Reflections on ‘Responsible Innovation’

The field of HCI has undergone many changes as technology developed. The turn towards more ubiquitous devices that are not confined to the office anymore is considered to make a big impact on society. These bring with them new responsibilities for researchers and developers in the area of HCI as for example Heidt, Bischof and Rosenthal (2014, 115) observe. In my own research project I consider many of the approaches irresponsible in the way they address people living with dementia. Providing Safer Walking technologies or other tools that could be used to monitor people living with dementia without their knowledge and thereby breaking their right to privacy is done with the best intentions and could potentially prevent either bodily harm to the person with dementia or replace more physically restrictive methods. When done in coordination with the person with dementia, in a responsible manner these technologes do not pose any problems. But the context they will be used in is complex, with feelings of responsibility by family members or formal caregivers that may lead them to overwrite the autonomy of the person with dementia and take decisions on their behalf. The technology as it exists today makes exploitation easy. On the other hand, the technologies as they are, are potentially useful and not developing them in consideration that they could be misused feels irresponsible as well (compare for example Niemeijer & Hertogh, 2008). Beauvais, Rialle and Sablier (2012, 156) describe the tensions as follows:

“Is is unacceptable to track somebody without his knowing about it.
It is unacceptable to let somebody wander without aid.
It is unacceptable to confine somebody to their home during months or years when he could go out with technical aid.”

One of the questions that comes out of this tension from this research project is the role of the designer/developer/scientist. Knowing  how complex the situation is in which these technologies are introduced, should they be developed until they could not be exploited anymore or does that keep people from support they could use freely? Is it the responsiblity of the developer, the producer, the distributor, the user? Does the technology impose rules on the people using it that hinders their autonomy?

To address some of these questions and reflect on them I attended the UCL Graduate School course on ‘Responsible innovation’. The full day course invited refelction on what responsibility means in the context of academia and research, introduced ethical principles and allowed us to think through the responsiblities in one case study – luckily for me smart houses – within the framework suggested by Stilgoe, Ownen and Macnagthen (2013). The framework defines four dimensions of responsible innovation – “Anticipation”, “Reflexivity”, “Inclusion” and “Responsiveness” (ibid, 1573).

In the first part of the course we identified two main meanings in which the term ‘responsibility’ is used colloguially: a negative view in which responsibility is applied after an event to identify who is accountable for these actions. In a more postive view ‘responsibitlity’ is practiced when the consequences of ones’ actions are thought through and the actions adapted accorrdingly. Responsibiliy is individually different, based on moral considerations, job roles and other factors such as age.

In regards to research, the concept of responsibility has been brought up both in regards to the future implications of the research and what problem areas are addressed.In the course

The twofold nature of responsibilites in science defined by Heather Douglas has been introduced and states that scientists apply to role responsibilities – creating new knowledge, no plagiarism, reporting on results honestly and comparable – and general responsibilities, generated by society. These two responsibilites might clash and contradict each other.

In the second part of the couse we looked into one case to which to apply the framework. This, luckily for me turned out to be the emerging concept of ‘Smart Houses’.


We discussed a couple of use cases for smart houses to understand in which context this technology might be used. This enabled us to anticipate critical issues that might emerge as well as considering who might be included in the development and research process. While our initial use case was long-term care, we also discussed issues around policing, i.e. people put to house-arrest in their smart home, how they might be used for the entertainment industry, i.e. as in a version of Big Brother or how researchers themselves might be intersted to gather data. All of these widened the original concept and therefore the group of people that should be inolved in the planning process and the issues that might arise. If we were to plan a concept like this in practice, completely different approaches needed to be taken whether we wanted to encourage or prohibit any of these use cases.

We further discussed that different cultures or religions might oppose this concept and we might be aware of how we could either make the technology accpetable to them or what consequences it might have if we were not able to do so. Would we force people into behaviour they do not feel comfortable with if the society would develop on a way that left no room for non-technological alternatives. Following from this, we discussed that these houses might change societal standards through their existence. People might conclude that their use was acceptable seeing they are there. This brings with it increased responsibility and inclusion of a wider public into debate.

We understood that we made assumptions not only in regards to non-western cultures but also in regards to the technology used. For a long time during the discussion we assumed it would not change and only at the end of the discussion raised the issues what would happen if they were to become obsolete. We also assumed from the outset that these would be used to reduce cost by replacing personal care with technology, though we challenge that assumption at the end, wondering what it was based on.

Considering unexpected use cases has enabled us to plan ahead and discuss the concept of the Smart House in a new way. It brought in completely new questions for us that went far beyond technical feasability but into social and political realms. We had to ask ourselves if we could accept the use of the technology for these different cases and we would have found ourselves changing the design to avoid these.

After all these reflections, I am not sure whether the course actually answered any of my initial questions. But I think it has sensibilized me a bit how easy it is to make assumptions of the impact of the own work, have blind spots, overlook how others might interpret the design. The framework suggested might be one way of addressing this and thinking through some of the issues that arise. None of this is done in the spirit of prohibiting technological progress – at least in my understanding  -but as an attempt to take on resposiblity and think issues through.

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