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Innovating responsibly in a culture of entrepreneurship

Uploaded by RRI Tools on 15 August 2019

Article published on August 13th 2019 at Edge of Innovation, a blog hosted by, that explores the cutting edge of emerging technologies and responsible innovation, written and curated by Andrew Maynard, Director of the Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab and Professor in the ASU School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS)

The article is based on chapter 32 (Responsible innovation in a culture of entrepreneurship: a US perspective” co-authored with Elizabeth Garbee) of The International Handbook on Responsible Innovation, edited by René von Schomberg and Jonathan Hankins, and published by Edward Elgar Publishing

Innovating responsibly in a culture of entrepreneurship (*)

Most entrepreneurs want to make the world a better place — but how can they do this responsibly, amidst the pressures to succeed?

(*) Article based on chapter 32 of The International Handbook on Responsible Innovation "Responsible innovation in a culture of entrepreneurship: a US perspective” Co-authored with Elizabeth Garbee.



In the spring of 2013 and for the next two years, I taught a new course on entrepreneurial ethics as a part of the new University of Michigan Master of Entrepreneurship program. The course was unusual on two fronts. First, it explored and developed concepts in a hands-on way that would provide budding entrepreneurs with a practical grounding in socially responsive and sustainable innovation. Second, it was part of a program reflecting a growing trend across the USA of training and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs as key drivers of economic growth and prosperity. Both the program and the course captured a growing awareness of the importance of translating individual creativity and drive into successful enterprises, and the responsibility that comes from this, particularly given the capacity of the emerging technologies that are so often integral to entrepreneurship to enable great good, or cause great harm.

At the start of the class each year, I asked students what they truly wanted to achieve, and which of their personal goals drew them toward becoming entrepreneurs. Predictably, one or two students each year admitted to wanting to make money. Yet the vast majority of class participants had more pressing aims. They wanted to reduce poverty and suffering, help treat disease, increase health and well-being, improve education, and protect and enhance the environment. To these students, becoming an entrepreneur meant, more than anything else, the opportunity to make the world a better place.

Such aspirations are easy to dismiss as the dreams of the young and naive. Yet among entrepreneurs — even those who are well established — there is often a prevailing drive to do good, using whatever ideas, means and opportunities are available to them. This is a perspective that, in principle, should make the entrepreneurial community early adopters of the concepts embedded in responsible innovation. There is, after all, a close alignment of values between the aspiration to do good, and the idea of societal benefit. Yet, while the University of Michigan students understood the importance of building their entrepreneurial futures on a strong ethical foundation, they found it difficult to connect with the then prevalent conceptualizations of responsible innovation. To them, the concepts they were presented with were too academic, too institutionalized and too out of touch with their realities to make sense to them. There was a dissonance between the aims of responsible innovation and its practical application within this community that was both surprising and unsettling.

This disconnect might simply reflect a broader global challenge in translating laudable ideas into the harsh realities of starting up new enterprises, but I suspect it also stems from some of the complexities and unique features of American entrepreneurial culture.
The growth of university-based entrepreneurial programs in the USA such as the program at the University of Michigan, is (in part) a cultural celebration of individual inventiveness and an unequivocal affirmation of the belief that, in the USA, the fulfillment of the American Dream is available to everyone who works hard enough for it. Americans cheer for the underdog because they see in them a reflection of themselves, their neighbors, and anyone who has ever dared to dream big, and pursue that dream with a stubborn persistence. America’s unique flavor of entrepreneurialism has given birth to some of the biggest names in the technology business – Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Anne Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg, among many others – and is attracting tens of thousands of entrepreneur hopefuls to its ranks. It is built on a culture of experimentation and opportunism, of failing fast and failing forward, of taking the latest technology and seeing how far you can run with it. Above all is a belief that, as an entrepreneur, you can make the world a better place, while having the personal ride of your life.

This is a culture of entrepreneurialism that, paradoxically, reflects the ideals of responsible innovation, yet rejects many of the manifestations of these ideals. It does not respond well to top-down governance; it pushes the boundaries of what is considered doable and acceptable, and it is powered by an economics of invention and investment that is often opaque to top-down interventions. This is an influential community from which novel applications of new technologies often emerge, and where the unimaginable begins its journey toward the normal. It is a community that collectively pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and what is not; what is societally of value, and what is not; and what is safe and sustainable, and what is not. It challenges norms and realigns expectations, often with a willful disregard for future consequences as it embraces disruption and change, again leading to disparity between aspirations to do good and a desire to disrupt. This is not a culture that fits neatly into the laudable aspirations of responsible innovation as envisaged by leading thinkers such as von Schomberg, Stilgoe and Owen.










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