👼 responsible innovation

"I know it when I see it"

*This edition is co-authored with Jesse Hirsh of MetaViews. Readers of regs to riches can enjoy a 40% discount on a one-year subscription to MetaViews.

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🖥️ We are hosting a Salon discussion on responsible innovation on Tuesday, January 26th at 1.00pm EST. Join us.

Here’s the link for Tuesday’s session:

If meaning is in the eye of the beholder, then what does “responsible innovation” actually mean? How can innovation be responsible? Who is responsible for innovation?

We like to believe that with great power comes great responsibility, yet in an era where algorithms are authorities, responsibility seems to be kinda scarce.

For example, it can feel frustrating that social media platforms like Facebook haven’t built in or earned the social license to engage in the business models that have made these firms as successful as they are harmful. 

Appreciating the role of “responsible” innovation extends beyond basic compliance with existing regulations coupled with the pursuit of intellectual property. It evokes a more stable and cooperative relationship between platform and user, or company and society.

Perhaps the phrase is comforting because it is vague and poorly defined. What if “responsible entrepreneurship” is the opposite of “irresponsible entrepreneurship;” a practice that might feel more familiar and easier to define.

It’s worth noting how policymakers have been scarred from and by the regulatory entrepreneurship of platforms like Uber and Airbnb. Is “disruption” a business model that we will see more of or was that just a (deeply challenging) moment in time?  Have those firms revolutionized the policymaking process when it comes time to encounter emerging technology, or has it simply soured us on platforms overall?

As we reflect on the implications of twenty years of permission-less innovation (a/k/a might is right) as pioneered by US tech giants, how is the policy profession evolving to meet the challenges of tomorrow?  What kind of regulatory capacity can and should be developed?

Alternatively, what kind of incentive structures can be identified or created so that companies not only refrain from being evil, but actually *try* to be “good”? Is it possible to foster the pursuit of the dual bottom lines of self interest and public interest?

It may sound noble and idealistic, however it’s actually quite modest and attainable. Here’s a simple definition of responsible entrepreneurship from PEW Research: 

Making new technologies work for society, without causing more problems than they solve.

There’s no heroism there, but more importantly there’s also no villainy nor conquest.

As we work to reconcile those relationships, both government actors and entrepreneurs may share a common goal, which is to minimize - if not eliminate entirely - the regulatory lag that has come to characterize the space. That seems useful to everyone. 

Yet at the same time, innovators/companies/entrepreneurs are poorly resourced to achieve this. Though they may indeed share the aspiration of achieving “responsible innovation,” they may not share a common vision of what that looks like or how to recognize it. Further, if the state is viewed as a squelcher that says “no,” rather than an empowering force that offers guidance on “how,” then firms will also shy away from chatting with government officials unless they absolutely must (e.g. fintechs politely engaging with the Ontario Securities Commission). 

In contrast, regions around the world that experience economic growth combined with technological development do so as a result of close co-operation between all sectors of society, in particular government, industry, and academia. Israel, South Korea, and France, are three among many examples of where this is most obvious.

Real responsible innovation demands a much more intimate relationship between entrepreneurs and the state and seems unlikely to be achieved by either actor independently. It also requires a confident and candid clarity from companies. 

A powerful example of this is Kickstarter’s Charter - which plays an essential role in fostering trust between users of the broader platform. It’s not enough for Kickstarter to help projects raise funds and support, there must be a foundation of trust among all participants and with the company as a whole if any are to be successful.

This can scale up to the level of a sector, as clean energy offers an example of a technology that is generally recognized as a responsible innovation. It’s in the framing of the sector as a whole, but it can be misleading, as it falsely implies an absolute, that all the tech is clean, which is certainly not the case, given rare earth metals and mining that goes into creating the tech behind clean energy. Perhaps responsible innovation depends upon particular context and potential transparency?

While no technology is neutral, there is politics in how our tools are used. For example drones can be used for responsible innovation as in the case of Flash Forest.

As long as there’s been technology there have been people claiming to be using it for good while lamenting that others were using it for purposes that are not good. To what extent is responsible innovation a reframing of our relationship with technology in response to the lament we now have with regard to social media? Or the rise of AI?

Although on the Internet, a reframing is as straightforward as a whitepaper or making a list.

This Responsible tech guide is another (free) resource for people looking to get involved in the growing Responsible Tech Field, and check out this list of organizations in responsible tech.

However such lists beg the question as to who gets to “be” a responsible innovator? We often consider that it would be the company or CEO - but what is the counterbalance to that? More entrepreneurial regulators that can spot harms on the horizon. Policy people need to think of themselves as responsible innovators, too, and academics have a role to play in helping us make sense of the space. 

Why should the title or responsible innovator be limited in any way? Should it not be as inclusive as the Internet itself? Responsible innovators can be lurkers, trolls, or pseudonymous. We may focus on the irresponsible ones, but let’s not take for granted that the online environments we share with billions of others are being built one post at a time. You’re reading this one aren’t you?

Responsible innovation in this context may be so abstract, so widespread on the Internet, that it’s like a participant ribbon. What if we focus it a bit by looking at responsible entrepreneurship using a few examples.

For instance, in early in 2020 (pre-pandemic), Knix had a brief campaign to regulate period panties.   

Is the company a “responsible innovator” because they asked for a stronger regulatory environment, or are they “regulatory entrepreneurs” because they built a successful firm around a new product (period panties) without clear standards? 

Another example is the notorious Bunz Trading Zone, who had a novel cryptocurrency offering that did not last. Then there’s death tech Eirene who hit speed bumps achieving licensing because they don’t own vehicles, but rent them - a simple change that also redefines how death is regulated in Ontario. Also Maple who are a health tech platform that is accelerating the privatization of our health care system. Our current fave PC Optimum is revolutionizing the points economy in Canada. What does responsible innovation look and feel like in each of these instances? *There’s an outline of a rocking graduate seminar here.

It’s also worth considering that from a start-up perspective, responsible innovation can seem expensive. First, it costs money: little secondary industries spring up around them: consultants for basic GR, privacy-by-design assessments, algorithm audits. You could argue there’s an accessibility dimension at play, especially when a company is in an early stage. It’s easy to under-invest in responsible data architectures in the pursuit of product-market fit, making policy considerations an afterthought at best. Second, it costs time; a valuable resource. And the rewards can be ephemeral.

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However how much of that is in framing? To what extent are we skewing the process because we’ve constructed unattainable and unrealistic end goals for entrepreneurs and policymakers alike? What if doing good or at least finding where the overlap between doing good and getting paid was not only more celebrated but easier for entrepreneurs to do? Economically, legally, and structurally?

Part of that change has to come via policy, but social change is also the result of leadership and experimentation.

There are a range of executive education opportunities in the space, like the Tech Executive Leadership Initiative (TELI) at the Aspen Tech Policy Hub or this Crash Course on Tech Work in Government: What *else* do you need to know?

Yet there’s also room for much more. This is true in the formal or accredited space, but also informally, given that we’re all kinda learning from each other as we figure it out.

Part of why responsible innovation as a practice is so critical is because jurisdictional scans are difficult - if not totally impossible with emerging digital technology - so instead we get “public policy by Googling.” Actually, we get just about everything by Googling. Which may be marginally better than getting it via Facebook.

Nonetheless it is worth recognizing that policymaking in the digital age is redefining the traditional processes and sources of expertise that the policy environment has come to rely on.

So alongside more case studies of responsible innovation, we need to beef up an appreciation of how this can work and train more entrepreneurial regulators that can better spot harms on the horizon.

If on the one hand we’re encouraging entrepreneurs to seize the moment and technology to disrupt industry and conquer the world. Then on the other hand we need regulators who are just as adept, agile, and able to assist the rise as well as resist the harms created by the juggernauts of today and tomorrow. We can’t call for heroics on one side and not also demand the same on the other.

Which is why regulation itself requires reframing. When done right it is an asset. Similarly while it is a dire liability when it is done wrong, it can always and should be changed.

This is the potential benefit of collaboration: emerging firms can better inform “innovation policy” decisions through the identification of pain points and transparent participation in the policy process as a whole [this could potentially be a part of ongoing regulatory modernization efforts?]. 

In the meantime there’s value in studying these case studies in an accessible and shareable way as we collectively build this new culture. Perhaps responsible innovation is an opportunity to redefine the process of innovation itself.


Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.