May 27, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Responsible innovation and close encounters of the third kind

Responsible (Research and) Innovation is gradually becoming a cornerstone of ‘making science (and technology)’ in Europe, intended to steer innovation to the ‘right’ impacts in an ethical and democratic way. When reading various chapters in a book on responsible innovation that has just been published by Richard Owen et al., I began to think that responsible innovation may be trying to deal with phenomena of the third kind which are governed by an invisible hand process and that therefore ‘responsibility’ may be quite difficult to achieve. What do I mean by ‘phenomena of the third kind’ and ‘the invisible hand process’? And what would be the consequence for ‘responsible innovation’ if it was a phenomenon of the third kind? I’ll try to answer these questions one by one.

Phenomena of the third kind and the invisible hand

I first came across both concepts when translating into English a book on language change written by an old colleague of mine from the University of Düsseldorf, Rudi Keller, in the early 1990s. In this book, entitled On Langage Change: The invisible hand in language, Keller formulates a new theory of the emergence and change of language which tries to overcome flaws inherent in older conceptions of language change as being either the outcome of ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ processes. That is to say, Keller studies language as a phenomenon of the third kind. Such phenomena are “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”, as the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson said in 1782 (Keller, 1994: 15). Such phenomena are governed by ‘an invisible hand’.

I claim that innovation (the process and some of its products and outcomes) may be, like language change, a ‘phenomenon of the third kind’, governed by ‘an invisible hand process’. Let us now look a bit more closely at these concepts. I will first provide one of mine and Rudi’s favourite examples that illustrates what’s going on, then delve more deeply into the history of sociology where such processes have been discussed since the end of the 17th century.

A traffic jam

“Let us assume [the] cars are travelling at 100km/h at a distance of about 30 metres from each other on a heavily used road (which is, for simplicity’s sake, single-lane). One driver brakes suddenly (for reasons which are irrelevant here), reducing his speed to 90 km/h. We shall call this car or driver ‘a’ and the following ones ‘b’, ‘c’, etc. Seeing a’s brake lights, b will brake too; as b does not know how much a has reduced his speed, b will brake too much rather than too little, so as to leave a safety margin. She will perhaps reduce her speed from 100 to 85 km/h. Driver c has a similar problem: reducing speed to exactly 85 km/h is too risky, as he does not know how hard b is breaking. Trying to be safe, he will break more than necessary, reducing his speed to perhaps 80 km/h. We can figure it out from here: s comes to a standstill along with all the cars that follow.” (Keller, 1994: 64)

Every driver has acted responsibly in this scenario; no one wanted to ‘create’ a traffic jam; but still ‘collectively’, the drivers ‘created’ a highly dangerous situation. This is an example of a phenomenon of the third kind which can be understood using an invisible-hand explanation. Such an explanation explains “social patterns of behavior as unintended consequences of individual actions and interactions“.

History of sociology

Now some readers will already have thought: invisible hand, isn’t that Adam Smith? And indeed that is the case. Adam Smith, like Adam Ferguson a moral philosopher of the Scottish School, applied the invisible hand of the market metaphor in his 1776 work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations to describe self-regulating ‘behaviour’ of the marketplace. That is well known, so I won’t dwell on this too much. I want to go back a bit further though to Mandeville’s fable of the bees and forward a bit to Carl Menger’s thoughts on sociology, economics and politics.

Mandeville’s paradox

Bernard (de) Mandeville was born in 1670 in or near Rotterdam, a descendant of a respected and prosperous family of Huguenots. In 1689 he received his doctorate in philosophy, and two years later in medicine, both at the university of Leiden (Keller, 2012: 32). In about 1696 he travelled to London to learn English. He stayed, married, practiced as a doctor, and in the early years of the 18th century wrote a scandalous satire of English society, which later became The Fable of the Bees (1714) and this fable contained ‘Mandeville’s paradox’.

As Wikipedia tells us: “Mandeville’s paradox is named after Bernard Mandeville, who shows that actions which may be qualified as vicious with regard to individuals have benefits for society as a whole. This is already clear from the subtitle of his most famous work, The Fable of The Bees: ‘Private Vices, Publick Benefits’. He states that “Fraud, Luxury, and Pride must live; Whilst we the Benefits receive.”

We know very well that evil actions can create good outcomes and vice versa. As an example Keller gives “the emergence of the inquisitorial practice of interrogation under torture, a result of the well-meant ban on sentencing people to death on circumstantial evidence alone” (Keller, 1994: 35). We can also think of the use of the world wide web, created for collegial information sharing, now being used for terrorism, for example.

Does this mean that irresponsible actions may lead to responsible outcomes and vice versa? And what does that mean for ‘responsible innovation’?

Carl Menger

As this post is already getting too long, I only want to hint at another historical source that one may want to revisit in the context of discussions of ‘responsible innovation’, namely Carl Menger’s 1883 work Untersuchungen über die Methode der Sozialwissenschaften und der Politischen Oekonomie insbesondere (Problems of Economics and Sociology) (translated into English in 1963). He asks: “How can it be that institutions which serve the common welfare and are extremely significant for its development come into being without a common will directed towards establishing them?” (quoted in Keller, p. 66). His answer is that they are “the unintended result of individual efforts of members of society, i.e., of efforts in pursuit of individual interests. Accordingly… they are… the unintended social results of individually teleological factors”.

Responsible Innovation

Alexei Grinbaum and Christopher Groves have contributed an interesting chapter to the book edited by Richard Owen et al, mentioned at the start of this blog post, entitled “What is ‘responsible’ about responsible innovation?”.  They point out that innovation “emerges from the efforts of a community of individuals working together within a complex set of social relationships” and that what “emerges from innovating is not simply a new set of techniques for doing things, but also ultimately new social practices and even institutions that transform the ways in which human being interact with the world around them”. If that is the case, innovation is a good candidate for being a phenomenon of the third kind.

The problem and paradox faced by scientists, policy makers, scholars of science and technology studies, etc is this: If innovation is a phenomenon of the third kind, what does it mean to responsibly govern it? Is that achievable, and if so, how, and to what extent?

Menger recommended in his work that social institutions of the third kind should be studied “in a specifically sociological way” (Keller, p. 67). I believe that we should also do this for innovation as a social institution and probably also for responsible innovation as well. There is lots to study and explore.

Image: Two little green men in Santa Fe (2009)

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