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The Responsible Response

Chiara Davalli reflects on the inputs that emerged from EBN’s involvement in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) over the last 5 years

Over the last half decade, EBN, through the participation in EU-funded projects such as RRI Tools and COMPASS, was part of an inspiring journey that enabled it to meet with, and learn from, a wide range of Research & Innovation (R&I) stakeholders and experts from across Europe.

It is a commonly held view that R&I are expected to cover, meet and solve today’s global challenges. Society expects R&I to cope with a wide range of pressing needs affecting European citizens: climate change, demographic changes, energy shortage, pollution… to name just a few. All these challenges are characterised by growing complexity and uncertainty and require collective and coordinated actions to address them.

Indeed, science and technology could contribute to solving these grand challenges, but some have proved to be controversial (such as intense factory farming, big data, GMOs… we’ve all heard the rumours) or have had unexpected (negative) consequences. In other instances needs haven’t been met, while others have been created – for example, most drug research and its impact on wealth and the wealthy. All of this, and more, pose justified questions about the ethical acceptability and the social desirability of R&I processes and results.

These ‘unexpected’ consequences, the controversies and failures we observe today from the R&I system are mainly (but not only) due to a mismatch between innovation players and society, between the interests of the former and the needs of the latter. In several cases key actors haven’t been engaged, contributing to generating a climate of mistrust towards science and innovation. 

The impact this mismatch can have on social cohesion, economics, politics and even public health (just for starters) has the potential for serious societal problems. That’s why, from 2011 onwards, the European Commission has been pushing forward the RRI concept vigorously. 


Responsible Research and Innovation is an approach that anticipates and assesses potential implications and societal expectations with regard to research and innovation, with the aim to foster the design of inclusive and sustainable research and innovation.

RRI is a holistic approach taking different variables into account: it is about including all actors, considering specific key issues (such as gender equality or open data) and integrating some process dimensions in R&I practice.

Responsible Research and Innovation is about including different perspectives when defining the objectives and the modalities of the innovation process; it has to recognise diversity as a resource; it has to be anticipatory and reflective, thinking wide and wild, considering different options and potential alternatives; it needs to be open and transparent, even if this is very difficult (especially for private sector). But in order to be truly transformative, research and innovation need to be responsive. Responsiveness is a crucial attitude at the individual (researchers, entrepreneurs, citizens, policy makers), systemic and institutional level.

“Innovation is about transforming the future,” said Prof Richard Owen (University of Exeter Business School) in an interview to RRI Tools in June 2015. “RRI recognises the transformative power of research and innovation to create the future. The responsible approach grips with broader ethical, social, environmental, political dimensions of science, technology and innovation as they are happening and not at some point in the future”. We therefore need to understand what kind of future we want R&I to produce and how it can be shaped in an inclusive way. It could be said that RRI is a “complexity management approach”, able to turn challenges into opportunities and bring added value to individuals, and to the society as a whole.

There remains quite a lot of work to do in making RRI an operational concept, shared within the whole innovation ecosystem, and particularly for, and within, the private sector.


Why should businesses consider aspects such as environmental and social impacts, gender balance inside their organisation, and inclusive approaches towards final users and consumers of their product/service? In other words, why should they behave as responsible innovative businesses? Why and how should they integrate responsible approaches and practices into their businesses? From a business perspective, the idea of ‘contributing to a better world’ is probably not enough motivation to implement Responsible Research and Innovation. However, RRI is beneficial, even strategic, for businesses themselves. 

Innovating in an inclusive and societallyoriented way can open up new opportunities, especially for startups and SMEs in Europe, as some of the RRI processes and values are already in their DNA - flexible, adaptable, less hierarchical, willing to experiment with potential benefit of emerging technologies to meet societal challenges.

By adopting a responsible approach businesses can obtain competitive advantages such as cost reductions, sales and profit margins, risk reductions, improved relationships with investors looking for reduced-risk investments, increased attractiveness as an employer, better supply chain engagement, improved reputation and brand value, increased innovative capabilities, and better relationships with government, regulators and local communities, etc.

If we look at the contemporary digital context, at the growing ‘participation demand’ of millennials, we see how more and more actors want to be part of the ongoing debates relating to looming global challenges that are both complex and often ambiguous.

The growing attention of policy makers and R&I actors to co-design and co-create, user-centred methodologies also ratifies how societal challenges require innovative solutions resulting from a multistakeholder dialogue. This generates positive externalities for SMEs adopting this inclusive approach:

  • Broader vision/Long term vision
  • Increased and improved relationship with customers and users 
  • Increased awareness about upcoming regulatory regimes
  •  New business processes focusing on customers rather than competitors
  •  New resources of creativity and innovation

Over the past seven years, since the RRI approach has been pushed forward by the EC, R&I players in Europe and beyond are getting more and more familiar with it. However RRI advocacy remains a priority goal. Therefore, the European Commission has funded several initiatives aimed at promoting it among different stakeholders.


EBN has been/is involved in a few key initiatives which contributed towards making RRI accessible to the entrepreneurial world: RRI Tools (2014- 2016) and COMPASS (2016-2019).

The RRI Tools project, developed the RRI Toolkit – a universal ‘point of call’ for policy makers, researchers, industries, civil society organisations and educators on questions of RRI. This is an impressive repository of 400 plus online resources from all over Europe to help a broad range of stakeholders implementing Responsible Research and Innovation. It includes ‘howto’ guidelines that explain how to apply RRI to specific situations: corporate responsibility, RRI criteria for investors, or how to embed RRI principles into a business plan. It presents success stories of companies that used RRI to reconsider their business models, develop new products, services or technologies, or even improve their production processes. It explores how inviting unexpected stakeholders into research and innovation processes allows novel ways of understanding your company's potential


Building on RRI Tools and other EC funded projects focusing on RRI in industry and business, the COMPASS project aims to facilitate the implementation of Responsible Research and Innovation in European SMEs in three key innovation fields: nanotechnology, ICT and healthcare. Through co-creation processes, COMPASS aims to foster cross-sector, multistakeholder collaboration in these key innovation fields for improved RRI processes and outcomes, and clearly defines what drives RRI in the SME context



EBN is also part of HEIRRI Advisory Board. The HEIRRI project (Higher Education Institutions and Responsible Research and Innovation) aims to start the integration of RRI within the formal and informal education of future scientists, engineers and other professionals involved in the R&D&I process. We believe that HEIs can play a strategic role in preparing the next generation of responsible entrepreneurs.

In conversation with Gema Revuelta, Universitat Pompeu Fabra – Coordinator, HEIRRI project

How would you pitch the HEIRRI project?

HEIRRI stresses the importance and potential of RRI as a transformative, critical and radical concept based on the six RRI key aspects identified by the European Commission (public engagement, gender, open access, science education, ethics and governance). HEIRRI has done an inventory of RRI teaching, including a State of the Art Review and a Database. This work has helped design the HEIRRI training programmes and teaching materials, which will be tested in several institutions around Europe and beyond. Results from these pilots will be used to improve the materials, and then they will be available on open access to all HEIs.

How Higher Education Institutions can prepare the next generation of responsible entrepreneurs and how do they reach out to that audience?

By including in the curricula skills like critical thinking and reflexivity, and specially by including practical contents and exercises that enable university students (the future entrepreneurs) to have a dialogue with the different groups of stakeholders, who in the future will be the consumers of their innovations, or their work colleagues from several disciplines, or their investors, or the politicians who will decide on science and technology matters. University students are too far away from society and the real world. HEIRRI develops didactic materials that help develop a more responsible approach to societal aspects and a general consideration for all stakeholders involved. Moreover, innovative methodologies are used to encourage the uptake of these skills, like Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) and Problem Based Learning (PBL). 

How is HEIRRI supporting HEIs to embed RRI in their curricula?

In the first place, by creating specific training programmes and their respective educational materials. Secondly, through an ambitious internationalisation plan with which many actions are being developed with main university networks in Europe and around the world. These networks are already very interested in the materials we are developing and some are actively participating in the project, either from the consortium and its advisory boards, or in the conferences, the HEIRRI online forum, or the many channels of collaboration that this initiative enables. At the end of the project, we hope that any HEI interested in embedding RRI in their curricula will know that our resources exist and that they can take the HEIRRI programme that suits them best, adapt it as desired, and simply follow the course instructions.

More information: 

In conversation with Katharina Jarmai, WU Institute for Managing Sustainability – Coordinator, COMPASS 

How would you ‘pitch’ the COMPASS project to SMEs?

COMPASS supports Small and MediumSized Enterprises (SMEs) in managing their research and innovation practices responsibly. SMEs are invited to develop their company-specific approach to responsible innovation in a custom designed workshop setting. In close collaboration with SMEs and innovation support organisations, COMPASS will develop a self-check tool for SMEs, with roadmaps detailing steps towards responsible innovation and training materials for innovation support organisations.

Project news and information about how to get involved can be found at

How do you see the take-up of RRI concept by SMEs? What do you think are the main barriers/challenges ?

Awareness about the potential of RRI in business is currently confined to a few front-runners. Main barriers for take-up of RRI by SMEs are a lack of information about RRI in general and about potential benefits and implications of RRI for companies in particular, on the one hand, and limited personnel and financial resources of SMEs on the other. Additional barriers include the frequent separation of research & development activities from engagement with the enduser, a strong technical focus of many managers and a perceived lack of explicit, long-term policy commitment to RRI. 

RRI is a complex concept, reflecting the complexity of today’s challenges. How SMEs can manage complexity in their innovation processes?

While large companies often implement innovation management processes, SMEs tend to perform research and innovation in a more intuitive, ‘learning-by-doing’ kind of way. A first step towards managing complexity could be the explicit formulation of the company's purpose for performing research and innovation - and the expected impact on the environment and the society. Institutionalised anticipation of potential implications of the company’s research and innovation or RRIbased criteria for decision-making are additional options for managing the complexity of innovation processes in terms of RRI. 

COMPASS aims at developing a selfcheck tool and creating roadmaps in three strategic sectors. What’s new from previous initiatives?

From the very beginning of the project, all partners agreed that we would need to cooperate with SMEs and innovation support organisations in order to co-create resources that are useful for companies. The self-check tool is based on insights from interviews with key industry representatives and case studies of RRI front-runners, and will be finalised after a pilot-testing phase with SMEs. The roadmaps will be created together with SMEs and innovation support organisations in custom-designed workshop settings. The aim of the project is to accompany and support SMEs in exploring RRI for their particular company.

Definitions matter: how would you explain in a very brief and meaningful way RRI to a young entrepreneur who just founded a startup in the biomedicine sector?

Responsible research and innovation means that you assume responsibility for the impact of your research and innovation on society. It means that you adhere to fundamental ethical principles in your research and innovation processes, include (diverse) internal and external actors, make scientific knowledge available to society and support science education. It also means that you anticipate potential implications of your research and innovation, and take the necessary steps to increase positive impact and avoid negative impact. 

EBN is a network of organisations supporting entrepreneurs across Europe and beyond. What can organisations like EU|BICs do to support SMEs embracing and applying the RRI approach?

Innovation support organisations can play a vital part in promoting responsible research and innovation. They can offer training (based on training materials from COMPASS and other RRI projects) to support SMEs in exploring the potential of RRI for themselves and in operationalising it adequately. They could also act as intermediaries, because they are the ones who understand the needs of SMEs and the socio-political context these SMEs operate in. When EU|BICs integrate RRI in their support services, they can accelerate the propagation of responsible research and innovation practices across Europe. 

As Winston Churchill rightly said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, now we have to think”. Now we are not running out of money, we are running out of a clean planet. Therefore, we cannot afford foolishness, it is too expensive. Responsibility requires complex thinking, wide angle analysis and forecasting of consequences.

BioGas+ by AppNPs - Spanish company COMPASS Case Study


We need business in and for society. This is also the scope of the brand new EUfunded initiative the Social Challenges Innovation Platform, which aims to match social challenges with the best innovative solutions coming from the entrepreneurial world. Powered by Meta Group, EBN and Impact Hub it aims at designing, creating and enabling an online ecosystem encouraging the interaction between social innovators and SMEs. It will help to codevelop and take up the sustainable and marketable innovations with clear social and environmental impact ( When talking with SMEs and R&D&I players, the key issue is about choosing the way to innovate. The Responsible Research and Innovation is a possible (and desirable) direction to gear one’s thinking and one’s business. To eventually be a driver for economic growth - in a social, ethical and sustainable way. We cannot afford to allow opportunities to slip past us now. Failure to act now and implement a responsible way to innovate is to fail to save ourselves. 

Open innovation, open science, open to the world “We should not be afraid of testing new ideas and piloting new actions. But we then must have the discipline to stop those which are not working, and the ambition to scale up what works. Research and innovation must take a long-term perspective and not be trapped by the past. And we must make sure that each one of our actions brings in new entrants, young researchers, dynamic entrepreneurs, and people who have never been involved in European research and innovation. […]”.

Carlos Moedas - Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation ‘A new start for Europe: Opening up to an ERA of Innovation’ Conference 

Chiara Davalli joined the EBN team in April 2010. She has a Postgraduate Degree in International Relations, a Degree in International Studies from the University of Florence (Italy) and an Executive Master in European Studies from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). In EBN, she assisted the Quality & Technical Assistance Department for two years before joining the EU projects team where she is now in charge of the following projects: INNO INDIGO, SCHIP, COMPASS, INCOBRA and CEBRABIC. Her linguistic skills include Italian, English, French, Spanish. 

Published on 18-07-2017 00:00 by Chiara Davalli. 809 page views

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