What is responsible innovation

Innovative products and services hold great potential to improve the lives of consumers and solve societal challenges, such as aging societies, energy security, and climate change. However, uncertainty is inherent to research, development and innovation activities, especially in the field of emerging technologies. The implications of novel products, processes or business models for society and the environment are often difficult to anticipate. Dealing with these uncertainties in a responsible manner is key to bringing innovations to market. This is where Responsible Innovation can help.

Have a look at our FAQ section to get a first impression of the concept.

FAQ- Frequently asked questions

1. What is responsible innovation and how does it relate to responsible research and innovation (RRI)?

The concept of responsible research and innovation (RRI) originates in discourses on emerging technologies and research ethics in contested innovative fields, such as nanotechnologies or geo-engineering, and has been predominantly driven by policy makers and social scientists since 2011. A first working definition of RRI was proposed by von Schomberg as:

“[a] transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)”.

After a period of debate about the definition of RRI and the concept’s continuous development, a common agreement about the meaning and key aspects of RRI has developed in the form of the four dimensions of anticipation, reflection, inclusion/deliberation and responsiveness. Integration of these four dimensions in research and innovation processes should lead towards more responsible innovation output. At the same time, the European Commission has been promoting RRI by funding projects on the thematic elements of ethics, gender and diversity, public engagement, open access, and science education through the previous and current European Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation, “FP7” and “Horizon 2020”.

Recent studies have aimed to shed light on the implementation of RRI practices in business. These studies indicate that businesses in Europe still seem to be operating without an awareness of the concept itself, but that extant practices, processes and purposes exhibit indications of RRI. Moreover, they have been dealing with questions of how to incentivise or drive companies to adopt either the concept, or particular RRI principles. First good practice examples of implementation of RRI in business provide a diverse set of company practices; ranging from inclusive governance and a general orientation of company research and innovation towards tackling societal challenges, through institutionalized opportunities for anticipation and reflection, to targeted activities aimed at increasing gender balance or fostering science education.

The discourse about embedding responsibility in corporate innovation processes has evolved from aiming to implement the RRI concept, as defined by European Commission, to linking it to extant responsibility concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or tangible company practices throughout the innovation process. In the course of these developments, the use of the simpler term “Responsible Innovation” (RI) has emerged, which has been used synonymously with the abbreviation “RRI”. The term responsible innovation is more common in communities that deal with responsibility in corporate innovation processes but are not directly influenced by the European Commission’s Research Programmes.

Links & references

2. How does responsible innovation relate to corporate social responsibility or corporate sustainability?

The concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate sustainability (CS) have a longer history than the idea of responsible innovation, or responsibility of science towards society. The responsibility of business towards society has carried a number of conceptualisations, including philanthropy, business ethics, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship and corporate sustainability. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate sustainability (CS) are currently the more common terms in business practice and are showing signs of convergence.

Companies from a variety of sectors are being scrutinised for their effects on people and the environment throughout their value chains; extending their responsibility for impact beyond their own operations to supply chains and product use. This includes materials sourcing and procurement in supply chains, production, transport and packaging, and lastly the life-cycle effects from the actual use of the product, and its disposal or afterlife. The issues range from environmental resource use or emissions into air, land or water, to effects on human rights, ensuring decent work and health and safety in company production or operations, ensuring an environmentally friendly afterlife of company products or even the social desirability of a company’s products and services. Therefore, business responsibility towards society now means both, responsible management of business operations, as well as a business’ responsibility for the impacts of its products and services on people and the environment.

Responsible innovation can be understood as an extension or expansion of responsible management and company responsibility to the realm of its research and innovation processes and output. In this way, the concept calls for the assumption of responsibility at a strategic company level and in very early stages of research and innovation.

References & further reading

3. What are the main elements of responsible innovation?

There is no one generic definition for responsible innovation that would definitively describe its elements. In the policy arena and the scientific literature the contents of the concept have been discussed under the term “responsible research and innovation (RRI)” as well as under the term responsible innovation [see FAQ No. 1]. Different definitions point out different elements of the concept; which are described below.

According to von Schomberg RRI is a “transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products”.

This often quoted definition illustrates that responsible innovation has a process dimension and a product dimension. This means that, in order to fulfil the criteria of responsible innovation, an innovation process as well as its final output (i.e. the innovation) have to meet requirements of ethical acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability.

The European Commission has been promoting responsible research and innovation by funding projects on the thematic elements of ethics, gender, public engagement, open access, and science education through the previous and current European Framework Programmes “FP7” and “Horizon 2020”.

In the academic literature, a common, general agreement about the meaning and key aspects of RRI has developed in the form of four dimensions that would lead towards more responsible innovation processes, entailing a collective and continuous commitment to conduct research and innovation processes in an anticipatory, reflective, inclusive (deliberative), and responsive way. These four aspects have been developed into the so-called AREA framework, requiring researchers to anticipate, reflect, engage and act in order ensure responsibility.


4. How can I find out if my company’s innovations and innovation processes are in line with the responsible innovation approach?

The COMPASS Responsible Innovation self-check tool was developed to provide companies with an easily accessible introduction to good practices that operationalize the responsible innovation approach in company and innovation management. The tool breaks responsible innovation down for a business context especially focusing on adapting the underlying concepts of responsible innovation to company practices.

The COMPASS Self-Check Tool is structured along the key phases of the innovation process (Idea Generation & Research, Development & Testing, Market & Impact) in conjunction with a general company management section that invites reflection about wider organizational structures and practices.

Users can start with any of these four modules and then choose to work on the different sections in sequence or selectively. While the modules and questions break down the responsible innovation approach, answer options for each question provide the user with good practice examples. In this way, the user will a) learn about what makes up the responsible innovation approach, b) be able to assess what practices are already implemented in his or her company, and c) receive inspiration on further good practice.

5. What are examples of responsible innovation in business?

Some pioneer companies have already implemented responsible innovation practices in their company strategies and their daily operations. Good practice cases from the areas of cyber security, biomedicine, nanotechnology and ICT for healthy ageing can be found at the links provided below.

Success in economic terms cannot be guaranteed, but good practice examples show that the willingness of a company to innovate in areas that have positive societal impact and in ways that are in line with the responsible innovation approach can bring business benefits and add additional value such as higher consumer trust, retention of skilled personnel or reputational gains.

Responsible Innovation COMPASS

Evidence and Opportunities for Responsible Innovation in SMEs

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