Business and Responsible Innovation

12th April 2012

Hilary Sutcliffe

“Responsible research and innovation means taking collective care for the future, through the stewardship of innovation in the present”

Jack Stilgoe, Responsible Innovation Group, University of Exeter

This definition of responsible innovation is the starting point for the current work being undertaken by the UK Research Councils on Responsible Innovation. What I find particularly interesting is its exploration of the impact of University-based science research and its engagement with society. However this agenda doesn’t seem to have reached the business end of government, or in fact the business end of business!

To open up this debate, we decided to uncover with business stakeholders – so investors, NGOs, retailers and the public - what their expectations of business were in terms of responsible innovation. We focused on the use of innovative technologies like nanotech, synthetic biology, biotech and others. This was funded by seven leading businesses seeking to engage constructively with these stakeholders and better understand their views.

Our results were intriguing.

The general public tend to be trusting of products on the market. But they do want access to quality information to make an informed choice about products where innovative technologies are used. They are also concerned that profit may trump safety and that companies may not have a detailed enough understanding of longer term safety and unwanted social impacts. (Click here for a YouTube Prezi presentation of the companies we spoke to.)

Investors were also concerned about how a lack of information prevents them doing their job properly. Sacha Sadan, director of corporate governance at Legal & General Investment Management explained “We perceive a critical lack of ambition in long term R&D and also a fear of talking about their ground-breaking research from major companies - in terms of opportunity and of risk”. Investors appreciate that they don’t really know the right questions to ask to find out either way, but feel that the focus on incremental improvement is holding companies back in terms of innovation and growth and investment potential.

Of the companies we spoke to, the desire for greater openness dominated the views of the NGOs and retailers. Their core focus? A need to see that companies have thought through the benefits and risks and that they are engaged with diverse groups. Doing so can help them to spot early signs of activity which could have a negative impact on society.

So what can companies do to respond to these expectations? We have some ideas which have been well received. Our follow-on project, called Society Inside®, seeks to to develop with businesses a new approach to openness and stakeholder engagement through company innovation. It looks at the role each dedepartment has to play - be they R&D, operations, HSE, HR, Marketing, Investor Relations, Regulatory Affairs or the Board. We want to work with companies in a variety of sectors to explore good practice, highlight case studies and enable them share to their experiences through an interactive forum.


Hilary Sutcliffe is the Director of MATTER a UK based think tank which promotes responsible innovation.

The event Responsible Innovation - solving more problems than we cause was held on 3 April 2012 at The Big Innovation Centre.