Not much new under the sun: a brief history of responsible innovation

Danielle Shanley (Maastricht University) casts a rearward glance at “Responsible Innovation”

recombinant DNA

Innovation is everywhere. Companies must constantly innovate to get ahead of the competition; individuals should be ‘innovative’ in order to stand out from the crowd, even nation states talk of innovation as a way of framing their economic policies. Innovation really has become ‘the emblem of modern society and a panacea for resolving many problems’ (Godin, 2015, p. 1). It would also appear that the concept of innovation regularly gets a new makeover. From breakthrough innovation to radical innovation, sustainable innovation to disruptive innovation (not to mention open source innovation, inclusive innovation, frugal innovation – the list goes on), there appears to be a continual need for innovation to be, well – innovated.  Introduced into academic discourse around 2010 ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) was considered another ‘new’ approach to innovation (Owen & Goldberg, 2010). However, many now question if it might have had its heyday, already being surpassed in the cycle of innovation.

Taken up by the European Commission, RRI cuts across the various themes of Horizon 2020 (the huge EU funding programme for research and innovation – nearly 80 billion euros – which has existed since 2014). The academic and EU research policy specialist René Von Schomberg (2013)  provides us with the following definition:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (p. 19).

So RRI typically includes having teams from different backgrounds, with different areas of expertise, who come together to identify research problems and work towards solutions. It also requires the inclusion of social and ethical dimensions throughout the research process (i.e. reflexivity), as well as a clear orientation towards policy goals (i.e. societal relevance). There is often also a requirement for the inclusion of end users (i.e. public engagement), not only at the end of the research, or design, process but throughout the process from conception to completion.

At the centre of the RRI discourse has been its purported newness (Burget, Bardone, & Pedaste, 2017; de Saille, 2015). The opening editorial for the first issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation states: ‘It was not until the dawn of the new millennium that the terms “responsible innovation” (RI), “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) and “responsible development” fully emerged’ (Guston et al., 2014, p. 2). As such, in the literature concerning RRI little attention is generally given to its history. This is surprising given its current dominance across the European research landscape. In contrast to the views of the editors expressed in JRI, what the Google Ngram (below) suggests is that the use of the term ‘responsible innovation’ actually peaked in the mid-1970s. If, as the Ngram suggests, RRI is not quite as new as has been claimed, this begs the question as to what the longer history of RRI might look like.



In my research I am interested in ideas concerning the notion of ‘responsible innovation’ which coalesced around the 1970s. For a long time the 1970s went largely unexplored by scholars interested in the history of science and technology. The growing number of social movements and the sorts of reform they advocated were easy to dismiss as ‘anti-science’. In recent years this has changed significantly as scholars have begun to excavate the ways in which several of these movements shaped contemporary developments in science and technology (Kaiser, 2011; Kaiser & McCray, 2016; Macekura, 2015; Mody, 2016; Moore, 2009; Smith, Fressoli, Abrol, Arond, & Ely, 2016).

In the early 1970s significant changes took place in terms of how processes of innovation and technological change had previously been understood. Rather than a narrow, linear approach which prioritized productivity and efficiency, additional factors like sustainability and job creation were beginning to be taken into account. In addition to shifting priorities, there was also mounting social pressure regarding the potential unforeseen consequences of new technologies which led, for example, to the establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment (TA) in the United States (US) in 1972. Strikingly, the Ngrams for terms like ‘technology assessment’ (TA), ‘technology choice’ and ‘appropriate technology’ (AT) all show a similar growth curve, at a similar period, to that of responsible innovation (see below). These Ngrams hint at a degree of overlap between AT, TA and RI, raising questions regarding the extent to which the opening up of innovation to take into account social needs, as well as the new found forward thinking with regards to potential outcomes, might represent overlapping antecedents of RRI. All of which goes to say that RRI might not be quite so new after all and that turning to its history could provide invaluable lessons for thinking about its future.  Perhaps as RRI is oriented towards the future, to anticipating through scenario building and foresight exercises, its own past has tended to take a back seat. Yet, historical knowledge is a crucial part of any exercise in anticipation so if we want to think about the future of RRI, then we necessarily need to think about its past.


Burget, M., Bardone, E., & Pedaste, M. (2017). Definitions and Conceptual Dimensions of Responsible Research and Innovation: A Literature Review. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(1), 1-19. doi:10.1007/s11948-016-9782-1

de Saille, S. (2015). Innovating Innovation Policy: the Emergence of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 2(2), 152-168. doi:10.1080/23299460.2015.1045280

Godin, B. (2015). Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries. New York: Routledge.

Guston, D. H., Fisher, E., Grunwald, A., Owen, R., Swierstra, T., & van der Burg, S. (2014). Responsible Innovation: Motivations for a New Journal. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 1(1), 1-8. doi:10.1080/23299460.2014.885175

Kaiser, D. (2011). How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Kaiser, D., & McCray, W. P. (2016). Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macekura, S. (2015). Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Deveopment in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mody, C. C. (2016). Responsible Innovation: The 1970s, Today, and the Implications for Equitable Growth. Retrieved from

Moore, K. (2009). Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Owen, R., & Goldberg, N. (2010). Responsible Innovation: a Pilot Study with the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Risk Analysis, 30(11), 1699-1707.

Smith, A., Fressoli, M., Abrol, D., Arond, E., & Ely, A. (2016). Grassroots Innovation Movements. London: Routledge.

von Schomberg, R. (2013). A Vision of Responsible Innovation. In R. Owen, J. Bessant, & M. Heintz (Eds.), Responsible Innovation (pp. 51-74). London: John Wiley.


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