Innovation is what has brought the human race as far as it has come…

Because of innovation, we have tackled disease; we have navigated the globe by land, sea and air; we have sent men to the moon. Soon we will have driverless cars. Innovation, in many ways, defines us. But it also has its limits and drawbacks. There is an innate impulse to push things as far as they can go. At times you wonder why innovation has taken us in this peculiar direction. What is the need for this device? Why has this phenomenon taken over?

This is when innovation becomes irresponsible. That innate drive to push boundaries can have consequences for the environment, commerce and social well-being. We often adopt innovative ideas and devices under the assumption that there are no drawbacks, only to discover a breach of trust; an invasion of privacy or the awareness that we are damaging our environment in some way.

Take the example of plastic. In the early 20th Century, it was a completely revolutionary material, enhancing production in multiple industries. At the time, there was no concern over the impact that plastic would have on the environment. One hundred years later, the world was united in its efforts to reduce its reliance on plastic and combat its devastating effect on the environment.

Images courtesy of Szilvia Szabo.

Szilvia Szabo and Maya Marquez created The Impacter to bring awareness to the idea of responsible innovation. “It’s a social enterprise with the mission to help companies to introduce this approach into their business strategy,” Szabo said. “We will be launching a crowdsourcing platform shortly to focus on connecting the challenge owners and contributors, so that if you have a challenge and you’re looking for an innovative solution to incorporate values into the process, you can make it visible and collaborate with experts and leaders and suppliers to find the best possible solution.”

Szilvia Szabo

Szabo has worked for innovative companies in Hungary for eight years. “The process was always the same,” she said. “The companies spend a huge amount of money on research and development for five or six years and they put a product into a market. Then branding begins with building up the values of the product after the product is in the market.” She said that these values should be developed at the beginning, as part of the development of the product. “That way you can involve customers and engage them in the process. Then, when you enter the market, you have a better solution, because it won’t be the first time you get feedback.” This essentially means companies do not waste time and money on something that is not wanted or useful.

She gives an example of a smart meter reading device for domestic electricity usage implemented in the Netherlands. “It was a great concept, it was working fantastically, but people felt that the device was working like a spying device, a monitoring device in the home,” she said. “People began to protest against it, and so they had to cut out the entire programme because people weren’t receptive to the concept because it did not respect their privacy.”

Do we need robots with
independent thought and desires?

If privacy had been addressed and given attention from the beginning, and a way of finding a solution to this issue had been found, this technically and functionally sound device would have been capable of doing what it should have done in the first place. Instead, millions of Euro were wasted and an innovative idea for better electricity usage failed.

Responsible innovation is about a value structure being incorporated into the planning and development phases of a project. These values respect ethics, social responsibility, the environment and sustainability. But it’s about perspective, Szabo explained: “From a technical perspective, you might only see that the device is working, is technically sound. You don’t look beyond that.”

Artificial Intelligence is at the forefront of innovation these days. It’s an exciting area filled with possibilities and potential. But is it necessary to have robots with such capabilities? Do we need robots with independent thought and desires?

“The question is,” she said, “just because we can create something that is actually intelligent, is it good for us? Is it serving the local community? The global community? Asking these questions before you end up with the solution, that’s what responsible innovation is about.” Another example she offered was biofuel. “It sounds like a nice concept, it has a good purpose, but it didn’t turn out very well.”

Maya Marquez

On the 10th of October, Maya and Szilvia will host the first Responsible Innovation Summit at Croke Park. “The conference is about introducing responsible innovation as an adaptable business concept,” Marquez said. “It’s about the next generation of businesses and innovation. The word innovation does not always mean technology; it needs to be broken up. So we have keynote speakers from economic backgrounds, from environmental backgrounds, technology backgrounds and so on.”

Speakers from all over Europe will offer insights into responsible innovation, and how businesses can adapt to incorporate this value structure into their planning. There will also be workshops, so attendees “can get their hands dirty,” and get some first-hand experience of responsible innovation.

Patrick studied English, Media and Cultural Studies and now works as a freelance journalist. He writes about social and cultural issues, football and a bit of technology, as well as some fiction. He's confused by the world but finds solace in the smooth rhythms of Marvin Gaye.

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