Food for deliberation : philosophical reflections on responsible innovation in the business context

Teunis Brand

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


In our time, innovation is considered an important way to address societal problems. That we expect so much from innovation to solve the challenges of our time, makes the question what could count as ‘responsible innovation’ more pressing. And that is what this thesis is about.

The aim of this thesis is to offer philosophical reflections on responsible innovation in the business context. Since that is still a quite broad topic, the main title suggests its further focus: deliberation and food. The first focus originates from the idea in the academic literature on responsible innovation, that innovators should not just assess by themselves what ‘responsible’ is, but should invite others (experts and lay people) to think along with them about the social and ethical aspects of innovation. Chapter 2 to 4 zoom in on this aspect of responsible innovation. The second focus has to do with the specific context of application, namely food and the food industry. Chapter 4 and 5 relate the topic of responsible innovation to this context.

The question I raise in chapter 2 is whether the ideal of inclusive deliberation is suitable for innovation processes in businesses. I argue that this is not so easy, and provide different reasons why companies might not be willing to involve societal stakeholders into their innovation processes. First, the requirement of deliberation can be tension with the ability of companies to exploit their innovations commercially within a competitive market. Second, deliberation requires a certain degree of transparency about the innovation strategy of a company. Companies might not be willing to provide this transparency, because they fear knowledge leakage to other companies. Third, companies are controlled most often by people with a financial stake. Therefore, we can expect that financial considerations are decisive in the investment decisions of companies. This could conflict with the ideal of responsible innovation to ‘democratize’ innovation processes. Hence, I suggest that scholars should modify the ideal of deliberation in order to make it suitable to the business context, or they should suggest changes in the governance and regulation of markets so as to make deliberation more workable.

Chapter 3 discusses the place of conflict and self-interest in deliberation. It starts with a discussion of the literature on stakeholder dialogue. In this literature, the ideal dialogue is presumed to aim at consensus. This also implies that participants avoid conflict and set self-interested considerations aside. I argue that this ideal of dialogue is problematic, especially for a dialogue between companies and NGOs. I show that companies can never completely set aside their profit-orientation, and hence that this ‘self-interest’ always influences their input in a dialogue. Furthermore, conflict and criticism can be necessary to make clear that societal problems require more attention, whether from the general public or from companies. Since the market is an imperfect institution, we need critical citizens and stakeholders such as NGOs to assess the behavior of companies. A certain degree of conflict between companies and NGOs may therefore be more desirable than a focus on consensus. For these reasons, I develop an alternative approach to dialogue (which I call agonistic deliberation) in which conflict and self-interest have a legitimate place, and can even play a productive role.

In chapter 4, a case-study is conducted to better understand how participants in a dialogue deal with conflicts. In this case-study, I analyzed different dialogues organized by the foundation ‘Ik Kies Bewust’, which issued a front-of-pack health label (known as ‘Het Vinkje’). In my analysis, I investigate the conflict between, on the one hand, the value of public health and healthy food, and, on the other hand, the commercial interests of companies. In the responses of companies to this conflict, three patterns became visible. First, companies frame their critics as not constructive, because, in their view, they only criticize but do not help to improve the label. Second, they stressed that they are really and genuinely motivated to make food healthier or to make a healthy food choice easier. Thereby, they seemingly tried to counter the image that they are just motivated to make profit. Third, they called on the government to take more control over the label, because this would make the label more reliable and more broadly adopted. I qualify these responses as defensive, which means that the conflict between commercial considerations and public interests is suppressed or ignored. An active response would require to recognize and confront the conflicts and dilemmas that companies face. The case-study makes clear how difficult it can be to engage in dialogue with critical stakeholders.

In chapter 5, I reflect on how food innovation can be responsible. In trying to answer this question, I take a certain detour, by starting a discussion about the place of food in a life well-lived. For this purpose, I use the philosophy of Albert Borgmann. On the basis of my analysis of his philosophy, I argue that there are good reasons for engaging with food in active way, for example by growing your own vegetables and home-cooking, instead of consuming food merely passively. I also draw some implications for food innovation. In my view, people responsible for food innovation should critically assess whether new products or services enhance engagement or disengagement. Is it desirable, for example, to develop even more and better pre-packaged meals, or should we stimulate consumers to cook by themselves? I argue that it would be problematic if our overall pattern of dealing with food is characterized by disengagement and convenience, and hence that food innovation should not only go in this direction.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Verweij, Marcel, Promotor
  • Blok, Vincent, Promotor
Award date10 Mar 2020
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463952477
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2020


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