Design Thinking Approach to Ethical (Responsible) Innovation

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There is growing interest and importance for responsible research and innovation (RRI) among academic scholars and policy makers, especially, in relation to emerging technologies such as nanotechnology. It is also to be noted, although design thinking approach has been around since 1960s, there is renewed interest in this approach to innovation with increasing number of related publications over the last couple of decades. It is also currently introduced in a number of schools and community projects. This paper attempts to show that design thinking approach is potentially conducive to ethical (responsible) innovation due to its emphasis on human centred design. This paper first introduces why we should be concerned about ethical aspects of technological innovation. Then it shows why these problems pose challenges and constraints to address them. Following this section, it discusses about the shortcomings of linear innovation process models and introduces an improved circular innovation process model to embed ethical decision-making taking into consideration both internal and external stakeholders and networks at organizational level. However, many emerging technologies may introduce ethical issues at machine level; for example: autonomous vehicles, drones and next generation robotics. These concerns have been increasingly addressed by the emerging new field of machine ethics. However, it is important to integrate both ethical-decision making at organizational level on innovation process and machine ethics. From this perspective, this paper introduces design thinking approach to innovation and attempts to demonstrate that it is potentially conducive to ethical (responsible) technological innovation. It concludes with potential benefits and challenges with some directions for further research. ‘Technologies can be not only contentious – overthrowing existing ways of doing things – but also morally contentious – forcing deep reflection on personal values and societal norms’ (Cole & Banerjee, 2013; quoted in Nathan, 2014). Technological innovations can have undesirable consequences for society and environment. Just to give some examples: DDT as pesticide; the pharmaceutical thalidomide, prescribed as morning sickness treatment for pregnant women; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants and propellants; etc. (Bessant, 2013; Nathan, 2014). These examples illustrate that organizational level decision-making during innovation process can have impacts on the linkages at macro level towards the market within socio-cultural-political-ecological context (see Hanekamp, 2010; Nathan, 2014). Furthermore, it is plausible to argue that many innovation decision-making processes have been blind to ethical impacts and concerns – ‘innovation ethical blindness’ (Nathan, 2014) and these can have economic impacts as well. For example, the Dutch government had to cancel the EPRS (Electronic Patient Record System) due to unresolved privacy issues after the investment of 300 million Euros over a 15-year period and the initiative to introduce smart electricity meters in every household within the Netherlands was also rejected by the upper house of the Dutch parliament due to privacy concerns after some years of R&D efforts (Van den Hoven, 2013; also Nathan, 2015). From social constructivism perspective, reality is socially constructed and technological innovations shapes this reality; however, this reality raises many ethical concerns and dilemmas (Nathan, 2014). For example, social media raises ethical issues of cyber bullying and infringement on privacy and installation of surveillance cameras in public places introduces ethical dilemma of public safety versus privacy concerns. Technological innovations can be supportive to new constructive possibilities or can be exploitative for destructive purposes by actors within the technological field; for example, 3D printer can be used for reconstructive surgery and to make prototypes for architectural designs; however, 3D printer could also be used to print hand guns. Therefore, it is also important to consider moral contestation through exploitation that can have impacts on other intersecting fields (Cole & Banerjee, 2013; Nathan, 2014). Emerging technologies in many forms can introduce ethical concerns and dilemmas that are predictable as well as most critically less predictable ones (Matter, 2011; Nathan, 2014 & 2015). These emerging technologies such as ICT and nanotechnology can converge into new forms of converging technologies such as nanomedicine and nanopharmacy that may introduce ethical dilemmas and concerns; these may be hard to predict at the early stages of innovation and to resolve them at later stages (Nathan, 2015). These new forms of technologies may raise some fundamental ethical questions such as how we should understand human identity and dignity. The above examples lead us to ask: what are the challenges and constraints in addressing these ethical concerns? Some of the problems may be considered as wicked problems. These are ill-formulated or ill-structured with confusing information along with contradicting or conflicting values among those stakeholders such as decision-makers and customers or end users; moreover, requirements may be changing and dynamic and therefore ramifications can be confusing (Buchannan, 1992). Furthermore, it is also complicated with Collingridge dilemma; as already briefly mentioned, some of the ethical concerns and dilemmas may not be obvious and predictable at the early stages of innovation process and by the time they become clearer, it may be too late to remedy them due to technological lock-in (Collingridge, 1980; Nathan, 2015). Another challenge that one may face is moral overload; even if one identifies those ethical dilemmas it may be difficult to resolve those conflicting moral obligations or values or to implement them at the same time (Van den Hoven, 2013; also Nathan, 2015). So the next question is what sort of innovation process models may be suitable to address the above mentioned challenges and constraints? There are variety of innovation process models such as traditional –stage-gate and funnel phased approach– as well as open innovation model; however, these are all linear innovation process models (Nathan, 2015). These models simplify complex innovation processes in order to emphasize critical innovation elements and stages. A simplified innovation process model consists of critical stages: searching for innovation opportunities, selecting the most suitable or viable ones and then implementing them for capturing the benefits in the market (Tidd and Bessant, 2009 & 2013). However, it is a linear progressive stage model that may not be suitable for wicked problems that require iterations with progressive and regressive processes. Furthermore, these models do not explicitly integrate ethical-decision making at each stage to identify potential ethical concerns and dilemmas among various stakeholders. Most importantly, as it is a linear open ended model, there is no explicit feedback loop to capture any unpredictable ethical concerns as early as possible following the launch of products and services in order to re-evaluate and take back these issues through the innovation process stages to rectify and to re-launch or to terminate those products or services (see Nathan, 2015). However, this simplified model could be modified as a circular innovation process model embedding ethical decision-making incorporating internal and external stakeholders at the organizational level (Nathan, 2015). A stakeholder map identifying all stakeholders, their interests along with ethical concerns and dilemmas as well as their rights and responsibilities may enable us to embed ethical decision-making within the innovation process at the organizational level; this framework could also integrate multiple perspectives and systems thinking approach (Nathan, 2015). However, new forms of emerging and converging technologies may be problematic to embed moral code into intelligent autonomous machines such as drones, next generation robots and autonomous transport vehicles. These problems have fostered growing interest in the emerging field of machine ethics over the last decade (Anderson & Anderson, 2006). Building ethical robots is a challenge; embedding rule based ethical decision-making in predictable situations may not be effective in unpredictable situations and enabling machine-learning to make ethical decisions in new situations may create a problem of trust (Deng, 2015). Against the above background, this paper attempts to explore the potential application of design thinking approach. Design thinking has been around since 1960s. However, design movement evolution can be traced back to 1980s with cognitive reflections towards user centred design to service design towards human centred design in 2000; from 2010 onwards, the movement has evolved to design thinking with approaches to experience design and creative class (Curedale, 2013). Design thinking may be understood in many different ways with some core attributes; there is no single definition for design thinking and in fact defining design thinking may defeat the very essence of it. The core elements of design thinking approach to innovation are technology, business and most importantly human. It is not about consumer or customer centred; rather it is about human centred and from this perspective it is not about existing or target customers. Therefore, it can also take into consideration potential new customers. However, I would add that these need to be contextualized within the social and ecological environment as these elements invariably interact with the environment and ethical concerns may arise due to these interactions. IDEO has popularized design thinking to innovation with a simplified model consisting of six critical elements: understand, observe, point of view, ideate, prototype and test with iterative feedback processes. The core attributes of design thinking approach are: ambiguity, collaborative, constructive, curiosity, empathy, holistic, iterative, non-judgemental and open mindset (Curedale, 2013). It appears that some of these core attributes may be conducive to address the ethical problematic context. These core attributes are integrated with certain design thinking principles such as: action oriented, comfortable with change, human centric, integrates foresight, a dynamic constructive process, promotes empathy, reduces risks and creates meaning (Mootee, 2013). Again, we can see that these principles appear to be conducive to address ethical challenges to technological innovation. Design thinking approach could be integrated with multiple perspectives and system thinking approach to embed ethical decision-making. This paper attempts to show that this path could potentially address ethical challenges in technological innovation and provides some directions for further research.
design thinking approach, machine ethics, emerging and converging technologies, ethical decision-making, innovation process, technological innovation, ethical (responsible) innovation
Fachgebiet (DDC)
Symorg 2016
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Während FHNW Zugehörigkeit erstellt
Keine Begutachtung
Open Access-Status
NATHAN, Ganesh, 2016. Design Thinking Approach to Ethical (Responsible) Innovation. Symorg 2016. Zlatibor. 10 Juni 2016. Verfügbar unter: