The dilemma of societal alignment


Manchester, UK. January 16, 2019

In mid-2018, a paper I co-authored with colleagues, “Introducing the dilemma of societal alignment for inclusive and responsible research and innovation,” was published in the Journal of Responsible Innovation.

For the record, the full authorship team for the paper is Barbara Ribeiro, Lars Bengtsson, Paul Benneworth, Susanne Bührer, Elena Castro-Martínez, Meiken Hansen, Katharina Jarmai, Ralf Lindner, Julia Olmos-Peñuela, Cordula Ott and Philip Shapira. Yes, quite a team!

In the paper, we reflect on some of the key challenges that influence the development and uptake of more inclusive and responsible forms of research and innovation. Building on Collingridge’s classic dilemma of the social control of technology, we introduce a complementary dilemma – that of societal alignment in science, technology and innovation.

We argue that the dilemma of societal alignment emerges not just from Collingridge’s technical or temporal challenges in divining pathways for emerging technological designs but also from challenges to open up the governance of science, technology and innovation, to address divergent stakeholder perspectives and to find correspondence between the potential benefits of new technologies and the needs of diverse publics.

Our paper stimulated three commentaries – these are also published.

  • A response by David Guston (“… Damned if you don’t”) argues that the social alignment of technology is a difficult challenge. But it is not a dilemma in terms of being a choice between two impossible options, and that there are indeed ways to introduce greater public value in early technological design.
  • A second response by Alfred Nordmann (“The mundane alternative to a demiurgical conceit”) argues for caution in claiming that the social control of technology is possible. There is a real dilemma, here, leading Nordmann to suggest instead that “muddling through” using available (and incomplete) knowledge in good faith is perhaps the best that can be done in addressing issues arising from technology.
  • A third commentary (“Cataloguing the barriers facing RRI in innovation pathways”) was penned by Jennifer Kuzma and Pat Roberts. They suggest we underplay the real barriers to responsible research in innovation (RRI). Kuzma and Roberts argue for a lowering of expectations by RRI scholars and an increase in attention to biases among innovators and to organizational and political limitations.

Well, we seem to have generated debate — which is much welcomed, even if critical. (In fact, that is even more appreciated!)

We are currently working on our response to these commentaries. We hope to have that available later in 2019. But if you are interested in responsible research and innovation and relationships between technology and society, take a look at this collection!

PS. If you have difficulty accessing these papers, try here.