• David Guston, from Arizona to the Lombardy Regional Forum for innovation: “Only involving publics will innovation be just”

A leading expert in Responsible Research and Innovation, one of the ten forum members nominated by Regione Lombardia describes goals and challenges for the governance of new technologies

Professor Guston, where have your main fields of research activity been in recent years?

“From 2005-2016, I directed the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU – a large research center funded by the US National Science Foundation dedicated to studying the societal aspects of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. In that role, I helped articulate a vision and methods for approaching what the US calls the “responsible development” of emerging technologies, namely, the vision of anticipatory governance, which focuses on building capacities for foresight, public engagement, and cross-disciplinary integration in order to develop the ability to act in the present while keeping in mind plausible futures. Most of my work as director has been managing the research, but I have engaged in conceptual development around anticipatory governance, including original historical research on the case of atomic energy involving such figures as Frederick Soddy, HG Wells, Michael Polanyi and Leo Szilard. Since 2012, I have also been involved in leading ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, which has involved a host of interdisciplinary collaborations focused on the relationship between scientific creativity and responsibility. A central activity has been editing, with ASU colleagues Ed Finn and Jason Robert, a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published by MIT Press and aimed at an audience of younger scientists and engineers. I am also co-investigator with Ed Finn and others on a large grant from the National Science Foundation to create a transmedia environment, including an alternate reality game, around Frankenstein to explore science-in-society learning by publics”.

You are one of the most prominent researchers in Responsible Research and Innovation: is this the direction that Innovation will follow in the future? Which Countries today demonstrate the most belief in the importance of RRI?

“Prediction is not my business, so I won’t say what direction innovation will follow, but I certainly hope that responsibility in its various forms is central to innovation across sectors. RRI has really yet to get a great hold across even any one nation’s R&D enterprise. It might be most developed in the Netherlands, and there are important elements of it in the UK, in Germany, in Italy of course, and elsewhere, and at the European level. In the US there seems to have been some modest retreat in the explicit pursuit of responsible development of nanotechnology and in societal research in other areas like synthetic biology. But the approach is also alive around geoengineering research. It is also making inroads in multi-national corporations through corporate social responsibility and shared value”.

How relevant is communication with lay citizens regarding the direction of research and the most promising scientific and technological achievements? Do you think the general public should be involved in the decision processes related to such topics?

“Not just relevant but imperative. The American political scientist and science and technology studies scholar Langdon Winner talks about an identity between legislation and technology. He calls it an identity rather than an analogy because both legislation and technology are crafted by a narrow group of people and then create for the rest of us the structures in and through which we pursue what we think is good in the world. We have a democratic impulse – no taxation without representation, as American revolutionaries put it. If we think that we require democratic input in order for legislation to be just, then we should require democratic input for innovation to be just – no innovation without representation, as responsible innovation might have it. But this is just the normative perspective. Publics should be involved in science, technology and innovation because innovation happens out in society and not just in a lab, and people are the ones who eventually make an invention a true innovation. They often have perspectives on use, and even on research and design, that deserve to be taken into account”.

From a USA perspective, how do you view the Italian approach to Innovation?

“I’m very much looking forward to exploring the Italian approach to innovation. It doesn’t get much attention in the US, except perhaps from a small number of scholars of regionally based economic development and innovation”.

The Forum seems to be the first of its kind created by a public regional institution: is there something similar in the USA and do you think this could be an example to be pursued by other public administrations?

“I don’t know of anything similar in the US. It is possible, just as cities and regions in the US are responding directly to the challenges of climate change in the absence of national leadership, that cities and regions may be interested in approaches to responsible research and innovation”.

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