A new approach to seeking out and responding positively to early warnings on technological innovations is needed, argues Hilary Sutcliffe, who warns we need to welcome them and be prepared to act if necessary.
A must read for anyone involved in innovation is the latest volume of the European Environment Agency’s ‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings – science precaution and innovation‘. A depressing read, it (and its 2002 predecessor) catalogues the lessons to be learned from a range of disasters – from asbestos to bee decline, Chernobyl and Fukushima to the potential harms of nanotechnologies. It wholeheartedly supports the correct application of the precautionary principle and provides a series of salutary and very sensible lessons for policy makers and businesses.
But is the precautionary principle an adequate approach given the scale of the disasters with which the reports deal? MATTER is looking to develop thinking in this area as part of our new programme ‘Welcome Warnings’, which aims to stimulate novel approaches to early warnings of disaster, not because we think that precaution in innovation is not worth fighting for – it certainly is – but because it will always be inadequate.
There are three very good reasons why we need to take a fresh look at how we approach early warnings, particularly as regards emerging technologies, and consider a much more positive, proactive approach – to ‘welcome’ them, not deny their existence as the Late Lessons report shows happens only too often.
Firstly, innovations are getting ever more complicated and incomprehensible. One of the problems with the financial crisis, for example, is that only a very few people actually understood the financial instruments at the root of crisis. Understanding the many facets of nanotechnologies, genetic modification, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and the many other technologies in the dazzling array of contemporary innovations is way beyond most individuals.
To add to the complexity, many of tomorrow’s risks may occur because of the deliberate or accidental interaction of different technologies, chemicals, materials and so on with each other and with the environment. This adds uncertainty to an already opaque future that current regulation is finding it very tricky to anticipate and deal with.
Secondly, technologies are often out there and in use before those tasked with developing regulation can adequately understand what they are, what they can do and how they might change and disrupt the organisation of the world.
Good regulation, rightly, takes time to develop, still more so when consultation with stakeholders is an important component. Independent risk assessment also lags behind usage. It has to. Sometimes we don’t have the tools, the scientific expertise or the money to do the right sort of risk assessment at the right time.
For example the ongoing work on the measurement and characterisation of nanoparticles, their hazard and risk profile has taken decades and much of it is still unresolved, despite thousands of products enhanced by these materials out there and in use, probably very safely. It is often difficult to assess the risks associated with innovations, particularly when companies own the knowledge and the patents and are reluctant to share their thinking even with regulators in fear of it being copied or misused.
Moreover, as the Late Lessons report shows, companies may ‘manufacture uncertainty’ to delay action and generate doubt about scientific evidence which is not in their favour, but ‘real’ uncertainty also exists. For example: how will 3D printing play out? What will be the impact of synthetic biology? How will robotics change our lives? These are genuine uncertainties which we can’t know in advance through chucking money or expertise at them.
Finally, there are conflicting values. Which comes first? Financial stability or the environment? Jobs and votes or public health? We probably feel we can see which way most governments will swing on this one, but it is at the root of many of the choices and priorities made about the technology choices and governance.
Whether we like it or not, profitability trumps most things in business and the desire for a healthy economy trumps most things in government. Innovation is the key to success for governments and business and both are concerned that if they are too risk averse they will fail to innovate and investment will go elsewhere. Many feel that nanotechnologies, for example, are a victim of over-precaution, with companies losing out to other economies which look at technology entirely differently.
At the same time, being gung ho about innovation is recognized as a perilous disposition. Neither of these fears fully determine governance, so balancing precaution and innovation is a difficult business that often results in unpopular trade-offs in terms of regulatory focus, funding of health, safety and environmental research, and monitoring of potential social or environmental problems.
Early warnings often come from unexpected places and unexpected people. One of my more popular blogs is about ‘How do you tell a nutter from an early warning’? It asks ‘when are nutters just nutters?’, and when are they prescient of important shifts which we need to know about, and act on, or have important knowledge we have overlooked? How do we tell? Is it realistic to expect companies and governments to change their behaviour in response to people whose opinion they don’t value? But they might have to. How is that going to work?
The key will be to focus on early warnings. The trouble is, very often these are ignored until they are not early at all. They are in fact old warnings, and when they are acted on so late they result in huge costs for human health, the environment and – though perhaps not as often as some would like – company prosperity.
We believe that a new approach to seeking out and responding positively to early warnings is needed – to welcome them, not brush them under the carpet, ignore them or subvert the process of acting on them in the many ways that Late Lessons shows us still happens.
- Hilary Sutcliffe will be leading a practitioner seminar about welcoming early warnings on Monday 24th February, 5-6pm, room 10.05, 10th floor, Manchester Business School Harold Hankins Building.