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Federico Vasen says that developing countries should critically assess the concept of responsible innovation.
Recently, the notion of responsible innovation (RI) has become central to European Union policy for science, technology and innovation (STI). This new concept is embedded across the Horizon 2020 programme, and the activities related to this programme have a total budget of €91 million for 2014 and 2015.
The RI framework crops up in the context of discussions about the development of nanotechnology in the United States, and responds to the interest in avoiding a repeat of the strong public disapproval in Europe for biotechnologies, in particular genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
RI proposes that it is important to institutionalise anticipatory governance mechanisms for emerging technologies. This will then allow for predicting potentially controversial areas and responding with political and regulatory actions in good time, to improve the social acceptance of such technologies. Citizen consultation committees and public participation in the evaluation of technologies are some of the instruments which could be used for this purpose.
However, this concept — for which there is a global vision — does not take into account the requirements and characteristics of science and technology in developing countries. The uncritical inclusion of the RI framework in STI policies for developing countries could result in the error — already made on other occasions — of adopting imitations of concepts and instruments that have originated in developed countries but are not suitable for the realities of local life in the global South. (see EU criticised for failure to transfer technology, in Spanish) 

In order to not repeat this mistake with RI, certain characteristics should be taken into account when expanding the geographic scope of this framework — which some academic initiatives [1] have started to explore more recently.

Firstly, the RI framework is intended for advanced economies, such as those of Europe, which have sectors dealing with cutting edge emerging technologies. Even though, in some developing countries, important research is taking place in fields such as nanotechnology or robotics, most of these countries access such developments as finished products.

As the development of emerging technologies take places beyond their reach, stakeholders in developing countries are on the periphery and see their capacity to participate in the design process as limited. The models of citizen participation proposed for the RI framework could then only function with difficulty in such a country, because these models require close interaction between the designers and the requirements and concerns of potential users.

A suitable concept of RI should therefore incorporate mechanisms that account for these asymmetries.
On the other hand, the RI framework has drawn lessons from the traumatic experience of the public rejection of GMOs. As a result, the approach respects the importance of considering the beliefs and values of the general public.

In the developing world, the ‘enlightened view’ that advances in science and technology are the path to socio-economic development is still widespread [2]. Whereas distrust is the greatest obstacle for emerging technologies in developed countries, in the developing world potential controversy tends to be associated with conflicts of interest connected to the exploitation of natural resources and associated environmental and social injustices.

A final factor to take into account is that the values which the RI vision proposes to incorporate into technical development are European values.

“If policies for the developing world are designed by incorporating the idea of RI, the values and expectations of the local population and the characteristics of local science and technology governance should be taken into account.”

Federico Vasen

There is vast cultural diversity in the developing world, and the risk of a Eurocentric definition of the RI concept must not be underestimated. In every society there can be a different interaction between technology and values, and this has to be taken into account. In this sense, although it may not always be out of step with developing countries, the idea of a single standard global framework for RI should not be embraced.
If policies for the developing world are designed by incorporating the idea of RI, the values and expectations of the local population and the characteristics of local science and technology governance should be taken into account.
In turn, introduction of developing countries’ manufacturing sectors as peripheral or auxiliary components of global value chains should be considered.
There is no doubt that the principle promoted by RI, of incorporating more stakeholders into discussions of technological design, is positive. But it is important that this process considers local priorities in terms of economic development, social inclusion and environmental justice from the outset. 
Federico Vasen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology Studies of the National University of Quilmes, Argentina. He specialises in STI policies and higher education. He can be contacted at: [email protected] 
This article was originally produced by SciDev.Net's Latin America and Carribbean desk.


[1] Phil Macnaghten and others.  Responsible Innovation Across Borders: tensions, paradoxes and possibilities. (Journal of Responsible Innovation, 2014)
[2] Phil Macnaghten, Julia Guivant Converging citizens? Nanotechnology and the political imaginary of public engagement in Brazil and the United Kingdom (Public Understanding of Science, 2010)