The Bassetti Foundation has long been a leader in the field of Responsible Innovation. Founded in 1993, the foundations has dedicated its website, experts and funding capacities to promote the idea of Responsible Innovation. To put that into context, they were probably the first to use this type of terminology, and for many years a search for the term on the Internet led only to their website.
I have been collaborating with the foundation since 2003, so the book tells an insider story. Chapter 4 of my book Responsible Innovation, a Narrative Approach is dedicated entirely to the work and development of the foundation as it stands today.
The chapter contains an interview with President Piero Bassetti, in which he discusses a broad swathe of questions about responsibility in innovation. How can we define responsibility? How can we decide what is right and what is wrong? What is the role of politics (and politicians) in innovation? Who are innovators responsible to? How can we deal with unknown (and unknowable) risk? Just to name a few!
This chapter also introduces Bassetti’s concept of Poiesis-intensive Innovation. This concept addresses forms of innovation that are not science or investment heavy, but are born through knowledge of how to do things (skills) and are driven by goals that differ from those commonly thought of or analyzed in mainstream innovation or business studies (aiming for beauty, or being directed by certain beliefs or philosophies for example).
This concept is not easy to understand, but if we imagine an innovation process that is driven by craft approaches rather than rational investment approaches we are getting close to the idea.
These forms of innovation occur in workshops or sheds, and is not based within mass production or necessarily have that as a goal, allowing creativity to take the lead. This is a core argument for this book, because the main question asked is how similar (or different) are innovation practices in a workshop to those in a laboratory? We will come this in later chapters as I describe experience in both types of workplace.
The Bassetti chapter closes with an analysis of the minutes taken from one of the first foundation meetings. The details that emerge show how forward thinking those present were, as many of the potential problems and issues that innovation brings today were forseen 20 years ago, with questions raised about how they might be addressed.
But I don’t want to spoil the experience and give too much away, it’s all in the book.
This month Milan is hosting WAVE, an event that promotes the idea of frugal innovation in all of its different facets. I must say before beginning that the Bassetti Foundation (who employ me) are co-sponsors of the event, so I am a little partisan. It is however from any point of view an interesting project and concept.
The event includes an exhibition open to visitors and free of charge from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Piazza San Fedele, Milan until 3 July, alongside a series of lectures and other events. The full program is here. There is a huge variety of stuff to see and hear, including debate about sustainability, smart city technology, citizen science and editing the human genome.
The WAVE Project
I take the following form the WAVE website. It gives a nice idea of what the project is all about:
At a time when the entire planet is facing tremendous economic, social and environmental challenges, a multitude of initiatives from around the world prove that solutions exist for doing more with less. The common ingredient in all this creative ferment? Collective ingenuity. Being flexible, keeping it simple, seizing opportunities, thinking differently: in an unstable world, the ingenious innovator develops a state of mind that’s agile enough to turn obstacles into opportunities. We live on a small planet where everything is interdependent. This is not a time for divisions, but for concerted action: citizens, associations, NGOs, local authorities, and companies both large and small are implementing new ideas for a better world. Driven by the digital revolution, most of these initiatives rely on social media. Some of them fall within the commercial sphere, others do not. But all of them demonstrate new ways of innovating together, differently. A wave of collective ingenuity is sweeping across the world. Drawing on a wide range of concrete examples, the WAVE exhibition explores the major currents on every continent: co-creation, the sharing economy, the maker movement, the inclusive economy, and the circular economy. These examples feature people from all walks of life who share a positive vision of the world of tomorrow.
So as we see, WAVE as a concept is traveling the world. It started in France, now Milan before moving on to Senegal, USA and then India. It looks like an interesting series of events to me, and next week I am off to Milan to check it out in person.
It is cold in Chicago in February, the lake was frozen for as far as you could see, with sheets that had broken off at some point rising out of the flat desert landscape on the water. It looked a bit like there had been a landslide or earthquake, with the plates sliding above each other.
It has been a harsh winter in general here, and Chicago had experienced some of the coldest temperatures in decades, I found this photo below on the Huffington Post site.
In the background we see the Chicago skyline, and the conference was held in one of the giant hotels that looks out over the lake. There are many hotels on the shorefront, and one thing that surprised me is that they are all linked together by a series of underground tunnels.
Tunnels is a bit of a misrepresentation really, they are underground streets, with shops and bars and sign posts, so that on a cold winter’s day guests do not have to step outside. The conference made use of several different hotels and restaurants, and some people told me that although attending different venues they had not in fact been outside, and had not put on a jacket since their arrival.
The system is known as the pedway, see an explanation here, it covers 40 square blocks. The photo below gives an idea of what parts of it look like. Apparently they are not uncommon in North American cities, in Montreal it is known as the underground city.
As I said above the conference was a giant affair as the program demonstrates. I wanted to see a session on responsible innovation and to take part in the launch of the Journal for Responsible Innovation (I am on the Editorial Board and the Bassetti Foundation sponsored the event) but at any one moment there were dozens of panels in session and associated events.
The journal launch clashed with a talk given by Alan Alda the American actor (most famous for his part in MASH). Alda now runs The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he addresses issues and trains people in the art of science communication.
As I said I couldn’t attend but many of my colleagues told me that his talk was great.
I attended a session called Responsible Innovation in a Global Context early on Saturday morning. It was a great session and I learned a lot. Did you know for example that all research that is conducted involving water has to use an internationally accredited water? Yes it is purified water that then has certain amounts of certain minerals added. This means that scientists doing research in Brazil are using identical water to those conducting research in Italy, or Australia or anywhere else for that matter.
Great we might think, but using this type of water also makes some of the research useless. If bacteria lives in a river it interacts with its own type of water, plants life etc and reacts in particular ways. In the official water these reactions are not seen, so the research does not replicate a real life situation, so the results are different to the real experience.
But in order to get funding and to have their research accredited only one type of water is allowed. So money is spent on research that does not represent reality because “that is what the funding bodies want”. A ridiculous situation it would seem.
The influence of politics in research was also addressed from a Brazilian perspective, but one that can be applied throughout the world. When research and innovation is so tied to politics and touted as the saviour of the economic decline or development of a country it sometimes takes on a nationalist hue. This leads to questions about by whom, for whom and with which goals, that involves ethics and responsibility.
One of the most interesting developments though involves collaborations between the hard and social sciences. In several areas social scientists have been placed within science labs to act as a forum that allows scientists to talk about and understand the ethical dilemmas that they face while carrying out their work.
Much of the stuff I write about is related to the problem of scientific development and dual uses, unforeseen effects and changes they bring about in society, and having a social scientist, philosopher or ethicist in the lab seems to open up debate and even effect scientific outcomes. It might even seem to improve productivity is some ways!
As an aside I should add that attending a conference as a journalist has many advantages. As a participant you want people to listen to you, you have to pay to attend and publicize your event. But as a journalist everyone wants to talk to you so that you will write about them.
At every chance organizations try to engage you. There are free cooked breakfasts offered by national research councils, aperitifs form journals and unions, awards, free books and cd’s more alcohol, cakes and coffee, nights out with transport laid on, more food and more alcohol. Many of my colleagues were jealous, they had to pay for everything.
Thousands of people attended the conference and a lot of networking took place. I get the impression that this is really what these large conferences are all about. I am pleased to report that science bloggers (such as myself) are taken seriously and accepted as serious journalists, and there were many of us sitting alongside Reuters and the New York Times. All Kudos to the AAAS for that.
I stayed at the Palmer house hotel in Chicago, a splendid structure and once the largest hotel in the world. Worth a stay or even just a look if you are passing through. Other famous guests include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles dickens and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, so I won’t be asking for a plaque to be erected about my visit.
Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.
Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.
There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?
This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.
These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.
I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:
My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.
There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.
The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.
It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.
Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.
So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.
Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.
Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.
EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher
Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?
I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.
What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).
One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.
Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.
The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.
See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring
Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.
Why not publish a book? I had been thinking about self publishing for some time, and so decided to have a try. In January of this year I took my Technology Bloggers “Health of the Planet” series, made it into a booklet and put it on Issuu, so the obvious next step was a book on Amazon.
On 24th October I sent an outline to my boss at the Bassetti Foundation for a book. My aim was to prepare it and get it out for download on Amazon by 27th November to coincide with my trip to Italy and participation in the nanotechnology lecture at the university that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
Rather a tall order we might think, but not an opportunity to miss, and I think that many bloggers could and possibly should do the same, after all a book is a book, and it looks good on the CV.
I started to look at what I had already written about nanotechnology, synthetic biology and the other topics that might come up in the discussion. I had a simple strategy, find all of the relevant pieces, put together a coherent collection in groups, write an introduction and conclusion and put it out.
I decided to write the introduction last, once I had a better idea of what the book would look like.
I had to think of a title though, a grand title that would make people want to read it, and also a price. Because I was publishing works that were already in the public domain I could only ask for the 30% royalties option from Amazon. There are 2 options for self publishing, 70% for original works and 30% if they have already appeared, so I had to go for 30. This lead me on to thinking about the price. Amazon are going to take the vast majority of the income, so I should accept the fact that I am not retiring to the Bahamas on the money this book will make. So I should give it away. You can’t give it away though through Amazon, or at least I could not find an option to do it, so I chose the cheapest option, 99 US cents a download.
So back to the title. I wanted to get Responsible Innovation into the title, but that in itself wasn’t a puller. I want students and people interested in innovation and technology to buy it, an overview of a complex scenario. A handbook? Yes A handbook. The Handbook of Responsible innovation? Well that is too grand a title even for me, so “A Handbook For Responsible Innovation” it is.
My boss at the Bassetti Foundation agreed to put the book out through the Foundation series, so I sent the title details etc to our man in Milan and he produced a cover as you see above, so now all I had to do was put the contents together.
Chapter 1, an overview. I found some pieces I had written for the Innovation Excellence blog, 3 quite formal posts about responsible innovation. If you decide to do this you have to read them and re-write and delete sections, because in my case they repeated themselves. There was also a lot of updating and putting the correct dates in. For example “last Monday I…” is no good. On (date and year) I….. is better. Also if referring to something that was in the future at the time of writing you should renew the research, so a report that was for publication will now be out, so you have to read it and put something in about the contents. A little bit of cut and paste here and there and a few new pieces and you are done.
I carried on to nanotechnology and did the same, moved on to a section that I titled Bioethics, about DNA testing and medical decision making. Then on to Information and Knowledge, about citizen science and where and how to participate in science and find reliable information, I have written about all of these matters here and in fact there are references to Technology Blogger posts both by myself and Christopher, but I decided not to put in any of my blog posts from Technology Bloggers as articles, only as references. This was a stylistic choice, and something to think about if you follow this idea. A book needs to be coherent, so pitch and register of the arguments should be consistent. This choice also cut out the issue of comments as the articles that I chose either were not set up for comments or had few, so i was not cutting the argument short.
If you were thinking of putting comments in as in the Health of the Planet booklet mentioned earlier it might be an idea to try and weave them into the argument instead of making them look like comments. This would not be easy but I think would give more of a book feel to a finished publication.
The last chapter in the Handbook is a collection of interview transcriptions. I cut out 2 more chapters that had been in the outline about design, as the book was already 150 pages long. In a process such as this I think flexibility is a must.
Then I had to go and put references in instead of links. Fortunately most of these essays had been posted on the Bassetti Foundation website and they have fantastic technicians. They designed the site so that when you download an article in PDF the links automatically come up as references. So I used the same format for all the other articles and in a few hours they were all done. I sent it back to Milan and asked the Scientific Director to write a preface. The preface idea was not my own but it certainly gives a formal feel to the publication, so again well worth thinking about.
So all that was left to write was the introduction and conclusion. The introduction turned out to be just an outline of the book, a page and a half. I feel that in a case like this all that is required is a few lines about the purpose of the book, where the articles are taken from and what is in each chapter. The conclusion is the only thing I had to write from scratch, I included as much as I could of the comments that my fellow workers had made about the book as some of their ideas were difficult to weave into already finished articles. Once I had started to cut and paste articles to insert sections I realized that insertion changes the flow of the writing, so adopted this solution instead.
I translated the preface into English and placed it in, Formatted everything, made a PDF and we were finished with a week to go.
The Foundation opened an account with Amazon and we uploaded the book with cover, all far too easy! A day later I got an email stating that as the material was already available online I had to provide links to each article in every place it was published so that Amazon were sure that my copyright was being respected. This took some time, and once submitted Amazon took a couple of days to come back again.
On the 26th they responded and we were good to go. But looking at the book online and ready to download we saw that the formatting had all changed, centering was gone, blank pages etc. PDF is not the way to do it! Also you need a full Word 2010 to do the summary aspect of it, something I have not got. A Filtered web page in HTML in a zip file is the way to do it. So back to Milan, new upload and wait and see. All of this is explained in a free Kindle download. Oh the beauty of hindsight!
We had 10 copies spiral bound for the lecture so that we could present it. I think a few hard copies are a good investment, people can see a product and thumb through it so it somehow becomes concrete.
A couple of days later we got the OK from Kindle, the status changed from “in revision” to “in publication” and notification of an ASIN number.
On 3rd December it was out, Hurray, a 5 week turnaround! I ordered 5oo business cards from an online printer with the name of the book and reference number to give out at every occasion and started thinking about generating some publicity.
So my thought on this matter is that if I can do it then many other bloggers can do it too. A little organization and filtering is all that is required. I made mistakes and wasted time, I spent ages writing a contents page with page numbers etc to find out that the pages did not correspond after formatting and anyway numbers are a thing of the past. A link takes the reader directly from contents to the section they require.
Everybody gains something from the process though, the author, Amazon, the blogs that host the original articles, and it didn’t cost anything, completely free. If you choose the KDP Select option Amazon have sole distribution rights for 90 days so you cannot put it out on Barnes and Noble or any other platform, but Amazon offer a free lend to their prime members and a free preview to anyone, and it is readable on any computer so Kindle not required.
However many people download the book (feel free, it is here) it is a good result, and you should see my CV now! The next stage will be to put it up in paperback.
Today I would like to look at some of the issues raised at the Nanotechnology lecture that I posted about last week.
The lecture was delivered by Michael Bruch, head of Research and Design of Allianz insurance company. He brought up some interesting points about nanotechnology and its production.
One problem that he raised is that we do not really know how much nanotech we are surrounded by as products containing engineered nano-particles do not have to be labeled.
Many cosmetics, sun creams and sports related products use the technique, but also food manufacturers, so it is really difficult to understand how much exposure we have to these particles. Scratch resistant paint and darkened windscreens are already here, but self repairing paint is also under trial, as is paint that changes colour.
Another problem is that their manufacturing processes are practically unregulated. Most of these materials are produced by small companies that have little or no safety procedures. And it is unclear what type of procedures would be of use.
This is because it is unclear how exposure affects the human body. These particles can enter the body in various ways, and have the capability of passing directly from the blood to the brain. This means that they can be used for medical cures such as in fighting cancer, but also that once in your body they can transfer everywhere.
Recent studies have found that exposure to nano carbon tubes does affect the heart in mice however, and similarities are drawn with asbestos as many of the fibres look similar. One complicating factor however is that materials used on a nano scale have different properties, so something that is inert such as gold might be toxic at nano scale or the other way round.
Further problems arise when we think about end of life treatment. Much of the expert knowledge is not passed down the line to those responsible for disposal of these products, so they may not be treated correctly when it comes to recycling or destroying them.
All of the above means that the nanotech industry brings with it an enormous amount of risk. Health risks are easy to see, but also environmental risks. We do not know how much is released into the atmosphere today, nor whether there will be industrial accidents and what their effects might be.
Regulation is difficult to draw up however as terms and definitions have not been agreed upon. Voluntary codes seem to be the only attempt at implementing some form of standardization.
What is safe to say is that this technology is certainly changing our lives, but that as it is developing so quickly little is known about how to treat it or the consequences it might bring.
I made a speech myself, the outline of which is below. Thanks to everyone who watched via streaming, the photos were taken from the live stream by Christopher.
I would agree with previous comments that there is definitely a role to play for insurers in innovation.
I would also argue that the lecture Dr Bruch has just delivered is not only about innovation, but also about responsibility and obligation.
Innovation is a complex phenomenon combining science, technology, finance, management, enterprise and organizations to achieve a goal that is not only scientific but also entrepreneurial and political. The ultimate use of any results will be outside science, even though they greatly need the contribution of science, in what is by definition a continuous process.
Taken literally, innovation is something that comes about when an advance in knowledge, which is a result of a discovery, is accompanied by and combined with technology, and the power to put that advancement into practice (capital). It is not simply discovery. It is something more than that. It is part of a new historical situation arising from a combination of knowledge, technology, know-how, and the risks/opportunities developed and implemented by business or other powers. That is, it is something that was not there before and which has come about through a “new” combination of knowledge and power, bringing change into the social world. This change is appropriated, negotiated, lived through, or fought, by people – whether as citizens or as consumers.
Innovation, however, is also creativity, which necessarily implies unforeseeable change. It implies increased risk/opportunity and social power. It leads to unpredictability in the socio-political field (new institutions, types of relationship, of production, of war, and new powers), in the technical and economic realms (new materials, sources of energy, tools and categories of goods), and the cultural-aesthetic field (new styles, fashions, tastes and habits).
If we look at the interest that governments currently show in nanotechnology development this relationship to power becomes easier to see. As an agent of change, risk is intrinsic to all innovation, and I would argue that it should be carried out responsibly.
The development of nanotechnology in some ways exemplifies the problem of responsibility in innovation perfectly. As we have seen in Dr Bruch’s lecture, developments in the medical field offer new treatments for cancer, in engineering we are seeing ever lighter and stronger construction materials, and these advances will continue to ever more change the way we live and our surroundings.
But as stated, these developments are not without risk, and risk requires responsibility to be taken.
It is the entire process of innovation that must be responsible through the actions of all involved in it, in all of their different roles. It would help to have a societal understanding and a political framework in place for collaborative deliberation and for a collective capacity to rethink the fundamentals of our own premises and assumptions as we go along, changing the world we live in.
I would argue that Dr Bruch’s presentation can be seen as a call for responsible innovation in its entirety. In some ways he is saying that a company can only insure you if you play your part, as the innovator you must be transparent and thorough. But the cover is also reliant upon other actors. The consumer must be educated and informed so that when they purchase something they do it knowingly. This requires reliable information on the part of the media as well as an absence of political manoeuvring. The regulator figure is also necessary, as they must inform and orchestrate the communication that underlies their decision making and intervention.
The fact that insurance cover is seen as necessary before investment means that companies that cannot find insurance cover have difficulty securing funding for their products. This puts the insurance companies in an interesting position, as they have a direct influence on the innovation process. In some ways they become the gatekeeper, allowing those that display best practices to pass, and those who may not demonstrate an appreciation of the consequences of their work may find finance difficult.
If we look at the risk analysis in Dr Bruch’s lecture we find that it is necessarily very widely drawn, sometimes even vague as the spectrum of possible effects is large and the time scale immeasurable. This does not mean however that it is not important or should be overlooked however.
If we have no loss history, as in the case of nanotechnology, how can we measure the risk involved? Can we gain foresight? Can we use the experience of the insurance industry to create an algorithm for future risk that is not based on case history. If so could we in fact do the same for responsibility?
The examples of needs and obligations given in Dr Bruch’s lecture are not only applicable to nanotechnology however. The process required for the adequate testing of exposure levels, medical studies, political decisions, the drawing up of regulation and its implementation are present throughout society. We cannot believe that ad-hoc regulation is an answer, because by definition it can only be implemented late on in the innovation process, when the factors that may be foreseeable have been measured, standardized and formalized, and we should remember that many other factors that are more difficult to see will also play their part.
Regulation is necessary, but if we accept that it can only appear late in the innovation process it cannot be the basis for our goal. The innovation process itself must be imbued with responsibility, its design and implementation must try to take implications for the future of present actions into account.
As Dr Bruch mentioned perceptual risk is also an issue that needs to be addressed. Here we move into the political arena, an arena that should certainly not be overlooked given the influence of national, international and global politics in nanotechnology. The management of the perception of risk is as real as the management of risk itself, as perception affects decision-making.
If I could raise some questions to the audience I would like to think more about ‘stewardship’, the responsibility insurance companies hold in granting cover to operators in the nanotech industry and how a premium can be calculated in the face of such uncertainty and indeterminacy.
On Tuesday I am participating in a lecture about nanotechnology at the Bocconi University in Milan.
This is not a subject that is new to this website as a quick search demonstrates. In May of 2011 Hayley asked the question of whether nanotechnology research is safe. It is a well written and commented post that raises some critical questions about the ethics and practices surrounding technology that is already changing our lives and has incredible potential in many walks of life.
Hayley continued her thread in January of this year with an article about nanobots, the future of nanotechnology. Here she describes the bottom up approach that the technology is taking on, underlining the importance of self replication.
In March I followed up on these articles with a post about how nanotechnology procedures are regulated, based upon the National Research Council’s report of the same month. Many similar issues are raised in the report about environmental damage, possible risks to health and governance.
So all of this leads me on to Tuesday’s lecture. The main speaker is Michael Bruch, the Head of R&D and Risk Consulting at Allianz Global Corporate (the insurance company). He is going to talk about the role of insurance in innovative technologies, with a focus upon nanotechnology.
If we read the articles linked above we understand that this research is fraught with risk, and so development companies have to take out insurance against losses, but how can the level of risk be calculated with such an unknown and potentially powerful product? What might the implications be for the global financial system if something goes catastrophically wrong?
Well if anybody can tell you Mr Bruch can.
The proceedings will be streamed live through the Bassetti Foundation website, but I am travelling half way round the world to be there in person. It will also be available later on podcast, and I think will be a very interesting debate.
EDITOR NOTE: Congratulations to Jonny, this is his 50th post on Technology Bloggers! Feel free to thank him for his fantastic contribution to the blog with a comment 🙂 – note by Christopher
This is my 50th post and I am very pleased, so once again I would like to try to propose something a little different.
This week I have experienced my second hurricane, Sandy passed through Boston where I currently reside, tearing up trees, bringing down power lines and bucketing tons of water upon us. The disaster seen in New York was not replicated here, but we are still in a state of emergency with millions of people without power.
One interesting aspect about the whole affair was watching the state prepare for something that it could not really fully understand. The authorities did not know where the hurricane would hit land, or how much damage it would do. They had to rely on scientists’ models and experience to make plans and try to save lives and limit damage.
Which all brings me on to the topic for today’s post, scientific advice.
Another disaster is in the news this week from my other home country, Italy. 6 of Italy’s leading scientists and one ex government official have received prison terms for offering falsely reassuring advice immediately before the 2009 Aquila earthquake. They were each found guilty on multiple counts of manslaughter after more than 300 people died in the catastrophe. The BBC has a short article on the proceedings and sentence here.
All members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, they were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of the quake. There had been a series of smaller tremors in the weeks and months preceding the larger one on 6th April, but the Commission had suggested that this did not mean that a larger quake was on its way.
They were wrong however, but many members of the scientific community have come to their defense, stating that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, technology does not allow accurate prediction, and that a series of tremors such as those seen in Aquila only lead to a major quake on about 1% of occasions.
The Scientists found guilty are amongst the most respected geologists and seismologists in Italy, and this leads me to ask several questions. Who can we ask for advice in order to prepare for disasters if the best scientists are not able to provide the answers? What effect will this ruling have upon the scientific community and their willingness to give advice on such matters? Can we hold scientists responsible for such events? What effect does politics have on their decision making and advice to the public?
Here during hurricane Sandy several local government officials were criticized for not implementing evacuation procedures that were called for by central government upon advice given by scientists, and I would ask if the fact that there was loss of life might have been avoided. We all knew it was coming!
These points above could also be made about other problems, the obvious one being climate change. There are several articles on this website that address this issue including my own ‘Health of the Planet‘ series, but once more the entire subject is bogged down with political versus scientific arguments.
We are talking about risk here, and risk is not an easy thing to assess or to communicate. The Aquila scientists may argue that the 1% risk is minimal after a series of smaller shocks, but the risk may also be greatly magnified from a starting point of no shocks. A great deal is in the phrasing, and phrasing may be political.
Last year, here in Cambridge Massachusetts, I interviewed our local Congressman, Michael Capuano on the problems of making political decisions regarding science, and you can see a transcription here if you like. It makes for interesting reading.