Taking a fresh look at ‘smart’ technologies to promote responsible innovation

CANDID is a 12 month research project, applying the tools and expertise of the social sciences to address issues around ‘smart’ technologies, a topic for research previously of exclusive interest to technologists and engineers.

Intervening in the normal business of innovation might raise an eyebrow or two, but the consensus is that broader perspectives are more likely to assist the innovation process than continue ‘business as usual’. 

If anyone should be open to disruption, it should be innovators, after all…  

This push for broader scrutiny is now embedded in European economic and social policy. The EU Commission considers innovation in the digital economy as raising important issues of risk and opportunity; and while removing barriers to trade is at the core of its policies, it also wants to raise the capacity of European based research. Through its Horizon 2020 funding scheme, it is seeking to promote more effective innovation in Europe.

As society has become aware that technology is playing a big part in shaping lives, equally it sees risks as well as benefits. Innovators could benefit from learning to better tune in to society at large to mitigate such risks, address the societal risks, and crucially for economic growth, at the same time reduce the financial risks of research and development.

Developing a wider perspective gets to the heart of a common misconception what innovation actually means, a concept often incorrectly thought of as synonymous with novelty or invention.

In reality innovation requires a much higher bar. For intellectual products of research and development to be genuinely considered innovative in more than a marketing sense requires proven acceptance within a market or wider society. Otherwise it remains a novelty, of wasted value, at best, ‘before its time’.

Innovation means proven acceptance within a market or wider society…

In the field of ‘smart’ technologies, CANDID is part of this European-wide effort to develop more acceptable products in societal terms. It will also help policy makers by enabling them to be better informed about the directions they could take.

The partners in the CANDID project University of Bergen; Universitat Oberta de Catalunya; Vrije Universiteit Brussel; The University of Edinburgh and The University of Surrey. Focused topics covered by individuals ‘modules’ in the project are smart energy technologies and smart care technologies; risks, rights and engineering; and sensing infrastructure.

At the moment CANDID Researchers are analysing interviews with stakeholders from industry, academe, policy and citizen initiatives. However, if you wish to get involved please contact the project via candid@uib.no.

The CANDID policy recommendations and final report are due to be published at the end of 2017.


Science with and for Society

One of the European Commission’s stated priorities is to encourage a Digital single market, to ‘maximise the growth potential of the European Digital Economy and of its society, so that every European can enjoy its full benefit’.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s funding scheme that implements the Innovation Union, an initiative aimed at improving global competitiveness. In what it calls ‘an ambitious and daring approach’, the latest 2016 and 2017 round of Horizon 2020 ICT research calls includes efforts to promote interaction between social sciences and humanities (SSH) and Information and communication technology (ICT) disciplines.

This Science with and for Society theme is to ‘build effective cooperation between science and society, to recruit new talent for science and to pair scientific excellence with social awareness and responsibility’. It also seeks to build capacities and innovative ways of connecting science to society, make science more attractive (notably to young people), increase society’s appetite for innovation, and open up further research and innovation activities.

Calls in this part of Horizon 2020 encouraged a range of societal actors to ‘work together during research and innovation processes to better align the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of European society’, an approach called Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

The commission also sees this part of Horizon 2020 as offering opportunities to challenge the framing of ICT research and for the ‘mainstreaming’ of RRI.


Innovation shaped by dialogue

Proposals such as the Commission’s 2012 Digital Futures Final Report A Journey into 2050 Visions and Policy Challenges envisions a world that requires a ‘future network paradigm (that) will connect anything, anybody, anytime, anywhere on any device’.

Aspirations for such technological progress is hoped for to produce economic growth but can also lead to new challenges, and possibly threats. An example the Commission itself highlighted is the circumstances that has seen applications of smart technologies resulting in trade-offs between personal privacy and national security.

The Commission also is aware that digital technologies and services have induced ‘pervasive and radical changes in our lives and in the societal system’.

So, in response, in 2015 (out of total Horizon 2020 ICT research budget for 2016 & 2017 of over €1billion), it budgeted €7,000,000 for research on the topic of Enabling responsible ICT-related research and innovation as call ICT-35-2016. This call was designed to support SSH expertise for ‘providing constructive and critical accompaniment for the scientific and technological developments for the projects funded under (Horizon 2020) LEIT-ICT, and to enable more responsible research and innovation in the digital age’.

The call offered to fund three year Research and Innovation Actions looking at relationships between information and communication technologies, and social phenomena. It also offered support for smaller short-term Research and Innovation Actions to engage SSH expertise and, potentially other actors, to reflect and challenge the way ICT-related research and innovation is currently approached in specific areas.

The Checking Assumptions aND promoting responsibility In smart Development project – or CANDID for short – was one of eight projects that applied for and was succesfully funded under ICT-35-2016. The five academic partners in the project were awarded €566,290 to study aspects of the ‘smart’ agenda, and offer insights on topics concerning users, design, digital rights and critical infrastructures, aimed at Responsible Innovation.

Centred on topics concerning of users, design, digital rights and critical infrastructures, CANDID offered to engage SSH and ICT – LEIT researchers in ‘extended peer communications’ aiming at Responsible Innovation. Coordination of the project, that started up in January 2017 is led by Universitetet i Bergen, Norway.


Dialogue, discourse analysis and insight

In a UOC Research Showcase in May 2017, Dr. Sara Degli Esposti described how the questions being addressed by CANDID could be seen as somewhat, “unsettling”.

‘Smart’ technologies can help people make better decisions, through automated collection and analysis of information.

“But,”, according to Sara in her talk, “such smart technologies can also be problematic, raising such questions as: who is designing the technology? Who is applying it, and for what purposes? What are the implications? What are the risks and benefits? And, how is technology changing the way we live?”

The CANDID project is addressing these issues, in the framework of the following objectives:

  • to facilitate an expanded and intensive dialogue aiming at Responsible Research and Innovation between practitioners from the Social and Human Sciences (SSH) and engineers and innovators in ICT
  • to describe and critically assess visions of ‘smart’ as they emerge within the ICT – programmes in Horizon 2020, and in public discourse more generally
  • to describe and produce insights on crucial topics on Science and Society intersections, as they play out within and in relation to visions of ‘smart’

For ICT practitioners, the first objective of an expanded dialogue might normally be considered a means to an end rather than a productive end in itself, but this different approach, according to Dr Maria Xenitidou of Surrey University, is deliberate.

“It’s true, there’s two views on dialogue”, she said. “One view is, indeed, that dialogue should be a starting point and should reach some closure, in a form, maybe, of a template. The other one, which is more our approach, is that a dialogue is actually an objective in itself”.

“It’s a thing we might want the EU Commission to pay attention to as a standard aim. There should be a dialogue as regards the ways in which responsible research and innovation is conducted, and attending to the public at large should be taken into account in ICT related research, so that SSH concerns are always considered.”

“This is something that we’re engaging peers in and would like to see continue beyond the project”, added Maria.

The second objective is also underway, to critically assess visions of ‘smart’ in Horizon 2020, and in public discourse. Discourse analysis, as Maria describes, provides,“a bird’s eye view of the discourse… focusing on the normative aspects of smart developments”.

This aspect of the project, labelled Module 4, is being led by the University of Surrey researchers.

The other modules attend to specific topics related to ‘smart’ technologies:

  • Module 1. User and Design Configurations: is focused on both Smart Energy Technologies and Smart Care Technologies, both topics considered areas of vital significance to society. This research is being led by researchers at Edinburgh University.
  • Module 2. Risks, Rights and Engineering: deals with more legal aspects, focused on the imminent procedures introduced by the EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR): Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) and Data Protection by Design and by Default (DPbD). This module is led by Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
  • Module 3. Sensing infrastructures: led by Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (OUC) is raising issues around awareness of sensing infrastructures; citizens’ empowerment and participation; and autonomous and intelligent machines.


Current state of play and Expected Impacts

Illustrative Gantt chart for CANDID

Illustrative Gantt chart for CANDID

CANDID is consulting the views of networks of experts (known as an ‘extended peer community’), such as technology developers, hackers, users, entrepreneurs, decision makers, and more experts in their fields, to identify the most critical and problematic aspects, and to point to cooperative methods for tackling these challenges.

The aim is to develop an interactive tool for technologists to help reflect on how to tackle the social aspects of ‘smart’ digital solutions and connected devices.

Some preliminary findings were presented and discussed at a June 2017 consortium meeting held in Bergen, Norway – the highlights of which will be revealed in forthcoming articles on this project website.

A consultation meeting is planned for September with members of the extended peer communities, ahead of a final conference in November that will help develop policy recommendations ahead of the final report at the end of the year.

CANDID is already fostering interdisciplinary discussions about the risks and opportunities of ’smart’ technologies, and its participants are looking at how such dialogue can encourage and help increase the capacity for responsible research and innovation in Europe.

To get involved you can contact the project coordinator at candid@uib.no.

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