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Conversations on Innovation, Power and Responsibility with Jeff Ubois

My good friend and colleague Jeff Ubois recently edited and released a volume entitled Conversations on Innovation, Power and Responsibility for the Fondazione Giannino Bassetti. Some of my comments on the topic of innovation from a conversation with Jeff are included in the volume which collects a wide range of thoughts about the nature and consequence of technical change.

Table Of Contents


About the Question
Related Concepts
Choosing Subjects: Where Does Responsibility Matter Now?

Genetics And Healthcare
Thomas Murray, The Hastings Center
Ignacio Chapela: Drawing a Boundary Around the Lab
Arthur Caplan: Innovation as Politics
David Magnus & Mildred Cho: True Fictions

Christine Peterson: Nanotechnology and Enhancement
Lawrence Gasman: Nanomarkets

Robotics And Computing
Ronald Arkin: Embedding Values in Machines
Jeff Jonas: Applying the UN declaration of human rights
Marc Smith: Invention, mitigation, accounting and externalities
Mikko Ahonen: Open Innovation … and Radiation Safety

Roberto Verganti: Varieties of Design Innovation
Michael Twidale: IRBs, Design, Empowerment,
Accountability, Sustainability

My comments from the volume are after the fold…

Marc Smith: Invention, Mitigation, Accounting and externalities

If responsibility is about effects, then systems of measurement and observation are key to any understanding of responsible innovation.

Dr. Marc Smith ( is formerly a Senior Research Sociologist leading the Community Technologies Group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington. His group focused on computer-mediated collective action, and studied and designed enhancements for social cyberspaces.  Smith now leads the Connected Action Consulting Group in Silicon Valley. In particular, he is interested in the emergence of social organizations like communities in online conversation and annotation environments. The goal is to identify the resources groups need in order to cooperate productively.

Smith is the co-editor of Communities in Cyberspace, which explores identity, social order and control, community structures, dynamics, and collective action in cyberspace, and has developed software called Netscan that measures and maps social spaces in the Internet, starting with the Usenet. A related effort, Project AURA, allows users to associate conversations (and more) with physical objects using mobile wireless devices and web services.

Responsibility in innovation often comes after the fact. “The history of the technology is seize new power—then mitigate, mitigate, mitigate all the pathologies,” Smith says. “How long was it from the Model T Ford to safety belts?”

Responsibility can be improved through measurement of effects. “May I suggest that your best method for mitigation is documentation of negative externalities?” Smith says. “You can ‘govern’ innovation when the language and the data to document negative consequences are more available, freely available, easily used. Then you have a technology regulation and negative externality problem, and that I think is one that is more tractable.”

Part of that is stakeholder identification. Smith argues that it is easy to identify stakeholders, at least after the fact, because, “They’re at the top of the legal documents that are served to you. That’s how you identify the stakeholders, the ones that actually get the job done, make themselves known, tell you that you’re creating negative externalities for them, and insist that you [provide] remedy.”

But it’s also important to recognize the initial position of most innovators. “Innovation typically comes from the people who are most squeezed out of the sweet solution space,” Smith says. “You don’t innovate unless you have to… Innovation is the behavior, I think, of marginal actors in an ecological landscape.”

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