for social benefits.”

As part of a larger exploration of responsible innovation, the concept of Technology Innovation as Societal Insurance suggests a way forward to reintegrate innovation and societal needs in order to meet future challenges in a sustainable manner.

The slides from Andrew’s keynote can be viewed here


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