I recently attended a workshop jointly funded by the British Council and FAPESP (São Poalo Research Foundation) which brought together researchers working in the field of responsible innovation (RI) from Brazil and the UK. The event was organised by Phil Macnaghten and Jack Stilgoe and was hosted by the University of Campinas in, São Poalo, Brazil. As well as enabling and stimulating conversation and collaboration this event also provided an opportunity to consolidate ideas on what RI is and what it could be in the future. RI is a concept which has emerged in recent years to try to encapsulate the efforts by various stakeholders to make innovations more responsive to social, environmental and other problems as well as more acceptable to the public. It is not possible to properly represent the diversity of views and the complexity of the discussions here although there was a focus on national comparisons. Instead I would like to offer some personal reflections on the event through a brief discussion of ideas raised by just a few of the papers.

A number of papers drew on the specifics of the situation in Brazil to highlight some of the often overlooked consequences of innovation. One of these was the conditions and pay of labourers in the amazon working on the production of ethanol and sugar cane. Brian Garvey discussed how innovations in the analysis of the productivity of individual workers and particular sites have enabled increased pressure to work longer hours while wages decline. Marko Monteiro also showed how affective structures impact on policy in the Brazilian context. He demonstrated that in the 1970s Brazil was seen as a “villain of deforestation.”

The social and psychological impact of rapid economic growth in Brazil was charted by Leonardo Mello. He demonstrated that the expansion of industry and consumption has created social and political strain. Mello asked whether RI can remedy some of the market-based innovations implicated in these changes. Another paper by suggested some remedies by incorporating social welfare maximisation into science policy through new tools of policy analysis.

As well as interrogations of particular approaches to RI the workshop also focused on broader questions such as “Does the focus on “innovation” negatively impact on our ability to be responsible?” and “Might the more responsible option sometimes be to not innovate?” In response to this question, Sarah Hartley suggested that in some cases the term “responsible governance” may be preferable.

The affective impact and context of innovation was explored by speakers like Chris Groves, who demonstrated that the design and character of particular technologies suggests particular affective and social structures which guide technology development. My talk“Unstructured Care for the Future” drew on some similar ideas in an attempt to conceptualise the factors which constrain and enable the building of responsibility into innovative technologies. I focused on the institutional and structural pressures on early career researchers and how their positions had particular impacts on their ability to be responsible. Janaina Pamplona Da Costa’s work had a similar focus to mine on the actors involved in innovation activities. However, her distinctive work also mapped the connections between actors in the networks of agents involved in innovation. Similarly, Andre Campos highlighted the often difficult position which early career researchers find themselves in within a precarious labour market a situation which is accentuated by the focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in many universities.

The potential of future generations of scientists and how their potential to be responsible innovators can be cultivated was discussed by Margarita Staykova. She demonstrated some of the challenges and opportunities faced by a new   based at Durham University, University of Leeds and The University of Edinburgh, which is seeking to embed RI into the training of soft matter scientists. Another initiative with a similar focus on putting RI principles into practice was presented by Sara Wilford who discussed an initiative (composed of three projects “RESPONSIBILITY”, “GREAT” and “IDEGOV”) based at DeMontford University aimed at providing guidance on RI and forming a network of stakeholders and an observatory of materials to stimulate RI.

This is a partial representation of an array of fascinating papers and discussions and there are many more equally important contributions which I have not been able to touch upon. Concrete outputs from the event are forthcoming and some promising collaborations were formed which look to develop important further work. I will update this post with details of these when they are available.

A shorter version of this post was previously posted on the Centre for Health, Technologies and Social Practice blog.