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Technological Governance

server centreTechnology development is often portrayed as a critical element in finding solutions to some of the most pressing and acute social challenges to human well-being, including food, energy production, security, medicine, climate change, industry and intellectual capital.  But, as the history of science testifies, the contribution of technological progress to human well-being has not been unequivocally positive. 

Hence, some kind of regulation may be needed in order to improve the chances of stimulating technologies that contribute to human flourishing whilst minimising applications that are, for one reason or another, unacceptable.

Yet the process and trajectories of technological development - and their broader impacts - are highly context-dependent and thus neither linear nor predictable. This makes the task of establishing and maintaining structures, processes and deliberation that can deliver legitimate and effective regulatory governance a particularly challenging and intractable one.  

The observations made by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in its report on ‘Emerging Biotechnologies’, detailing the characteristic features that distinguish emerging biotechnologies from biotechnologies, could be readily applied to other emerging technologies:

  1. Uncertainty about the range of possible outcomes from a given technology which cannot be estimated with any reliable degree of scientific precision
  2. Ambiguity of meaning and value attached to the practices, products and outcomes of emerging technologies and thus liable to provoke considerable social contestation
  3. The transformative potential of emerging technologies to produce profound changes in social, commercial physical environments that may have significant implications for shared ways of life.  Yet the potentially pervasive and irreversible nature of such transformations underscores the importance of opening up reflection and public deliberation as part of the legitimate and effective governance of technological development and its incorporation into society.

Scholars within TELOS are engaged in a range of projects that seek critically to interrogate the challenges, institutions and dynamics of technological governance.

page dividing lineThe Transnational Governance of Technological Risk

Disputes about the desirability of promoting or forestalling new technologies invariably provoke debate about the need for regulation and the legitimacy of attempts to regulate technological development. These debates are, in essence, debates about how different, locally embedded societies. on the one hand, and the ‘global community’, on the other, seek to understand and manage technological risk.

Although technological risk is typically associated with tangible harms - understood in terms of harms to health and the environment - from a transnational perspective other collective harms that are associated with threats to cultural, political and moral norms and values, and which are often associated with contemporary technological innovation, become equally visible. But because any assessment of the merits and dangers associated with such technologies is embedded in local values - however contested, pronounced or silenced - such assessments are always unstable. Hence attempts to identify, understand and quantify these risks in order to devise a legitimate and effective legal and regulatory framework for ‘managing’ those risks is fraught with difficulty.

The emergence of ‘new’ technologies and the assessment of their merits as well as their risks are -inevitably - part of particular, contextualised and historical traditions of societal evolution. Hence there is no objective or universal, even less a globally accepted consensus, concerning the up- or downsides of technological innovation. Instead, technological developments are deeply embedded in contested narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, narratives which are partly domestic and highly idiosyncratic yet also shaped by a range of border-crossing discourses including those around ‘development’.

By adopting a transnational perspective on technological innovation which investigates how technological and human progress, development and risk are perceived at a concrete, local level whilst being embedded and shaped by global and transnational forces, our research seeks ultimately to obtain a richer, contextualised and more realistic understanding of the ways in which these ideas evolve over time and space. Through a pluralistic transnational understanding of debates about technological innovation, which attends to the underlying political economy that drives particular technological innovations within a broader geopolitical context (including increasing concerns about the need to tame these trajectories) we may acquire a better sense of the implications of technology for democracy, liberty, justice and human flourishing.

Academics working in this area:
  • Professor Karen Yeung 
  • Professor Peer Zumbansen

page dividing lineResponsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

Debates about whether or not particular technological innovations are likely to contribute to, or detract from, human well-being often give rise to calls for regulation in order to minimise their harmful consequences while maximising opportunities to promote socially beneficial outcomes. Increasingly, these debates (and the alleged need for intervention) are moving ‘upstream’ in their focus: to the early stages of technological research and development. In the context of global capitalism, it is largely left to the market mechanism to decide which technological innovations count as societal ‘improvements’, with a tendency for policy evaluation to focus on the success of technological development understood primarily in economic terms. Recognising the need to inject greater societal reflection and broader participation into the process of technological development, the idea of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)’ has emerged as offering a governance framework through which the alignment of the impacts of technology and innovation with societal demands and values can be improved by through increasing stakeholder and citizen participation and reflexivity throughout the innovation cycle.

Although there is no single definition of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’, arguably the most well-known is that offered by Rene Von Schomberg (2012) who defines it as a ‘transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society).’ As Risto and Guston (2012) observe, ‘RRI is about trying to get better at anticipating problems, taking into account wider social, ethical and environmental issues and being able to create flexible and adaptive systems to deal with these unintended consequences’. 1

Major funding bodies, including the Horizon 2020 European Commission Research and Innovation programme, and the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, are addressing this issue by insisting on the integration of RRI into funded research programmes. Yet the dimensions of a RRI governance framework, and the mechanisms for implementing RRI remain largely unspecified, leaving the task of developing governance structures and mechanisms for particular technological sectors to be worked out in specific contexts. Thus, not only are the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings still to be worked out, so too are the specific governance mechanisms in seeking to secure RRI’s aspirations and translate them into scientific practice. 

1Towards Anticipatory Governance, the experience with Nanotechnology, Karinen Risto and David H. Guston Sociology of the Sciences, 2010, Volume 27, 4, 217-232, DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2834-1_12 

Academics working in this area:
  • Professor Nikolas Rose
  • Dr Christine Aicardi
  • Dr Michael Reinsborough

page dividing linePublic Policy and the Science of Human Decision-Making

Breakthroughs in medical research that operate on the human mind and body are widely championed as offering hope to those suffering from serious illness or the disabling effects of accidents or disease. But advances in the biomedical and neurosciences may implicate public policy in other important ways. 

For example, considerable academic reflection in the field of bioethics has been concerned with interrogating the ethics of so-called ‘human enhancement’ techniques involving the application of biomedical techniques to pursue non-therapeutic purposes.  For example, cognitive enhancers might be employed by individuals to extend their mental concentration, while exoskeletons might be used to supplement the physical capacities of soldiers and others engaged in heavy physical labour, such as nurses when lifting patients.  Although much of the academic discussion surrounding so-called human enhancement technologies has focused largely on the ethics of utilising biomedical techniques by individuals in pursuit of personal projects of self-creation, more recent discussions draw attention to the possibility of utilising biomedical interventions to elicit the ‘moral enhancement’ of individuals as a means for securing public policy goals.  

But scientific advances may be utilised in the policy process and in the operation of our social, political and legal institutions in other ways. For instance, might neuroscience fundamentally change concepts of legal responsibility? In theory, neuroscientific insights might be harnessed by policy-makers with the aim of enhancing the effectiveness of public policy interventions armed with scientific insight on the nature and limitations of human decision-making. Could aspects of a convicted person’s brain help to determine whether they are at an increased risk of re-offending? Will it ever be possible to use brain scans to ‘read minds’, for instance, with the aim of determining whether they are telling the truth, or whether their memories are false?

This influence of bio and neurosciences on public policy making and implementation generate a host of legal, regulatory and moral questions concerning the nature of humanity and the acceptability of employing technologies which have the potential to alter our understanding of what it means to be human; the interests of future generations; the interpretation of safety, risk and other human values; the role of law and regulatory institutions in mediating conflicting interests and values in light of technological advance as well as shifting social, political and moral landscapes.

Academics working in this area:
  • Professor Karen Yeung 
  • Dr Jillian Craigie
  • Mr Yannis Paloyelis
  • Ms Shanmugapriya Umachandran

page dividing lineTechnological ‘Design’ as an Instrument of Governance

Regulatory techniques refer to the tools and instruments intentionally employed by regulators with the aim of bringing about a desired social outcome, typically by seeking to change the behaviour of others. While lawyers tend to focus on the way in which the law can be employed to shape social behaviour, another such technique includes the use of technological design. 

‘Design-based’ regulatory techniques can be understood as the purposeful shaping of the environment and the things and beings within it with the goal of directing designated activities towards articular ends. Legal scholars have explored the way in which design can be employed to shape behaviour. This scholarship has tended to occur in highly localized contexts: ‘nudge’ techniques aimed at deliberately reconfiguring the social choice context to encourage behaviours deemed desirable have acquired recent prominence; cyberlaw scholars have highlighted how software code is designed to regulate behaviour in cyberspace; and criminologists have demonstrated how ‘situational crime prevention’ techniques can reduce opportunities for criminal wrongdoing.

While the turn to design has understandable attractions for policy-makers and those with a stake in influencing the behaviour of others, it raises a number of legal and ethical questions that bear upon their legitimacy, including concerns about transparency, accountability and ways in which they might fail to demonstrate respect for persons. Research in this field interrogates these and other questions, seeking to understand the way in which ‘design’ operates as a mode of control and the conditions under which particular forms of design may or may not be regarded as legitimate.

Academics working in this area:
  • Professor Karen Yeung 
  • Professor Roger Brownsword 
  • Dr Angie Kehagia
  • Professor Nikolas Rose
  • Ms Shanmugapriya Umachandran


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