The CTS/C!S Project „DEBIAS“ placed first in the idea competition hosted by the Co-Change Project. Representing the CTS, I was fortunate to visit Tecnalia, one of the consortial partners in the Co-Change Project in Bilbao, Spain.
The visit [July 15, 2022] included a one-day workshop and a guided tour, and was focused on an exchange of ideas on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and interdisciplinarity in technology development, and to gain insights into Tecnalia’s RRI-related activities and organisational transformations.
Just a short bus ride from Bilbao’s city center with some beautiful vistas of the Basque Country brings me to Tecnalia’s headquarters, where I’m greeted by Antonia Bierwirth and Ezekiela Arrizabalaga Salegi. We take a sip of our coffees, and dive right in on what would become the defining question of the day:
How can we communicate and introduce the value and importance of interdisciplinarity for RRI to technology researchers and innovators?
The CTS and Tecnalia’s Change Lab face similar challenges: An organisation’s committments to ethical, sustainable, inclusive and responsible research and innovation are often contrasted by a less-than-enthusiastic response by its practitioners. Too often, the integration of RRI principles into practice is seen—at best—as a nuisance, or at worst, as slowing the pace for innovation. As a result, many research projects yield questionable results that may raise concerns over potential discrimination, or create technologies ripe for misuse.
Tecnalia’s commitment to integrate RRI principles in an attempt to bridge this gap resonates well with the CTS’s approach to introduce and enforce interdiscplinary exchange between technology and natural sciences on the one hand, and the social sciences on the other. In my presentation, I discuss the dangers of techno-deterministic views of real-world problems and solutions, and present the DEBIAS project as a counterexample of human-centric, participatory technology design to address the problem of bias in recruiting: instead of trying to replace biased human decision-making with (differently biased) automated decision making or AI/ML technologies, the DEBIAS tool empowers humans to overcome their own bias and supports their decision making through comparatively simple technological measures.
Tecnalia’s research and development activities are rife with opportunities to take similar approaches. As I get to visit the Quantum Lab and the Sustainable Mobility Lab and talk with the researchers, their past and current projects offer both fascinating insights and many starting points for a critical discussion on the ethical dimensions of their research. Constant, however, remains a reluctance to concede that ethical concerns could be relevant for their research, or that there may be a need to integrate interdisciplinary, social science perspectives into their work.
As I keep discussing and chatting with my gracious hosts, the core challenge we face emerges more clearly: To change people’s minds, guidelines and letters of committment won’t be enough. RRI needs more concrete, positive value propositions to incentivize practitioners - because the current, opposite approach of dissuasion and deterrence of ethically questionable research will not foster the kind of open-minded, interdisciplinary exchange necessary to make RRI principles a broadly applied standard.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my gracious hosts, Antonia and Ezekelia, and to Tecnalia for this exciting opportunity for scientific exchange and discussion! (fc)