Making choices in the face of uncertainty: Strengthening Innovation Democracy

Andy Stirling of the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex writes:
Innovation is about more than technological invention. It involves change of many kinds: cultural, organisational and behavioural as well as technological. And there are no guarantees that any particular realised innovation will necessarily be positive. Accordingly, innovation is not a one-track race to the future.
Indeed, it is not so much about optimizing a single trajectory, as it is a collaborative process for exploring diverse pathways. So, in order to realise the enormous progressive potential of particular kinds of innovation, what is needed is a more realistic, rational and vibrant ‘innovation democracy’.
Yet conventional innovation policy and regulation tend simply to assume that whatever products or technologies are most energetically advanced, are in some way self-evidently beneficial. Scrutiny tends only to be through narrow forms of quantitative ‘risk assessment’ – often addressing innovation pathways at a time too late for significant change. Attention is directed only in circumscribed ways at the pace of innovation and whether risks are ‘tolerable’. The result is a serious neglect for the crucial issue of the direction of innovation in any given area – and increased vulnerability to various kinds of ‘lock in’.
These patterns show up across all sectors. Beyond GM crops, for example, there exist many other innovations for improving global food sustainability. But the relatively low potential for commercial benefits often leave many promising options seriously neglected. And this ‘closing down’ of innovation is intensified by deliberate exercise of powerful interests at the earliest stages. For instance, official statistics often conceal the extent to which patterns of support are concentrated in favour of particular innovation pathways. And where uncertainties are side-lined, even scientific evidence itself can carry the imprint of vested interests. Yet these effects of power remain unacknowledged in policy making. Policy is stated simply as ‘pro-innovation’ – a self evident technical (rather than political) matter.
To address these challenges, innovation policy should more explicitly and transparently acknowledge the inherently political nature of the interests and motivations driving contending pathways. Here, this paper explores the potential for three emerging bodies of practice, relevant across all areas: participation, responsibility and precaution. Each involves a range of practical methods and new institutions. Precaution in particular is a subject of much misunderstanding and mischief. Among other qualities, this offers a crucial guard against the error of treating the absence of evidence of harm as evidence of absence of harm – and highlights the importance of wider human and environmental values.
Together, qualities of participation, responsibility and precaution extend scrutiny beyond anticipated consequences alone, to also interrogate the driving purposes of innovation. They allow societies to exercise agency not only over the rate and riskiness of innovation, but also over its direction. And they offer means to enable hitherto more distributed and marginal forms of innovation – which presently manage only rarely (like renewable energy or ecological farming) to struggle to major global scale. Together, these qualities celebrate that innovation is not a matter of fear-driven technical imperatives, but of a democratic politics of contending hopes.