Raising the sail of innovation: Philosophical explorations on responsible innovation

Lucien von Schomberg

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The concept of innovation defines our age. It fuels the global economy, promises a sustainable future, and stands at the heart of our interconnected society. On the one hand, the concept of innovation is widely presupposed in terms of the commercial value it generates. As claimed in the tradition of economic analysis, innovation is characterized by its competitive dynamics and primarily directed at developing marketable products and services. On the other hand, the reality of today’s global issues, such as climate change and food security, urges innovation to generate societal value beyond mainstream economic incentive. To this end, the EU policy discourse has paved the way for Responsible Innovation (RI). The core idea here is to steer innovation processes towards societally desirable outcomes, specifically in response to the ‘grand challenges’ of our time. Under the sway of ‘science with and for society’, the hypothesis is that innovation can only respond to the needs and ambitions of society by including all its actors throughout the process.

However, while much effort is dedicated to governing innovation, little thought goes to what innovation itself means conceptually. What understanding of innovation underpins the framework of RI? What implications, if any, does this have for the ambition to achieve RI? These are important questions to raise as they enable critical reflection on the relation between responsibility and innovation, broadly speaking. Does the ‘R’ in RI entail an application of ethical keys to an already existing concept of innovation, or does it require us to rethink the concept of innovation altogether?

After providing a general introduction in chapter 1 on the context of the dissertation and its main research objectives, chapter 2 shows how RI emerged from a longer history of efforts to incorporate ethical dimensions in new and emerging technologies, such as Technology Assessment (TA) and Science and Technology Studies (STS). While similar to its precursors in prioritizing ethical concerns, RI clearly distinguishes itself by shifting from an ethics of constraints to an ethics of construction. The chapter continues to show that such an approach comes with an epistemic challenge (i.e. the outcomes of innovation cannot be known in advance), a political challenge (i.e. people have different values and perspectives when it comes to what innovation should do), and a conceptual challenge (i.e. the economic ideal of innovation inhibits the societal ideal of RI).

Through an extensive analysis of policy documents and academic literature, chapter 3 breaks open the concept of innovation in the RI discourse. Firstly, it demonstrates that the RI discourse tends to presuppose a techno-economic concept of innovation, as coined by the terms ‘technological innovation’ and ‘commercialized innovation’. Secondly, it provides a historical analysis to show that the concept of innovation was originally politically oriented and had little to do with the way in which it is commonly understood today. Thirdly, it discusses the implications of a techno-economic concept of innovation for achieving the ideal of RI and brings into question whether the political origins of innovation may inspire an alternative route.

Chapter 4 engages with the philosophy of technology to assess the feasibility of RI at both an ontic and ontological level. While innovation at the ontic level refers to concrete innovative artefacts, innovation at the ontological level refers to the mode through which these artefacts are seen, understood, and created. At the ontic level, RI is shown to play a significant role in steering emerging technologies towards societally desirable outcomes. Even so, at the ontological level, the question is whether the ideal of RI is feasible insofar its scope is limited to governing a techno-economic concept of innovation. Parallel to Martin Heidegger’s view of technology as Enframing, this chapter denotes that in trying to govern a techno-economic concept of innovation, the RI discourse remains subject to its dominance. This in turn explains why, at the operational level, RI is often employed for mere strategic and instrumental purposes, while falling short on its promoted ambitions.

Chapter 5 articulates an orientation shift from a techno-economic concept of innovation towards a political concept of innovation in the RI discourse. To this end, the chapter distinguishes between weak RI, which seeks to govern a techno-economic concept of innovation through an applied set of ethical dimensions; and strong RI, which seeks to conceive a political concept of innovation beyond techno-economic ideology and practice. Inspired by the work of Hannah Arendt, the chapter establishes a political concept of innovation that actualizes the human capacity for speech and action, inspires radical novelty, and empowers the public sphere. In doing so, the chapter concludes that strong RI (1) is principally a plural undertaking which guards individual opinion from collective opinion; (2) enables a physical (or virtual) and symbolic openness that genuinely activates citizenry; and (3) stimulates performative speech.

The final chapter, chapter 6, briefly recaps the main research objectives and takes stock of the insights gained. It concludes that the contribution of this dissertation does not reside in the concern with the techno-economic ideology of innovation as such – a concern which RI in fact already expressed when it first emerged – but more so in the ontological critique to the idea that this ideology can somehow be overpowered through governance and regulation. The rehabilitation of an ontological dimension in RI in turn provides a new perspective to the philosophy of technology, which over the years has taken a course away from ontological viewpoints. Moreover, the chapter elaborates on how a political concept of innovation adds depth to the foundational claims of RI. Based on these conclusions, the chapter reflects on a range of broader insights, particularly in relation to the philosophy of innovation and the ethics of socially disruptive technologies.

In sum, this dissertation politicizes the RI discourse precisely in the way it was originally envisioned, that is, through conceptualizing innovation as a fundamentally political matter. In this view, politics is not merely an extension of RI but is itself the condition of RI; it is what enables innovation to genuinely serve the public good.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Blok, Vincent, Promotor
  • Gremmen, Bart, Promotor
Award date11 Jan 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464470659
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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