Innovating responsibly in a culture of entrepreneurship

Most entrepreneurs want to make the world a better place — but how can they do this responsibly, amidst the pressures to succeed?

Based on chapter 32 of The International Handbook on Responsible Innovation, “Responsible innovation in a culture of entrepreneurship: a US perspective” Co-authored with Elizabeth Garbee.

the spring of 2013 and for the next two years, I taught a new course on entrepreneurial ethics as a part of the new University of Michigan Master of Entrepreneurship program. The course was unusual on two fronts. First, it explored and developed concepts in a hands-on way that would provide budding entrepreneurs with a practical grounding in socially responsive and sustainable innovation. Second, it was part of a program reflecting a growing trend across the USA of training and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs as key drivers of economic growth and prosperity. Both the program and the course captured a growing awareness of the importance of translating individual creativity and drive into successful enterprises, and the responsibility that comes from this, particularly given the capacity of the emerging technologies that are so often integral to entrepreneurship to enable great good, or cause great harm.

At the start of the class each year, I asked students what they truly wanted to achieve, and which of their personal goals drew them toward becoming entrepreneurs. Predictably, one or two students each year admitted to wanting to make money. Yet the vast majority of class participants had more pressing aims. They wanted to reduce poverty and suffering, help treat disease, increase health and well-being, improve education, and protect and enhance the environment. To these students, becoming an entrepreneur meant, more than anything else, the opportunity to make the world a better place.

Such aspirations are easy to dismiss as the dreams of the young and naive. Yet among entrepreneurs — even those who are well established — there is often a prevailing drive to do good, using whatever ideas, means and opportunities are available to them. This is a perspective that, in principle, should make the entrepreneurial community early adopters of the concepts embedded in responsible innovation. There is, after all, a close alignment of values between the aspiration to do good, and the idea of societal benefit. Yet, while the University of Michigan students understood the importance of building their entrepreneurial futures on a strong ethical foundation, they found it difficult to connect with the then prevalent conceptualizations of responsible innovation. To them, the concepts they were presented with were too academic, too institutionalized and too out of touch with their realities to make sense to them. There was a dissonance between the aims of responsible innovation and its practical application within this community that was both surprising and unsettling.

This disconnect might simply reflect a broader global challenge in translating laudable ideas into the harsh realities of starting up new enterprises, but I suspect it also stems from some of the complexities and unique features of American entrepreneurial culture.

The growth of university-based entrepreneurial programs in the USA such as the program at the University of Michigan, is (in part) a cultural celebration of individual inventiveness and an unequivocal affirmation of the belief that, in the USA, the fulfillment of the American Dream is available to everyone who works hard enough for it. Americans cheer for the underdog because they see in them a reflection of themselves, their neighbors, and anyone who has ever dared to dream big, and pursue that dream with a stubborn persistence. America’s unique flavor of entrepreneurialism has given birth to some of the biggest names in the technology business – Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Anne Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg, among many others – and is attracting tens of thousands of entrepreneur hopefuls to its ranks. It is built on a culture of experimentation and opportunism, of failing fast and failing forward, of taking the latest technology and seeing how far you can run with it. Above all is a belief that, as an entrepreneur, you can make the world a better place, while having the personal ride of your life.

This is a culture of entrepreneurialism that, paradoxically, reflects the ideals of responsible innovation, yet rejects many of the manifestations of these ideals. It does not respond well to top-down governance; it pushes the boundaries of what is considered doable and acceptable, and it is powered by an economics of invention and investment that is often opaque to top-down interventions. This is an influential community from which novel applications of new technologies often emerge, and where the unimaginable begins its journey toward the normal. It is a community that collectively pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and what is not; what is societally of value, and what is not; and what is safe and sustainable, and what is not. It challenges norms and realigns expectations, often with a willful disregard for future consequences as it embraces disruption and change, again leading to disparity between aspirations to do good and a desire to disrupt. This is not a culture that fits neatly into the laudable aspirations of responsible innovation as envisaged by leading thinkers such as von Schomberg, Stilgoe and Owen.


The USA prides itself on a history of individuals creating vast technological empires from small and humble beginnings. Going back to Benjamin Franklin and extending through such luminaries of technological advancement as Nikolai Tesla, Margaret Hamilton and, more recently, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Jeff Bezos, the country has been phenomenally successful in nurturing driven individuals who have both the imagination and the capacity to take novel ideas and transform them into products and businesses that have a profound impact on society. These and many others epitomize the American Dream — a national ethos that embraces prosperity and success through hard work, and instills this narrative in each new generation. It is a culture that encourages resourceful- ness, and emphasizes the importance of self-actuated success.

Within this culture, there is often deep respect for society and the environment. As with the University of Michigan entrepreneurial students, many people become entrepreneurs because they want to have a positive impact on the world and its problems. Yet this is a community that often considers itself to be self-sufficient in how it acts and is governed. While generalities are dangerous, there is a tendency for US entrepreneurs to see regulations as challenges to be overcome (and conversely, regulatory loopholes as opportunities), to believe that community and market-driven innovation is more effective than government-controlled innovation, and to value the freedom to experiment with new ideas, while making mistakes and learning from them.

Silicon Valley is one of the more visible outgrowths of this culture. A combination of community respect for ideas, innovation and business acumen over position and authority, and the growth of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that connects ideas, investment and business opportunities, has led to Silicon Valley becoming a model of transformative entrepreneurialism in the USA. This is where Steve Wozniak dreamed up plans for the first Apple machine at an early meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, a group of self-identified makers and hobbyists who later went on to demonstrate that well-intentioned and motivated amateurs can change the trajectory of an entire nation’s technological development. Wozniak, Jobs, Gates and many other members of the Homebrew Computer Club succeeded in large part because the Silicon Valley culture they were a part of values individual inventiveness and rewards success. It is a culture that simultaneously embraces experimentation and risk-taking, and resents heavy-handed attempts at outside control while fostering collaboration within its borders.

More recently, communities across the country have been attempting to either emulate Silicon Valley, or develop their own local entrepreneurial cultures in response to the Silicon Valley’s success. They often aim to stimulate local economic development and growth, often by creating partnerships with local businesses. Thriving entrepreneurial communities are found on both coasts, in many Western states, and around major research universities. These communities have a number of structural advantages that support their successes, including (but not limited to) one of the most mature venture capital industries in the world, close working relationships between industry and universities, an influx of human capital from all around the world, and consumers who embrace innovative products.

This excitement around entrepreneurship and the opportunities it opens up are driving an increasing emphasis on training the next generation of entrepreneurs within US universities. As well as offering formal courses, programs also use competitions and hands-on experiences to instill a sense of excitement and possibility in students. For example, Babson College’s undergraduate degree program in entrepreneurship, ranked number one in the country by the Princeton Review, offers 55 courses in the topic. Babson graduates have notably gone on to start 118 companies in the past five years, and the University of Houston, the runner-up to Babson College, claims that 100 percent of their entrepreneurship faculty has started, bought or run a successful business. While we might wonder how they go about measuring the relative success of a business, or take issue with the metrics by which these programs are nationally ranked, what we see in these numbers is an emphasis on doers, individuals who take their knowledge and expertise out of the classroom and into the real world, and succeed in building something they consider worthwhile through their own merit and determination.

Yet the nature of entrepreneurialism in the USA is changing shape faster than the metrics often used to measure it, and such analyses need to be treated with some caution. While there is evidence of a growing tension between big business and small startups that is slowing down the impact of entrepreneurship on the economy and on society, the nature of entrepreneurialism and its relevance continues to evolve in response to new opportunities. At the personal and community level in the USA, there remains an empowering sense that anyone can be successful in the field of technology innovation if they put their mind to it. This is being instilled in the next generation of scientists, technologies and engineers through university programs. Increasingly, it is also spilling over to non-technical communities, where transdisciplinary student teams are encouraged to use their combined creativity and skills to create new products. Outside formal educational establishments, boundary organizations and communities such as the maker movement and do-it-yourself community laboratories are further adding to a culture of democratic technology innovation — spreading the word that anyone who puts their mind to it can be an inventor and an entrepreneur, and potentially make an impact on the world.


Similar entrepreneurial cultures to that which exists in the USA are found elsewhere around the world. Yet when the USA is contrasted against Europe in particular, there are marked differences in both entrepreneurial culture and relative success. This becomes relevant when it is considered that many of the concepts underlying current formulations of responsible innovation have arisen within a European context, especially given the adoption of responsible research and innovation by the European Commission.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2015 book, Entrepreneurship at a Glance 2015, indicates that startup rates are increasing in the UK and Australia, in addition to Denmark, Sweden and Portugal. Yet the size of these startups is significantly smaller than those in the USA (with two or three individuals on average, compared with seven for US startups). In several European countries (Greece, Spain and Portugal in particular) the OECD indicates that perceived entrepreneurial capabilities were significantly higher than the corresponding opportunities. This suggests that, while there is great interest in becoming an entrepreneur, relatively few have the resources or opportunities to do so. Not only are these opportunities few in number, but European entrepreneurs are often pessimistic about their prospects. A recent study by Ernst and Young showed that, in 2011, Italian, French and German entrepreneurs were much less confident about their culture supporting startups than those in America, Canada or Brazil. When respondents were asked which cities were most likely to create the next Microsoft or Google, they indicated Shanghai, Mumbai and San Francisco. In prepared remarks from 2011, Konrad Hilbers, the former chief executive of Napster, asked ‘Why was Google not made in Germany?’ The lack of a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture was part of his answer.

European political and social culture also has a tendency to emphasize community decision-making for the social good that is orchestrated through top-down governance. Early European formulations of responsible innovation echoed these tendencies, and responded – in part at least – to their nature and their needs. Owen and colleagues, for instance, identified in 2012 the three key features of responsible innovation as democratizing the governance of intent, institutionalizing responsiveness, and a reframing of responsibility itself to reflect risks and uncertain consequences of collaborative activities. These priori- ties, according to the authors, ‘place a premium on inclusive participation that allows the setting of research and innovation goals, defined in terms of the “right impacts,” which are themselves anchored in societal values’. The authors articulate the definition of right impacts as that which is codified in the European Constitution. They stress that the determination of right impacts is a necessarily and inherently political discussion that involves the negotiation of power, democracy and values. This can be understood as a loose universal truth. Yet its realization in the US context is different from that observed in Europe. In the USA, considerable autonomy of state and local government, a robust belief in the power of a market economy and a constitution that codifies the unalienable right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ combine to create an environment where right impacts are often contested, and may exhibit considerable local and socio-political variance.

In the USA, the idea of government laying down the law on how and how not to innovate – and more explicitly, who can invent what, and what they can and cannot do with their inventions – is close to anathema to the freedom to experiment and succeed that is embedded in American entrepreneurialism. The very thought of government bureaucrats wrapping up creativity and invention in red tape is likely to sow the seeds of dissent through the ranks of US entrepreneurs, as an infringement of their inalienable right to innovate. It goes against the grain of a culture that celebrates social and economic progress through personal creativity and hard work. It also reflects that a social ideology that supports societal growth through government intervention, rather than community action, sits uncomfortably in the USA.

Yet under this seeming irreconcilable clash of ideologies, there are many points of commonality. The concepts that underpin responsible innovation (and responsible research and innovation) arise from the need to ensure that innovation leads to societally beneficial progress and avoids potentially harmful outcomes. They recognize the increasing power of innovation in today’s complex, closely coupled global systems to lead to instability, and potentially to catastrophic failure. They also respond to continuing inequities between communities who are lacking even the most basic expectations of health, well-being and dignity, and those who are privileged – inequities that technology innovation is in many cases increasing.

Many US entrepreneurs would claim that they have similar concerns. Going back to the University of Michigan entrepreneurial ethics class, entrepreneurs more often than not set out to solve problems – to reduce inequities, to increase quality of life, and to protect health and the environment. In effect, the core ideals of responsible innovation are embedded in the aspirations of entrepreneurial culture. Yet, while US entrepreneurialism has at its core the seeds of responsible innovation, these are not yet integrated within the culture to the extent necessary for them to be fully effective.


United States entrepreneurialism is built on the assumption that the market is the ultimate arbiter of what society needs and wants. It is a model that makes economic sense, to the extent that people will invest in what they value and ignore what they do not; leading to the survival of the products and processes that most clearly and effectively benefit people’s lives. It is a model that has some merit in a loosely coupled system, where short-term, tangible gains are important. However, it is also a model that, if unchecked, can lead to great societal harm. We only need to read analyses such as the annual World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report to understand how innovation across all sectors of society modulates the risk landscape, and leads to the emergence of novel and potentially catastrophic challenges. At the heart of the 2015 WEF’s Global Risks Report in particular is the vulnerability that comes from increasing complexity and uncertainty over cause and effect, in a world where global communication is coupling actions ever more tightly to consequences. Within this emerging global landscape, entrepreneurs have the potential to initiate chains of events that have profound impacts on society — a trend that is already apparent in the information technology sector. Within this landscape, there are three dimensions in particular that create vulnerabilities where principles of responsibility are not effectively incorporated and acted on in the culture of entrepreneurship: tight coupling, latency, and value mismatches.

Tight coupling

The degree to which actions lead to unforeseen and potentially catastrophic risks in tightly coupled systems has been widely explored — for instance by Charles Perrow in Normal Accidents, and in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. There is a complex relationship between society and entrepreneurialism, where each impacts the other at the local and global level. In a loosely coupled system, changes that have a significant impact within specific communities and constituencies will tend to be damped down as they propagate to adjacent communities, thus allowing for a degree of assimilation of new capabilities and ironing out of any kinks. However, in a tightly coupled system, damping is reduced, leading to the possibility of rapid propagation of innovation across socially, culturally and geographically diverse constituencies, and the equally rapid emergence of unexpected consequences, which in turn propagate rapidly across constituencies.

Three hundred years ago, societal, cultural and geographic couplings were relatively loose. Innovations in one country or one community took time to travel, and as they did, they evolved to match different conditions, needs and expectations. The Industrial Revolution saw a tightening of these couplings, which tightened still further throughout the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have the tightest coupling between innovation and global society in human history. Global commerce and communication have eroded the relevance of geographical boundaries, while the Internet has both vastly increased the speed with which information and ideas spread round the world and amplified the distributed power of social groups. The situation is analogous to a muffled bell. Three hundred years ago, the bell of innovation was muted to the extent that you had to strain to hear it from any distance; 50 years ago, the less muffled tones of the same bell resonated quietly but surely round the world; but currently, the muffle is off, and the slightest clang of the hammer against the bell of innovation reverberates loudly round the globe at the speed of light.

This close cultural, social and economic coupling amplifies massively the potential benefits of entrepreneurialism. However, it also increases the chances of rapid, and potentially catastrophic, failure as the seeds of unintended consequences propagate faster than any solutions to avoid their impacts.


The second dimension, latency, is connected with this rapidly shifting landscape of consequences. While it can be argued that it still takes many years for new inventions to become established, the rate at which innovations are emerging is increasing rapidly. Yet the consequences of these innovations are not necessarily revealed over a similar timescale. As a result, whereas 300 years ago, the consequences of a transformative innovation may have become apparent before the next wave of innovation, we now live in a world where the impacts of long-previous innovations are just now becoming clear. This latency between cause and effect is a destabilizing influence where the innovation cycle becomes significantly shorter than the latency period. Where the rate at which new innovations emerge is substantially shorter than the rate at which adverse impacts become manifest, the likelihood of later innovations amplifying the impacts of previous innovations increases.

Value mismatch

The third dimension concerns a mismatch between drivers of innovation and societal need: the value mismatch. Without a market, innovation cannot survive, and while this market is most often quantified using economic gain, underlying this fiscal value is often societal value – health, quality of life, food, heat, shelter, meaning, and other non-monetary conceptualizations of value. In a sustainable innovation and entrepreneurial-based society, the value that is driving innovation would match societal value, leading to a net gain in societal well-being. However, we do not yet live in such a world, and value mismatches are commonplace. There remain, for instance, stark disparities around the world between the rich and the poor; between the healthy and those without access to healthcare and resources; between the over-fed and the hungry; between those with power and those who are subject to power. Relying solely on the market of value leads to entrepreneurs respond- ing to expedient value, while ignoring value growth in areas that are not seen as profitable for the innovator. As a result, there is a tendency for the entrepreneurship community to, in some cases, increase inequity and injustice, simply because the value of expediency is not the value of net societal benefit.

Together, these three factors – tight coupling, latency and value mismatch – undermine intentions within entrepreneurial culture to do good. Without codified approaches to responsibility and innovation, the good intentions of entrepreneurs will in many cases remain good intentions, and no more. This is especially the case within the US culture of entrepreneurialism, where so much power and responsibility are placed on the individual.


Given the potential dangers of unconstrained entrepreneurialism, there is a need for effective, workable approaches to responsible innovation within the entrepreneurial community. Workability is a critical factor here, given the nature of the community involved. While top-down governance may be effective in creating crude boundaries within which responsible innovation occurs, successful implementation of responsible innovation within the US entrepreneurial community will ultimately depend on the underlying principles becoming deeply ingrained within the very fabric of the community. Achieving this is a daunting challenge. Yet there are examples that suggest that community-driven changes in behavior are possible.

Codes of conduct are one example of a community-driven approach to establishing agreed-upon attitudes and behaviors. Ironically, given our specific focus in this chapter on US entrepreneurship, one of the more prominent examples of a technology innovation code of conduct comes from Europe. In 2008, a collaboration between the Nano Business Alliance and the Royal Society, Insight Investment, and the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network, led to the emergence of the ‘Responsible nano code’.

This Code is designed to codify expectations of responsible behavior within small and medium nanotechnology enterprises, both to encourage the development of safe and responsible products and practices, and to build stakeholder trust. It is built around seven core principles that address: accountability; stakeholder involvement; worker health and safety; public health safety and environmental risks; wider social, environmental, health and ethical implications and impacts; engaging with business partners; and transparency and disclosure. Each principle is accompanied by examples of good practice that help establish how different organizations can apply them.

The Responsible Nano Code reflects a community-recognized responsibility to an emerging challenge, in this case nanotechnology. While fraught with challenges from a governance and account- ability perspective, it nevertheless represents an approach that makes sense to businesses — small businesses in particular — when used in conjunction with more formal governance mechanisms, as it provides a common understanding of what constitutes acceptable behavior. It also lowers the level at which action early in a product’s lifetime reduces the chances of liability from unexpected harm later on; thus increasing the likelihood of sustained economic success. Perhaps less tangibly, it also legitimizes and codifies values held by product developers and producers that otherwise might become submerged in a highly competitive economic environment.

The Responsible Nano Code is one example of research and business communities taking collective responsibility for their actions. Another is seen in the early development of expectations and restrictions around recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) research. In 1975, experts in recombinant DNA research came together at Asilomar to review scientific progress in the field, and to develop community-driven approaches to deal with the potential risks. This has long been hailed as a landmark step in community responsibility and governance around an emerging technology, and is frequently cited as new science and technological threats emerge.

A similar, but more diffuse and harder to pin down, movement toward bottom-up responsibility is observed in the growing DIY-biology community, which lies on the fuzzy boundary between amateur and professional technology innovation. Here, the applicability of formal regulations is often unclear, as are the ties between responsibility and accountability. Nevertheless, community practices and expectations are emerging which reflect intentions to do good and avoid harm. Both in this context and in the broader US entrepreneurial community (and most likely across global entrepreneurial communities) there is an ethos of responsibility.

This does not mean that this ethos alone is sufficient to drive responsible innovation. With the emergence of powerful gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, there have been growing discussions around the need for experts to regulate their own communities. This reflects the perceived success of the 1975 Asilomar meeting, and an assumption that responsible innovation is the responsibility of innovators. Yet as Dan Sarewitz points out in the context of gene editing, ‘(t)he idea that the risks, benefits and ethical challenges of these emerging technologies are something to be decided by experts is wrong-headed, futile and self-defeating. It misunderstands the role of science in public discussions about technological risk’.

The challenge that emerges is that of a fiercely independent community that under- stands the value of responsible innovation, but has yet to adopt responsible approaches to innovation that are societally relevant, and culturally acceptable.

In the University of Michigan entrepreneurial ethics course, a framework of practical and practicable responsibility and responsiveness was developed around the idea of value creation. The premise was that entrepreneurs set out to create value – or what may be termed worth – and are driven to create worth that aligns with their personal values; yet they can only succeed in this through creating mutual worth in partnership with key stakeholders and constituencies. Such partnerships depend on a deep understanding of what is considered to be of worth within society, and how to nurture and protect this worth – whether it relates to health, wealth, well-being, environmental sustainability, happiness, equity or other types of value.

This is a concept that makes sense from an entrepreneurial perspective as it emphasizes the aims of the entrepreneur, while helping chart a practical way forward toward aligning them with the enterprise and with stakeholders. From the perspective of responsible innovation, it is a concept that emphasizes the need to think through cause and effect within a societal and environmental context, and how these lead to worth being enhanced or diminished. This framing is critical to an entrepreneur who is striving for short-term success, but also has an eye to long-term sustainability. It is a framework that emphasizes awareness of societal dynamics and responsibility from the beginning, and as an integral component of product development and marketing.

The values embedded in such a framework of mutual worth-creation reflect closely those associated with responsible innovation. They consider, for instance, the societal benefits and risks associated with innovation, and they actively look to promote the former while reducing the latter. The drivers motivating entrepreneurs are complex – personal gain and satisfaction, economic success and market transformation, to name just a few – and they do not necessarily align precisely with what is considered to be of societal worth. Yet while the motivations may be business orientated, this is a framework within which responsibility in innovation has traction.

There is close alignment, for instance, between the principles of responsible innovation – an orientation towards right impacts, responsiveness and the framing of what responsibility means in situations with risky or uncertain outcomes – and this value-orientated framework of purposely aligning innovation with articulated personal and societal worth. The challenge is leveraging this alignment into a form of responsible innovation that makes practical sense to entrepreneurs.

This motivation to develop an alignment between a worth-based approach to entrepreneurship and responsible innovation is potentially strong. In today’s tightly coupled world, not thinking through short and long-term consequences of actions from a societal as well as a technological and economic perspective jeopardizes entrepreneurial ventures. Where stakeholder trust is increasingly important, losing that trust can be the death knell of an enterprise. Also, a great deal of this trust is based on how responsible and responsive an enterprise is. However, even where responsible innovation may make sense intellectually, entrepreneurs are often constrained when it comes to making decisions that could make or break an enterprise. Part of the challenge is that to an entrepreneur, their idea of responsibility will often be broader and more tangible than its conceptualization in academic formulations of responsible innovation, including responsibility to family, responsibility to employees, responsibility to local communities and economies, responsibility to investors, and responsibility to partners and founders.

This responsibility space is a crowded space, and an entrepreneur with limited band- width has to make tough decisions on a daily basis. Many entrepreneurs would even argue that going out of business unnecessarily is irresponsible behavior, and they have a fundamental responsibility to succeed. In an environment where enterprises can fail at lightning speed, fast and tough decisions need to be made, and it’s easy for entrepreneurs to justify placing societal responsibility to one side with the aim of staying in business. Yet, in today’s increasingly tightly coupled world, innovation without responsibility presents an increasing risk to current and future generations. There needs to be a way of instilling responsibility into innovation that empowers the entrepreneur and serves society, without creating short-term risks to worth creation that make it non-viable.


In 2013, Stilgoe and colleagues identified four dimensions of responsible innovation: anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and responsiveness. While previously these have been approached from the perspective of top-down governance and socio-political systems, they nevertheless have substantial relevance to community-driven cultures of entrepreneurship. Returning to the idea of creating mutual worth through stakeholder partnerships, each of these dimensions provides a partial lens through which novel pathways to success can be envisaged. Through anticipation, entrepreneurs can begin to map out routes through the complex social, technological, fiscal, regulatory and environmental landscape they will need to traverse to be successful. Reflexivity helps build feedback loops that build resilience against unexpected barriers and pitfalls within this landscape. Inclusion builds relationships and partnerships with stakeholders and other constituents who have influence over the trajectory of a new enterprise. Also, responsiveness ensures an agility to respond to a constantly shifting landscape of challenges and opportunities.

None of these dimensions are foreign to entrepreneurs. A mindset of customer discovery (finding out what people want), pivoting (adapting to changing opportunities or challenges), and failing fast and forward (being agile enough to recognize and learn from mistakes) encapsulates many of these aspirations. In their native form, they do not necessarily lead to responsible innovation, merely to successful innovation. Yet they hold the seed for the entrepreneurial community to pivot toward a culture that is both successful and responsible. The question remains though, how to nurture and grow this seed into maturity.

There are existing examples of cultural and ultimately institutional structures develop- ing from the bottom up within entrepreneurial communities that are dictated by shared values, and these are instructive in thinking about possible approaches to nurture a culture of responsible innovation. One of these set of examples is found in open source and free software communities.

Open source and free software communities have formed organically over time, and have naturally self-organized around explicitly articulated values; primarily free speech and liberty. According to Gabriella Coleman, writing in her book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, free and open source developers ‘have built institutions and sustain(ed) norms through which they internalize these liberal ideals as meaningful, all the while clearly upholding a marked commitment to unalienated labor’. In some cases, this has led to living governing documents that support successful collaborations and outputs.

An example of this within the free software community is the Debian Project, founded in 1993. Debian is a distribution of Linux, the free and open software alternative to closed and proprietary computer operating systems. When it began, Debian was the only version of Linux that provided a way for every user and developer to contribute their work to the collection of programs and processes that they, as Debian users, interacted with every day. Debian remains the most significant distributor of Linux that is not a commercial entity. More importantly, from the perspective of culturally embedded responsible innovation, it is the only Linux distribution with a constitution, a social contract, and policy documents that collectively organize the members of the project. None of these documents were regulated or mandated by outside policies or organizations. Instead, the members of the Debian community took responsibility upon themselves to manage their activities in this way, and democratically created a structure deeply embedded with their shared values of transparency, open access, creating robust and dependable code, and contributing positively to the broader Linux community.

The user experience is critical to the development of software, both free and proprietary. Code is useless unless someone can actually use it, and find the experience rewarding or fulfilling a specific need. Early on, the Debian community realized that not only did they have a responsibility to each other to operate in line with their agreed upon governing structure; they also have a responsibility to their current and future users to create a quality product that upholds their community values. As a consequence, the design of their software and the user experience is geared toward users becoming integral to the evaluation and evolution of the platform.

Debian, and the community of developers and users it represents, reflects an entrepreneurial culture that has elements of responsible innovation deeply ingrained within it. In principle, it should be possible to build on examples like this, together with the drivers inherent in US entrepreneurial culture, to embed responsible innovation within entrepreneurship. However, for this to happen, there needs to be both the rationale and the opportunities for such a culture to evolve, together with a set of external frameworks and influences that channel this evolution toward societally beneficial ends.

There are two challenges to this. The first is that of worth creation. Entrepreneurs need to be able to understand how responsible innovation within their community will help them create worth, whether fiscal, societal or otherwise. Without rigid regulation, there is little incentive for an entrepreneur to innovate responsibly if it either does not help them get to where they are heading, or it actively impedes them in their goals. The imposition of regulations is equally likely to encourage entrepreneurs to find easier pathways to achieve their goals, or even redefine them – which could be detrimental to society if the redefined goals no longer lead to the growth of substantial societal worth.

While anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion, and responsiveness may seem ill-affordable luxuries to the entrepreneur on the edge of success or failure, there are strong arguments for their use in underpinning future success. As I wrote in 2015, ‘[e]arly disregard of societal concerns and opportunities can lead to new technologies becoming locked into development trajectories that are highly susceptible to failure’. In the current tightly coupled world, uninformed design and development decisions early in a product’s life cycle can lead to later problems that are hard to correct, especially if stakeholders perceive products to be eroding rather than creating or enhancing worth. This perception of worth erosion or creation is deeply embedded in what is considered to be societally important – from protecting health and the environment, to ensuring a just and equitable distribution of quality of life. This, in turn, is echoed in what investors will and will not support. In effect, a highly complex and interconnected risk landscape is emerging that entrepreneurs ignore at their peril, and that increasingly requires innovation in how it is navigated, including the emergence of a culture of entrepreneurialism that incorporates societally responsive and responsible innovation.

Incorporating such responsiveness into enterprises that are often cash and time poor is not easy. This is the second challenge. Irrespective of their willingness to innovate in ways that are responsible with respect to societal good, most entrepreneurs have more immediate responsibilities to investors, employees, family and others. Whether reality or perception, these are often seen as precluding actions that threaten the short-term success of an enterprise. What emerges is another dimension to responsible innovation – a responsibility to those whose investments and livelihoods depend on an enterprise being successful – that potentially sets up tensions with the ideals embedded in top-down concepts of responsible innovation. Investing in extensive toxicology studies to the extent that a company becomes fiscally unviable for instance, could be seen as irresponsible from the perspective of those who depend on the company’s success. Also, societally responsible actions that appear to clash with fiduciary duty potentially open a gap between what is laudable, and what is legal.

This potential clash of responsibilities is a framing that dominates much of the informal discussion around responsibility and entrepreneurship, and is ultimately tied to the question of how entrepreneurs can balance a multitude of aims, obligations and responsibilities, without going broke. This is perhaps one of the most widely used arguments against an imposed understanding of responsible innovation that is deaf to the nature of the community it is imposed on. Yet, there is no reason why culturally embedded responsible innovation cannot succeed, as long as its implementation is appropriate for, and relevant to, the communities that develop and adopt it.

In a 2015 article in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, I highlighted a number of ways in which responsible innovation within entrepreneurial cultures may be practically manifest. These are a small number of examples from an as yet largely unexplored solution space, but include: up-front mapping of future technology trajectories in an evolving social and political environment, tapping into trans-sector and trans-disciplinary networks; leveraging mutually beneficial collaborations, for instance, with academics who are happy to trade insights into responsible and effective development routes for the inside track on emerging technologies; and partnering with social entrepreneurs where possible synergies between worth creation exist. These examples illustrate the potential for incorporating practical responsible innovation into entrepreneurship at relatively little cost. However, they do depend on a culture that values creativity, imagination and innovation in how to innovate responsibly. This raises the question of how to develop a culture that is at best nascent present, and whether it is even possible to direct the evolution and growth of a culture of responsible innovation.

Creativity, imagination, innovation, and responsibility are already values held by many innovators and entrepreneurs, so it stands to reason that one solution could be the creation of an organizational structure that has these shared values embedded within it from the beginning, as opposed to a framework imposed from the top down into which entrepreneurs try to integrate their own values after the fact. As a society, we often attempt to design culture by creating institutions and practices that demand conformity to their expectations. Where there is a disconnect between imposed values and community values, such approaches often fail. However, there are effective approaches to designing institutions and practices where expectations match and reflect the shared values of the communities they serve, and these may provide useful models for building a culture of responsible innovation among entrepreneurs.

The re-imagining of the New American University by Arizona State University (ASU) president, Michael Crow, provides is an intriguing example here. Since becoming President of ASU in 2002, Crow has implemented a program of embedding conscious, value-driven design principles and aspirations into ASU, with the aim of transforming both the institution and the culture it represents. Grounded in eight over-arching design aspirations that reflect shared values among faculty, students, staff and management, a continuous process of growth and transformation at ASU has seen the emergence of a culture that breaks away from academic norms. Importantly from the context of entrepreneurs, the emerging culture at ASU successfully highlights values and worth that are often held by academics, but not often celebrated explicitly by the institutions they work within. This culture actively encourages staff, faculty and students to re-examine the values that drive their work and study, and to innovation on a scale proportionate to the grand challenges faced by a public research university.

While this reinvention of ASU and the culture it represents initially came as a vision from the top of the organization, the design process has involved members from every level in the hierarchy within the university, as well as community members and state legislators. As a result, it has taken on the characteristics of a grass-roots movement and has spread outwards from the university into the society it serves. An academic institution is in many respects a world apart from the more diffuse and less constrained entrepreneurial community, but there are similarities that allows lessons to be drawn from the marked cultural shift that has occurred within ASU, and potentially applied elsewhere. This becomes particularly apparent when the academic community is envisioned as comprising fiercely independent and self-motivated academics who often have a distaste for imposed constraints, and a strong sense of academic entrepreneurialism. What Crow is demonstrating at ASU is that seemingly unchangeable cultures can evolve, if the framework around them is designed in a way that provides a strong alignment of personal, community and institutional values and aspirations. This closely reflects the situation within the US entrepreneurial community (and entrepreneurial communities elsewhere), where personal and community aspirations toward responsible innovation exist, but currently lack the design frameworks that are needed to enable them to grow and flourish.

When talking to entrepreneurs about what ultimately motivates them, it is clear that these aspirations exist. Their very existence suggests there is the potential for developing a culture of entrepreneurship that reflects the dimensions of responsible innovation, but in a way that makes sense to the entrepreneurial community. The challenge is in developing and putting into practice approaches that work: that they are grounded in community activity, and have well-designed organizing frameworks, tools and opportunities that make societal responsibility more attractive and viable, or are innovative collaborations between policy makers, regulators and entrepreneurs. This will require responsive research and pragmatic application, as well as some recalibration of what responsibility and innovation mean within an entrepreneurial context. However, we would argue that, as entrepreneurs continue to translate cutting-edge science and engineering into highly novel technologies within the current tightly coupled world, we cannot afford not to build a culture of responsibility that places a premium on societal good, both in the near term and for future generations.

The International Handbook on Responsible Innovation is edited by René von Schomberg and Jonathan Hankins, and is and published by Edward Elgar Publishing

Written by

Author of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow, and Associate Dean in the ASU College of Global Futures

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