Thursday, 28 July 2016

Good or bad innovation: who can tell, and how?

"Good and bad innovation: what kind of theory and practice do we need to distinguish them?" is the question posed by Geoff Mulgan in an 8-page paper that Nesta has floated on the Twittersphere. Mulgan, Nesta CEO, is a social entrepreneur and academic who was formerly head of policy for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Nesta is an independent charity that is designed to promote and encourage socially beneficial innovations. Accordingly he, and Nesta, are more concerned with the benefits that innovation can impart than with the profit-and-loss issues that beset the common-or-garden private sector research-based business. He asks:
"What methods should be used to distinguish good innovation from the bad? ... This paper attempts to provide a possible framework that complements these. It recognises the inherent difficulties involved in assessing future possibilities, while arguing that intelligent judgements can guide allocations of money and the design of policies and regulations".
Mulgan however sounds a note of caution:
"There are at least four grounds for scepticism about any systematic attempts to assess emerging technologies:

The first is that no-one can predict how technologies will evolve. Conference speakers love recounting the many examples of people closely involved in key technology sectors -- from computing and transport to energy -- who dramatically misread how their field would develop. Being an expert is no guarantee of being able to make accurate predictions.

The second is that even if you can predict how a technology will evolve, it’s very hard to predict who will benefit or suffer. ... Forecasts on the effects of technology on jobs over the last 50 years have been ... inaccurate -- indeed futurology has consistently exaggerated and misinterpreted the effects of automation on jobs. 
The third is that it’s impossible to define what the counterfactual to any given innovation is. A coal mine despoils nature and emits lots of CO2. But if the alternative is to chop down and burn a large forest, the mine might be better both for nature and the climate. This concern presumably applies to other innovations too. If a nuclear war happens at some point, then we would probably be better off had nuclear weapons not been invented. But if you were considering whether to invent the atom bomb in Los Alamos in 1943, your choice wasn't between inventing nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons never existing, but between you inventing them now or someone else likely inventing them later.

The fourth is a general problem of anything future-oriented: the incumbents who may stand to lose most from an innovation are likely to be well-organised and powerful, while potential future beneficiaries may be powerless and lack a voice.

These are all reasons for caution and humility. In any system it’s useful to allow a fair degree of freedom either for inventors or entrepreneurs. Excessive application of precautionary principles can inhibit very desirable progress.

But it’s implausible to conclude that no scrutiny or debate is either useful or feasible. It’s inherently unhealthy for any society to see technologies as things which emerge magically, and over which there is no possibility of control".
But who can conduct a valid and valuable technological assessment ('TA')? Mulgan lists some possibilities:
"Who might make these assessments? And who might act on them? Interest in this field is currently limited to a few big funders (like the European Commission and research councils). But there are many other potential user/creators of more systematic assessments of innovations at different stages of development:
  • Governments, innovation agencies and with them regulators and policymakers, at national or transnational levels. Most TA is attached to governments or parliaments.
  • Businesses and investors -- including ones committed to corporate reporting on environmental, social and governance issues, or employee organisations. This is a very underdeveloped field [It may be underdeveloped, but there are many fields in which this would be hotly disputed. Pharma, agrichemicals, energy, much of the ICT sector and cybersecurity, to name a few].
  • Universities and research centres -- which have more capabilities, and the whole panoply of science and technology studies to draw on.
  • Citizens, and NGOs, social movements, media -- aiming to represent a civic interest, though these usually campaign for or against technologies rather than playing an overt role in assessment.
Each of these might judge innovations in different ways. But there may be some benefit in common frameworks, language and analytical technique, for example around descriptions of risk and opportunity, or design of experiments to improve knowledge about these. And there should be great advantages in more truly society-wide processes that debate in a rounded way the possibilities and threats of emerging technologies".
We would suggest that, if TA is a worthwhile exercise, it need not be confined to any one of the listed groups alone. At present however it is far easier for some groups to obtain and analyse data than for others, and some are more comfortable than others when dealing with data-driven evidence.  It would be good to know, for instance, how much use is made of patent data by environmental and health organisations: would they be better placed to argue in favour of a redirection of investment from one area of technology to another if they had before them the sort of data generated by patent analytics, showing where innovation funding has already been committed and likely explaining why businesses are reluctant to steer from one area of technology investment towards another.

We also note that some groups are more inclined towards the policy dimension of an assessment than towards its technical merits.  For example, a pro-privacy lobby group and a group of private sector security consultants are unlikely to start from the same place when evaluating the social utility of a new surveillance technology. 

So where does Nesta go from here? The paper concludes with the following comments:
This note is a sketch and doesn’t pretend to be definitive. It aims to contribute to the conversation about how we fill the space between two undesirable, and intellectually incoherent, poles:
  • On the one hand a hard precautionary principle which tries to stop any discovery or invention that might bring with it risks and losses;
  • On the other hand the view that, because any assessment is difficult, we should just let technologies develop according to the push from scientists and inventors, and pull from markets.
Neither position adds up. But finding a sensible path between these extremes is complex, even though it’s clearly important for innovation ministries, agencies and funders".
Mulgan welcomes comments and suggestions on who is doing TA well and, more generally, on better approaches than the ones he has suggested. He adds: "I’m less interested in comments which just reiterate the difficulties".  If you can help him, you can contact Nesta here.

Historical footnote: Nesta used to be an acronym, NESTA, which stood for National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

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