Flows of ideas and responsibilities in innovation

A look at Europe

There’s no work or capital that doesn’t start with an act of intelligence. Therefore, if the circulation of ideas is closed, the circulation of wealth also remains closed.

Carlo Cattaneo

If looked at from a historical perspective, the flow of ideas has never been so intense as today. In its own small way, the article you are reading, circulating on-line, bears witness to this – thoughts are turned into words, the words travel on bits, and the internet makes them mobile, fast and able to arrive anywhere.

What interests us here is thinking about the link between flows of ideas and their consequences, and especially the way flows of knowledge meet those of innovation. The quotation of Cattaneo, one of the liveliest thinkers of the Republican and Federalist 19th century, rediscovered recently because of the topicality of his work, is intended to remind us that the subject is relevant because “If the circulation of ideas is closed, the circulation of wealth also remains closed.”

What perimeter interests us? Let’s choose Europe. This large area of the world is often defined starting from its relationship between freedom of thought and ability to live together freely.
Entire generations have been animated, and often deceived, by this for centuries. In his lessons on Europe. History of a civilisation (1945), Lucien Febvre wrote,

This seductive Europe, this prestigious Europe, this plausible Europe, became a chimera, a dream, a mirage from the end of the 18th century. The men who personified its idea were lucky enough to live at a time when Europe, beyond the countries, frontiers and hordes of diplomats (…) was the common language and daily attention of cultivated people. These people lived at a time when there was another reality beyond all realities – unity, brotherhood and the deep understanding of free spirits who spoke the same tongue, read the same books and wrote them, were stirred by the same thoughts and conceived the same projects.
(…) The emperors and empresses of an extravagant time of great men and women, from Frederic II to Joseph II (Holy Roman Emperor) and Catherine the Great to Maria Theresa of Austria, who also spoke the same language as the people; these kings and queens who led all the game of the political forces, who handled the material strengths, were stirred by the same thoughts as the philosophers and the citizens of the Europe of the enlightenment. And those kings and queens did not just ask those philosophers to think, to fill their spirits with ideas. They asked them for the constitutions and projects for the reform of their countries. 

It was an illusion and the rise of nations and nationalisms in the 19th century showed this. However, this long historical digression is necessary for reiterating the relationship between flows of ideas, changes and the resulting new responsibilities.

We talk about Europe because the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI in commission jargon) has spread in the institutions of different levels. The opportunities opened by waves of innovation, starting from the techno-sciences – biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, neurosciences, robotics and Big Data, generate expectations but also fears.

Three examples. In 2002, Fukuyama pondered the social and historical impact of biotechnologies in the book Our Post-human Future, recalling two earlier, well-known works – Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) and 1984 (written by Orwell in 1948). Two disturbing views of the future, two apocalyptic readings of innovation, whose emergence is a historical fact that deals with the fear of re-invention in the sphere of social, and so political, relations.

So the demand arises for transparent mechanisms to involve citizens in the decisions between science and society, toavoid unjustifiable blocks on innovation, the stigmatisation of the new technologies or the creation of barriers to the development of innovative products,1  driving agrowing commitment of top level political institutions to leave space for the citizen’s voice in the decisions that influence their lives and involve them in making governments more responsive and responsible2”. 

Thus, the concept of Responsible Innovation has become a fundamental principal in EU research and innovation policies. Horizon 2020 has dedicated whole lines of credit to it (Science with and for society) and links it to the three ‘Os’ of the European Commissioner Moedas – Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World. At the same time, European tenders insist on ethical and social profiles of, for example, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Citizen Science in the health sector.

In conclusion, when the flows of knowledge meet an implementing power, innovation becomes the fulfilment of the improbable, difficult to regulate beforehand. Yet, Cattaneo’s “circulation of ideas” remains open – we have before us examples of how innovation and intelligence are able to create answers to questions that are also new. There is the algorithm increasingly understood as irresponsible automatism (flows of decisions taken based on automatisms that are so sophisticated that they seem to escape from our control) but then the antidote emerges in the concept of blockchain, another flow – a chain of digital relations, to guarantee trust when the number of transactions becomes immense and they are automatic3.

The purpose of a lively, cultured society is to provide the courage of institutional creativity, its ability to acquire antibodies in the face of fears that are partly new. This is a future still to be reached, if not to resolve at least to balance the tensions that are a feature of innovation, such as those between local and global, and specialist and widespread knowledge. All we can say is that we have taken the first steps.

1. Memorandum: Principles for regulation and oversight of emerging technologies, Holdren et al., 2011
2. Democratising Engagement: What the U.K. can learn from international experience, Cornwall, A., 2008
3. Alessandro Scoscia in the website of the Fondazione Giannino Bassetti: http://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/focus/2017/09/blockchain_la_tempesta_in_inte.html

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Francesco Samoré

Milanese, is 41. After graduating in Economic History in 2005, he started working with the Centro per la cultura d’impresa (Centre for Business Culture) and writes books and articles on the structure of the contemporary Italian economy. He gained a PhD on the history of the company and business finance in 2009. He works with Globus et Locus and took over the scientific direction of the Fondazione Giannino Bassetti in 2011. The Foundation was set up in 1994 for the promotion of responsible practice in innovation nationally and internationally.