The public value of private science

Discussions of responsible innovation in emerging technologies have got further in publicly-funded science than they have in the private sector. There are a few reasons for this, but the most immediate explanation is that companies tend not to regard innovation as a topic of conversation. For all the talk of open innovation, corporate R&D remains well-hidden in a black-box. Engagement with consumers takes place through products, services and brands. 

As part of our Nanodialogues project at Demos, we did some work with Unilever, who had been surprised by the GM issue in the 90s and were keen to avoid a repeat with nanotechnology. They were running ahead of many companies by imaging their public not just as consumers, but also as citizens. They recognised that a company necessarily has multiple relationships with others, defined by more than just an exchange of money.

But despite Unilever’s willingness to engage with our project, it was virtually impossible for the company to make sense of the questions raised by upstream engagement. The politics of science and technology are hard to explore in a company for whom science and technology are purely instrumental.

And yet people understand that corporate innovation involves choices, and has both positive and negative disruptive power. I like the example of razor blades. The ‘razor wars’ are often used as an example of pointless corporate innovation. (Have a look at this from the Onion, which hilariously predicted the advent of the 5-bladed razor). This is how I wrote about it at the time:

An article in The Economist drew a tongue-in-cheek connection between the hi-tech and the mundane by focusing on razor blades. For 70 years, one blade was seen as plenty for a disposable razor. But since 1980, we have seen the number rise as manufacturers battle for our attention. Gillette put two, then three, blades into their razors before Wilkinson Sword produced the Quattro. Gillette then responded with their five-bladed Fusion. Plotting the pace of change, the magazine suggests a new version of Moore’s Law: by 2100 our razors look set to sport 14 blades.

The latest incarnation, the Gillette Fusion Power Phantom, is advertised as ‘so advanced, you’ll barely feel the blades’. The addition of ‘5-Blade Shaving Surface Technology’ (with ‘patented coating’, ‘Soothing Micro-Pulses’ and an ‘onboard microchip’) to a still- disposable device apparently produces ‘a shave so good the ladies will never even see you coming’. The credentials of the scientists behind the razor are beyond doubt. One article describes the lab director of Gillette’s ‘Advanced Technology Centre’: ‘The good doctor is living proof that razors are rocket science. He has a PhD in ceramics applied to fighter jet engines and also developed machine-vision software for missiles.’

The question for those interested in responsible innovation is how we might improve the outcomes of corporate innovation – generating public value in addition to private value.

Concern about the power of large corporations has led to the growth of Corporate Social Responsibility. But CSR is a response to the challenge of production, rather innovation. What would it mean to take CSR upstream? Here’s one alternative, again from the Nanodialogues report:

In the 1970s, the R&D department at Lucas Aerospace was getting nervous. Impending redundancies prompted some of the Lucas technologists to come up with a new plan – to diversify beyond arms manufacture to products with more obvious public value. Mike Cooley, one of the engineers behind the plan, described in a subsequent book his vision of ‘a future in which masses of people, conscious of their skills in both a political and technical sense, decide they are going to be the architects of a new form of technological development’. The Lucas Plan contained 150 ideas for new products the company could make, with imagined social benefits. And, in a move ahead of its time, it threaded sustainable production into its thinking.

Modern technology companies conduct cutting-edge research. And as with any cutting-edge research, what scientists do doesn’t map perfectly onto the drawing board. So unexpected benefits that don’t match corporate demands may emerge, but remain unfulfilled. Giving scientists a voice within companies and taking public values upstream raises the possibility of what we might call ‘social spin-outs’. Mirroring the enthusiasm for private sector spin-outs in universities, we can imagine large companies supporting spin-out companies or social enterprises that follow alternative trajectories. At Lucas Aerospace, the engineers went ahead and built a vehicle for children with spina bifida. But the company refused to take production beyond the prototype stage. The product did not fit with the company’s structure, and the potential for new forms of value was lost.

The reason I was reminded of all of this, for which I have no good answer, is the creation of Google Ideas – a ‘think/do tank’. This piece in the FT (paywall, I fear) describes how Google is responding to worries about its power by doing good, in the conventional CSR mould, but as an innovative company, it is doing so by innovating. Is this where responsible innovation and CSR meet – somewhere that we might call Corporate Social Innovation?


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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3 Responses to The public value of private science

  1. Nice post Jack. I agree, though do see more companies searching to balance the social responsibility/innovation, employee motivation and shareholder value agenda’s through such innovative use of employee time/partnerships/spin outs/innovative problems solving approaches. Particularly in tech/telecoms/pharma/green industries, but nothing like enough. Love Corporate Social Innovation term. Tricky though in straightened times to divert key staff to non-core activities when they are so sorely needed doing what they are being paid to do.

    Pondering this currently in relation to Mark Lynas God Species book as to how to motivate appropriate technology responses/investigations in relation to 9 planetary boundaries.

  2. Jack Stilgoe says:

    I take it all back. I have just shaved my face with a Gillette Pro Glide Fusion Acti-slice (or similar). Once you get over the fear of being assaulted by the Seven Samurai in miniature, it is delicious.

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