Governance, Business

Why I’ve ditched the ‘Responsible Innovation’ moniker to form ‘Principles for Sustainable Innovation’

Hilary Sutcliffe

4 Aug 2017

This article was originally published in 2015 when we were known as MATTER and shows the evolution of our thinking on the responsible development of technology and governance.  It has been transferred from our old website though the content has not been materially changed.  These principles are evolving all the time and a more simplified iteration is available on the front page of this website.  The latest iteration is best articulated in a blog I produced for the World Economic Forum in November 2017


6 ways technology can earn our trust


See also our homepage for further iterations as they develop


The Nano Code and beyond…

In 2006, when we were developing the Responsible Nano Code, many stakeholders told us that the principles it advocated could equally be applied to any technology.  Why did we single out nano alone they asked?  At that time, particularly as businesses were central to that argument, I was new to nanotech, and nanotech was fairly new to the world, I thought it might be a bit of a cop out – companies trying to divert attention from their use of nanotech and make a Code which was too generic and top line.


8 years later, sheepishly, I have to agree they were right.  Our own work with Synthetic Biology, Food Irradiation, Industrial Biotech, 3d Printing and Nano, has shown that indeed the principles which underpinned the Nano Code are central to the development and application of any innovation – technological or otherwise. This was underpinned by the lessons from the financial crisis, ongoing debates about GM, Organics and Fracking, the impact of ICT and the future challenges being posed by Artificial Intelligence, Genetics and Robotics.


Of course, each area will have its own special issues, safety protocols, social, environmental or ethical debates surrounding it, but the overarching principles seem to be the same.


The arrival of Responsible Innovation

Our report on Responsible Research Innovation for the EC

Then the term  Responsible Research and Innovation was coined and we were asked by the European Commission in 2010 to write a 'lay' guide to the term for non-academics (see link or report opposite).   It is currently very much focused on the research agenda of the European Commission’s Horizon2020 research programme, though some member states, like the UK,  Netherlands and Germany are leading the way in the development of consultation initiatives or frameworks for Responsible Research and Innovation for their own publicly funded research.


But there is little in these programmes which focus on the innovation end of Responsible Research and Innovation.  Nothing to help business and society come to a common understanding on the direction and delivery of innovation and the expectations on business in terms of how that may be achieved sensitively, effectively and safely.



The Cogitation phase!

Our stakeholder consultation on Responsible Innovation


To further our thinking and engage businesses in this aspect of Responsible Innovation we created a number of initiatives to engage stakeholders and businesses in diverse sectors about, notably our consultation Building Confidence in Innovative Technologies – What stakeholders expect and how businesses can respond.  


This project consulted Investors, NGOs, Retail Buyers and analysed a number of the technology-related public dialogues in Europe over a number of years.  In addition we incorporated thinking from other initiatives - notably our work on Industrial Biotechnology – Trustworthiness Builds Trust, Trust Builds Confidence and Confidence Builds MarketsFood Irradiation and Responsible Innovation and Hilary’s involvement with the UK Synthetic Biology Governance Group and the thinking of many European H2020 Projects, particularly ResAgora, (Hilary chaired the Advisory Board) which seeks to explore the concept of a Responsible Innovation Framework for Europe.  This has been supplemented by widespread reading and writing of many blogs, articles and speeches together with the hugely valuable exchanges of ideas with stakeholders, academics and of course businesses over this period with time generously given by many many people.


So why, with the whole focus being on the term Responsible Innovation, would we advocate Principles for Sustainable Innovation.  What’s that about?


Evolution to Sustainable Innovation

‘Framing’ is a word I’ve learned from the academics – which is basically about the way you look at things.  In the way you crop or change focus on a photograph and see it in lots of different ways, the way you look at business and innovation can also show varying perspectives – looking at the same thing from another angle often makes it look quite different.


As our work progressed we began to see that certain agendas framed the debate about innovation in different ways (my tongue-in-cheek italics!).   The Corporate Responsibility agenda, which seemed framed by the vague notion that ‘business is bad, something must be done!’ , was looking at of responsibility, safety, social good – but innovation wasn’t on their radar.  Technology Assessment focused on the direction of research & science policy because ‘we can’t let the scientists alone decide the direction of innovation!’ and sought to evaluate emerging technologies in advance of their deployment in terms of their value to society and involve different groups in that process.  Responsible Innovation seemed, bluntly, to be framed by all stakeholders from their different angles as ‘OMG, we can’t have another GM!’ and because it had its roots in the Science and Society branch of academia, it was framed, quite narrowly sometimes, around innovation which sought to involve society.  


The Sustainability agenda, which is articulated around the premise of  ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, seemed to do a perfectly good job at describing the potential contribution of innovation to society and the limitations which could be put upon it.  


Sustainability as a term, stimulated by climate change, initially focused on environmental responsibility, but is increasingly considering much wider social, ethical and environmental dimensions, such as the equitable development of society, the responsibility of business, the direction of policy in environmental and human rights, in order to maintain the conditions in which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony.


So we have chosen to use the language of the Sustainability to ‘frame’ our approach to the future of innovation.  This has the added benefit of anchoring the discussion around a positive debate about the benefit of innovation, whereas Responsible Innovation smacks a little of ‘you are naughty, you must do it this way’.    But on the other hand,  we want to make sure that it is not a science-promo initiative about ‘how great innovation is and how it’s going to save us all’.


Is it Canute-like to try to change the language?   Are we pioneering a change in the debate or going down a cul de sac?  `(The good thing about cul de sacs is there is still a way out, but you just have to go back on yourself a bit!)  Time will tell!


So what does it mean in practice?

But whatever we call it, the devil is in the detail.  The legitimacy of the concept; what it could mean in practice; how overarching the principles can be acted upon; how the organisation could be evaluated, should be the subject of much deliberation.


We have developed eight Principles for Sustainable Innovation, (see below) together with 'Examples of Good Practice' to accompany these Principles, which illustrate our current thinking of the types of behaviours organisations adopting the Principles are likely to display.


We keenly hope you will contribute to the further development of these Principles either through comments below or through sending us your views to  


The Principles for Sustainable Innovation in Business

What is Sustainable Innovation?


We believe the term could be used to describe:


1.   The deliberate focus of research and the products of innovation to achieve a social or environmental benefit in addition to a commercial one.


2.   Assessing, and effectively prioritising social, ethical and environmental impacts, risks and opportunities, which may occur now and in the future, alongside the technical and commercial.


3.   Where oversight mechanisms are better able to anticipate and manage both problems and opportunities and which are also able to adapt and respond quickly to changing knowledge and circumstances.


4.   The consistent, ongoing involvement of society, from beginning to end of the innovation process, including the public & civil society organisations; who are themselves mindful of the public good.


5.   Where openness and transparency are an integral component of the research and innovation process.


How can this be achieved in business? 

These eight Principles for Sustainable Innovation are designed for adoption by organisations in a variety of sectors and it is therefore likely that some may have more relevance in some areas than others at different milestones in the innovation process.



More detail on the underpinning behaviours is available in this document and an 'evaluation framework' has also been initiated to allow organisations to understand where they stand in relation to these Principles.


If you would like to be kept in touch with the consultation of these Principles and their development, please email us on hilary@societyinside.come