Reversing the order of innovation

This is the transcript of a presentation at EuroNanoForum 2017, 21 June 2017 in Valletta, Malta.

The Copernican Solar System. Source: wikimedia.

This presentation focuses on the social value of nanotechnologies. Social value creation is about realising social and environmental benefits in addition to economic gain.

My main claim is that social value creation should be at the heart of nanotechnology governance. This requires a Copernican Turn: Copernicus reordered an entire worldview by arguing that the earth revolves around the sun, instead of the other way around. Innovation governance is facing a similar challenge: the order of innovation has to be reversed, turning social and environmental considerations into the driver for research and innovation, rather than a fortunate by-product.

Why is this so important? First of all, because our natural support system is under threat, to the point of endangering our very survival. According to the WWF Living Planet Report, under a business-as-usual path we would need more than two Planet Earths to sustain human activity by 2030.

We need two planets. Source: wikimedia

Research and innovation have enormous potential to address the grand societal challenges we are facing today: for instance, by enabling more efficient use of natural resources, reducing the environmental impacts of human activity, enabling clean and affordable energy and by fighting disease and promoting health and wellbeing – but to unlock the full potential of the research and innovation system, we have to start targeting these challenges much more directly.

The main problem is that the current drivers do not drive research and innovation towards the challenges it needs to be addressing. Despite some very encouraging developments, to which I will return below, the research and innovation agenda is still mainly focused on economic growth and competitiveness as goals in themselves, rather than means to an end.
But economic growth is not synonymous to social progress.

Growth isn’t eevrything. Source: wikimedia

This image metaphorically suggests that growth should not be confused with flourishing. These seedlings have grown a lot, but they have a very limited chance of survival. Focusing solely on growth at the expense of other indicators of wellbeing leads to warped outcomes. Focusing on GDP favours innovations that generate income growth. It does not direct attention to innovations that address pressing environmental or social problems – unless they also happen to make a sizeable profit – because the benefits it offers cannot be expressed in terms of income growth. Hence, focusing research and innovation toward the challenges it needs to address, requires the inclusion of broader criteria that define the success of innovation beyond economic measurements: its social value.

Putting social value at the heart of nanotechnology governance.

Putting social value at the heart of nanotechnology governance can be done on different levels:

First, by explicitly integrating social and environmental considerations in setting priorities for research.
Indeed, there are encouraging signs of growing attention to societal challenges in research policy. Looking at the Euronanoforum conference programme, nanotechnologies seem to be increasingly focused on key sustainability areas: there are sessions on low carbon green energy, on the circular economy, on green transportation, sustainable construction, and so forth. Especially session 1 on low carbon green energy yesterday and session 6 this morning were excellent, and show how economic motives can be successfully combined with environmental goals.

Societal challenges have also become much more prominent in Horizon 2020. But despite these encouraging steps, social value still seems to be something of an afterthought. Like in most research conferences, the governance session features at the bottom of the list, and it is usually attended by five people, four of whom have a presentation themselves.
A similar point applies to the NBMP Work Programme societal challenges do not seem to reach the very heart of innovation governance: international competitiveness and economic growth are still positioned as the real driver for innovation. Which is quite astonishing, given the challenges we are facing: what’s the point of winning the global race for economic dominance, if the finish line lies beyond the edge of a cliff?

In a world of finite resources, infinite growth is a dangerous illusion. Source: wikimedia.

The second way to focus research and innovation on social value is by opening up research decision making to a broader range of voices.
Despite increasing attention for societal challenges at the level of nanotechnology policy, societal considerations do not seem to play a major role at the level of research practice. Societal engagement activities are far and few between: citizens or civil society are rarely involved as actors or participants in the discussion. If they have a role at all, it is mostly as passive receivers of information.

The assumption seems to be that societal acceptance is something to be ‘fixed’ at the end of the pipeline. The research and engineering community decides what the social needs are, and what are the most effective ways to respond to them – subsequently citizens have to be ‘educated’ into acceptance.

The lack of societal engagement adds to the feeling of disenfranchisement among European citizens. They are losing trust that they can participate in, and benefit from, the current system.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identifies this erosion of trust as a broader social phenomenon. It states: “The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012. With the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them. In this climate, people’s societal and economic concerns, including globalization, the pace of innovation and eroding social values, turn into fears, spurring the rise of populist actions now playing out in several Western-style democracies. To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people — and the addressing of their fears — at the center of everything they do.”
This equally applies to research and innovation governance: the question what society wants and needs cannot be answered by researchers and engineers alone, it must involve broader perspectives. As Martin Curley noted in his inspiring talk yesterday, the quadruple helix of open innovation centrally involves users and consumers in addition to government, academia and industry. This could be achieved by proactively involving social researchers, civil society and citizens in the early stages of research, when research trajectories are still malleable.

The EU-funded NanoDiode project, which finished last year, has experimented with new forms of citizen and stakeholder participation at various stages of governance, and provided recommendations on how to strengthen societal engagement in nanotechnologies. A new project, GoNano, in which we hope to continue strengthening stakeholder participation, is expected to start 1 September this year. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like to know more, or want to get involved.

The third way to focus attention to social value is by including social and environmental indicators beyond economic growth and competitiveness in the appraisal of nanotechnologies.
According to this article in the Guardian, the European Commission’s directorate-general for regional and urban policy has agreed in 2015 to investigate using the Social Progress Index, which uses 52 indicators ranging from healthcare and housing to ecosystem sustainability, to evaluate how effectively countries translate economic success into social progress. The index was created in 2013 by Harvard professor Michael Porter, the creator of the concept of shared value. He argued it made no sense to be measuring success purely on the idea of growth at a time when countries are facing massive social upheavals. By including social and environmental considerations beyond GDP, the Social Progress Index allows them to be compared and contrasted with traditional economic measures.

Now I’m not sure what the actual status of this initiative is, but something similar would be needed for research and innovation. It would allow us to assess the extent to which innovations are providing solutions to environmental and social challenges beyond growth.
In summary, putting social value creation at the heart of innovation governance would allow nanotechnologies to be more productively focused on the welfare and wellbeing of European citizens.

An emerging group of innovators is beginning to see the value of assessing social and environmental performance in addition to economic benefit. For some companies, sustainability and circular economy may even become business cases in their own right, as yesterday’s session on new materials for low carbon green economy clearly indicated. That win-win situation – a stronger European industry that provides solutions that benefit society at large – should be nurtured. Innovation governance is about directing research and innovation towards social benefit.

Instead of focusing on undirected growth, now is the time to enable a new ‘mode’ for research and innovation that inspires public confidence because it integrates societal concerns and demonstrably addresses urgent societal challenges



New EU project: GoNano

DPF is a partner in the EU-funded GoNano project. GoNano enables co-creation between citizens, civil society organisations, industry, researchers and policy makers across Europe to align future nanotechnologies with societal needs and concerns. GoNano aims to demonstrate how researchers can work with publics and professional stakeholders to create novel suggestions for future nanotechnology products. The project started in September 2017 and will run for three years.

DPF leads the co-creation activities with professional stakeholders and supports project communication. We will also contribute to the review of the state of the art in co-creation, training activities and policy outreach.

For more information, see: