Did you ever wonder if the current state of world affairs is due to our misguided attitude towards innovation?

The term ‘innovation’ is said to have originated in the Middle Ages from the Latin composition of the words in (inside) and novare (change)—with its purpose then being to aid survival.

Over time, this definition has evolved drastically, and today means “coming up with the next ‘new’ thing in the quickest way possible”.

For the most part, we innovate for profit, and in a way that encourages a constant desire to replace the old with the new, even if they may fulfil similar functions. Just last month, Apple sold up to two million of its recently-launched iPhone models in the first 24 hours of pre-orders, up from 800,000 units of the earlier iPhone models in the same period last year.

Surely, true innovation can deliver more than incremental improvements dressed up in better clothing? This widely-purported idea of innovation today therefore requires a deep-rooted reset that considers not only “how” and “why” we innovate but also the real motivations and needs that innovation addresses. On top of this, it must also take into account how innovation impacts the environment, societies, and our communities.

Resetting to responsible innovation

This long-overdue reset has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced us to take a step back and confront the role of innovation in an uncertain, crisis-fueled environment: that is, to innovate not for profit but for survival. It has served as a moment in time to move away from how we have approached innovation in the past and to instead evolve with our changing environment.

This important realization has created an opportunity for businesses to reinvent themselves and the way they create value. Importantly, though, the reset of innovation will clearly require a whole-of-society transformation that also refocuses the role of government and education systems.

This is where the concept of driving responsible innovation is important.

Readers interested to learn more about Prof Pavie’s altruistic thoughts on innovations can read his book, Critical Philosophy of Innovation and the Innovator.

Rethinking innovation as we know it

The pandemic has caused businesses worldwide to digitalize at unprecedented rates to survive. These are adaptations to the demands of our new environment, and businesses need to innovate to address these shifts.

Responsible innovation suggests that we consider the impact of our innovations—from development to implementation. Why are we innovating, and to address what need? How are we innovating in a way that is ethical, responsible and sustainable? These are critical questions we have to ask ourselves when we approach new ideas amid our pursuit of profit-driven innovation.

With responsible innovation, there are three main axes to consider.  

  1. Environment
    To ensure that we innovate in a sustainable manner, we need to re-evaluate the entire supply chain and the consequences of our innovations on the environment. This is the only way to address the current dynamic of new products being consumed at a much faster rate than the environment can sustainably produce them at.

Innovations that address this dynamic will become more pertinent in the years to come. For example, with the global population growing by 80 million people each year, UN projections expect there will be two billion more mouths to feed by 2050. Responding to this challenge, Singaporean biotech start-up TurtleTree Labs recently won a global award at the Entrepreneurship World Cup 2020 for producing milk in a laboratory instead of from cows or humans. This is a clear example of innovating to address a need in our evolving society, and is an approach that should be replicated more often.  

  • Collecting and processing data 
    In our increasingly-interconnected world, individual data is collected every second. To innovate ethically, it is important to be clear on who owns this data, and what they are doing with it.
  • Humanity and societies
    As technology progresses, we have become acquainted with topics like genetic modification and cloning. In the case of transhumanism—which aims to improve the human condition through life-enhancing techniques such as eliminating ageing or increasing physical capacities—we see that a large part of the agenda is still clearly oriented towards commercial markets.

    This mindset calls for greater reflection on the motivations behind our innovations, and if they are truly for the benefit of humanity.

The way forward

As we look ahead, a more permanent shift in our thinking will also need to be underpinned by a clear direction from the government and a shift in how we teach innovation in schools.  

In advancing responsible innovation, governments need to foster an environment that empowers companies to develop breakthrough ideas with positive societal or environmental outcomes. They can do this by continuing to provide support and funding for research and development, while at the same time creating a policy landscape that is favorable towards entrepreneurial ventures and rewards innovating for good.

One example a best practice in governmental support of ethical innovation is Singapore’s  commitment to funding research, more recently setting aside nearly US$30m to support 5G research and innovation to further boost itself as a technological hub suitable for start-ups.

Education has a role to play too. In teaching, we have traditionally been focused on an outdated concept of innovation that is built around the theory of economic development and how it created value for the past century: a self-propagating assertion that suggests the only purpose of innovation is to make profit and drive economic growth.

Most academic discussions around the process of innovation do not question the existing models or change them profoundly to include not only what is necessary (growth) but what is fundamental RESPONSIBILITY.

If we want to create a lasting shift in the perception of innovation, we need to transform our academic framework to ensure we teach responsible innovation and equip students with the tools to be critical thinkers of the future. This is something I have been trying to instill in my students since 2012, and I have seen many students go on to build their careers with this in mind.

In looking ahead, businesses and governments alike should see the pandemic as an accelerant and real opportunity to reimagine innovation and think critically about how and why we innovate, with strong consideration for the environmental, societal and human impact of our innovations.

All this starts with educating young minds to be inquisitive and to act with the right intent. Only then can we truly progress as a society and bring about a more sustainable future.