Andrew Maynard at S.NET Conference: Tech Innovation & The New Social Responsibility

by Jonny Hankins

I recently attended the S.NET Conference on behalf of the Bassetti Foundation and Innovation Excellence. This year’s was the fifth annual meeting of the S.NET conference and it was held in Boston between October 27th and 29th,

Organized by the Society for the study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies, the Conference was one of the largest gatherings to date of academics working within the field of Responsible Innovation.

The Plenary Speaker was Andrew Maynard of the University of Michigan, and the title chosen Technology Innovation and the new Social Responsibility.

Maynard argued that innovation was originally driven by societal needs, producing sticky solutions to real problems. If they worked they were built upon, and as problems arose new innovations came about that helped to solve those problems.

But the 18th century industrial revolution effected innovation mechanisms in that the goals for innovation moved away from addressing societal needs and towards innovation for economic needs or gain. He argued that pre-industrial revolution innovation could be seen as forming a type of chain, with new forms of innovation linked to previous developments, the chain helping to keep negative effects in check.

Once the goal of innovation moved away from addressing these problems and its objective becomes economic gain, the checks and balances system fails, the new form of innovation is decoupled from the older form and the negative effects of the first are free to survive without further influence. Maynard argued that it is at this point that governance needs to be (and was) added to the model to regain control of the negative implications, but he raised the question of how viable this type of model (that in effect today) would be in the future.

One issue is that governance may be slower than innovation. He pointed to examples of public revolt when society itself has mobilized to demonstrate its unwillingness to accept certain developments that have not been legislated against, but argued that a system that creates such antagonistic approaches stifles innovation.

He further investigated this theme by raising the issue of the impact of governance inaction upon innovation and society, citing a long list of innovation drivers and problems today that may not have been relevant in the past such as population growth, resource demands and scarcity, planetary boundaries, globalization, connectivity and technological complexity.

Maynard continued by raising the idea of adding societal and environmental value to resources, raising the question of how innovation can be steered towards being more socially advantageous. He talked about societal and environmental benefit, perceived benefits and consequences, resilience and sustainable development, all in terms of added values.

He also raised the issue of technological innovation as societal insurance which he defined as ‘a need to reduce future liability through present investment’. His questioned how a model could be developed that could steer us away from future catastrophic or undesirable realities.

He went on to raise the question of whether governance could address the problem of inaction, pushing towards societal good as well as legislating against harm, in the hope of steering innovation towards benefiting society by addressing particular problems.

Maynard presented his ideas of what societal insurance might look like. It involved embedded principles and checks and balances, proactive investment, shared responsibility, reviewing investment modes and research strategies, integrated solutions, knowledge curation and translation, the creation of networks and forms of engagement.

He argued that implementation would require four components: innovative public private partnerships, connecting social entrepreneurs with tech innovators, new approaches to public sector discourse and a new framework for IP protection and use.

I believe that Maynard’s idea of societal insurance are worthy of a few minutes thought. Today there is a lot of talk about social entrepreneurism, something that I will look at in my next post, a form of innovation that we might say is aimed at bettering humankind, and not just at making money. This is tied to creating value, although the value may not be explicitly financial. Social values are not to be overlooked in business, and a good name is worth a lot of money as amply demonstrated and advertised.

Photos of the conference are available through the Bassetti Foundation Flikr account here.

image credit: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
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Jonny HankinsJonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.

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