Academic report adopted by vote at the NATF Plenary session May 13, 2015
Understanding how innovative products (or services) emerge, identifying the factors that encourage or hold back their appropriation by Society, analysing the questions in terms of wide ranging changes induced by use of technologies and the conditions and constrained needed for a dialogue with Society, constitute the central guide-line of this Academic Report (adopted by vote at the June 2015, NATF Plenary session)
Technologies & Innovation
Technologies have been defined as the “the design, production and use by Men of material or immaterial (for example software) original objects (that did not exist before in natural conditions) and enabling the realization of a precise task”. This combined formulation and not just the artefacts and services that must be taken into account, all the more so that these objects only represent the visible tip (but gradually disappearing) of the underlying “technical systems” which provide their specific properties.
The notion “innovation” will be used to designate new technologies that will be disseminated in Society.
The authors of the Report therefore did not focus solely on innovations but on the ensemble of technologies used at a given point in time by Society, no matter how old the technologies may be. This ‘technical bouquet’ – which extends beyond innovations – is the focal point for dialogue between Society and the technologies, in the two configurations of “appropriation “ and “mis(dis)appropriation”.
The notion “appropriation” integrates a set of processes including the initial contact (in both the intellectual and sensorial connotation) and possible adoption of the artefacts, and their “assimilation” in our thought and action routines, the effect of this assimilation and the effects on the way we approach new technical objects.
The Report has four main chapters and a conclusion:
1. THE GENESIS OF INNOVATIONS
The first chapter focuses on understanding how innovations emerge and analyses two visions of the phenomenon, one privileging the offer (the production side of products) and the other which looks at the decisive impact of social dynamics. In fine, the reader is invited to consider innovations not as simple productions by “genial” producers but as rather infrequent “singularity points”, resulting from a positive encounter of technical and social dynamics, of an offer from both the inventors and due to societal expectations. After analysis, our Academy recommends that increased attention should be paid to following and understanding social dynamics, starting with the conviction that the difficulties encountered in a process of dissemination of a given technology and the associate debates (or controversies), are not due to “irrational” behaviours by the potential users faced with an invention that most clearly marks a progress, but from opinions, convictions and representations that can be made explicit and understood, but perhaps not necessarily shared.
2. APPROPRIATION/MIS(DIS)APPROPRIATION: THE DECISIVE FACTORS
This chapter examines the factors of “appropriation”, i.e., those factors that favour or hold back the appropriation process, leading the authors to partly leave aside the vision that in order to be correctly appropriated, technical objects need to be perfectly developed and “certified finalized”, which is the reply to essentially functional concerns. Although we would avoid talking this paradox too far, it transpires that the unfinished, open, characteristic where the object can be further improved and reoriented is a favourable factor for appropriation. It also seems – without ignoring the economic factors when technology-intensive objects are disseminated – that numerous other dimensions (cultural, aesthetics, symbolic, psychological) also contribute to the appropriation process. Moreover, these dimensions may relate not only to the objects themselves, but also the entire technical system that generated the objects. It is therefore important for the Academy to pursue the analysis of multiple factors that will determine how a technical object will be declared “promising”, beyond its strictly concrete utility.
3. SOCIETAL QUESTIONS
Chapter 3 takes into account and analyses how societal questions arise faced with technology-induced change, whatever its precise nature. The authors were led not to diminish the importance of the changes, avoiding, for example, to present them as simple “perfections” for already existing technologies, nor to assert that the concerns expressed come from an imprecise perception of the risk factors. On the contrary, we should admit that technologies do change society profoundly, and also our perception of the environment of ourselves and other people round us. In particular, this third chapter underscores the role of technologies in “resetting” the world, i.e., changing over from a world (education, politics …) “dominated” by hierarchic relationships to one with predominantly horizontal relationships among “peers” which are become increasingly important in terms of economics, society and politics. Consequently, the Academy will be required to accept to document, wherever possible, various positive or negative aspects associated with a given technology, but without going as far as “setting the balance” on behalf of Society, i.e., without pretending to act as a substitute for the citizens themselves, or the political policy makers, to assess the global impact of the balance.
4. THE CONDITIONS TO SET UP A DIALOGUE WITH SOCIETY
The fourth chapter is devoted to an analysis of certain conditions and constraints in terms of the necessary dialogue with Society. First of all, we must recognize that the demands for debates here often occur at the wrong moments, i.e., when a social or economic crisis is under way. Then we must also recognize (or ensure that it is recognized) that an a priori assessment of novel technologies is necessary but cannot hope to identify all the positive or negative consequences of introducing a new technology have on Society. And above all other considerations, we should not draw on this “impossibility” argument to refute our moral responsibilities. Lastly, we must profit from the opportunity offered to assert and assume certain strong convictions as to the contribution technologies make to progress, and to the need to “frame” and verbalize as early as possible the new technologies that arise and to aid the plurality of expression of all those involved in technology, notable the technologist themselves.
CONCLUSION – INNOVATION SEEN AS A COLLECTIVE PROCESS
By way of a conclusion, the authors and the Academy whose Fellows formally adopted the Report, recommend that in order to attract future innovators, the innovation process should not be seen solely as the results of “inventors, capable of designing from A to Z an innovation and, in a word, to be its undisputed “father”. On the contrary, we should be showing that it is every bit as important to elaborate tomorrow’s innovative products and services, by encouraging talents to identify all possible, potential, innovations, to develop them, to combine them and to incorporate them in economic development strategies.
This assertion is especially valid for “large-scale technical systems” that play an ever increasing and important role in Society today and which requires that considerable sized teams work on combining innovative processes as well as products, to prepare, develop and perfect them and finally to mobilize the creative talents of numerous and complementary personalities.