Responsible Innovation and the Lean Start-up

The question I want to think about in this blog post is whether the concepts of ‘Anticipatory Governance’ and ‘Upstream Engagement’ are applicable to internet-based entrepreneurship.

A start-up company is frequently the point at which a technological innovation is first exposed to the public, and therefore it sits at an intermediate point in the time-frame defined by Collingridge in in “The Social Control of Technology”: Not so early that we have no idea what the effect will be, but not so late that the technology has become entrenched and difficult to change.

So a start-up company would seem to be an interesting object from the point of view of those desiring to avoid problematic technology. However, the concepts of ‘Anticipatory Governance’ and ‘Upstream Engagement’ have been formulated with rather different scenarios  in mind.

Guston’s ‘Anticipatory Governance’, defined in “Innovation Policy: Not Just A Jumbo Shrimp” is defined with Nanotechnology as the motivating example; although he undoubtedly intends his points to be more widely applicable. “Upstream Engagement”, set out in “See Through Science” by Wilsdon & Willis, is also motivated by Nanotechnology and  GM foods, but also by ‘science crises’ such as the BSE and MMR controversies. In these cases, the involvement of publicly funded science is an active one, and the target audience seems to be policy-makers.  Both therefore propose that engagement with the public ought to be integrated with scientific and technical work. Wilsdon and Willis explicitly argue that engagement should be pushed as far ‘upsteam’ as possible from the point where a controversy arises. On the other hand, neither actually go far as to say that these activities ought to be compulsory; rather, they argue that their recommendations will avoid acrimonious disputes.

An influential methodology for start-up companies is the ‘Lean Startup’ method, promoted by Steve Blank. A start-up is defined as a company which is in search of a viable business model. In order to maximise the likelihood of launching a profitable enterprise, the Lean Start-up  is supposed to remain as flexible (‘agile’) as possible, maximise the feedback it obtains from paying customers, and ‘iterate’ (test and discard ideas) as fast as possible.

This engagement-intensive model seems superficially like a good match for that of Anticipatory Governance/Upsteam Engagement. However, the match is not exact. The engagement of a start-up is specifically with those who are, or might become, its customers, not all those it might affect. For example, AirBnB (a startup which allows people to easily (sub)let their house/flat for short periods), has been criticised for causing problems for the neighbours of its customers.

Anticipatory governance “prescribes the explicit inclusion of values in deliberations”,which would include the values of

Startups are a point at which we can still affect technology, but at the very start, it may well be considered too early. A start-up might go through several alternative ideas before hitting one which is viable. Clearly, until – or unless – it hits a growth strategy, there is little point in worrying about its social effects. But if the start-up succeeds, that point may be reached.

Willsdon and Willis cite low levels of public engagement in innovation-based companies, due to the countervailing pressures of the profit motive, and the need to protect competitative information.  However, they point to arguments that more open models of innovation do not in fact lose out to the more secretive. The same point is made  by Steve Blank in the ‘Lean Start-up’: he argues that the ‘stealth mode’ practice which was often used by earlier start-ups is being discarded, on the grounds that customer feedback matters more than secrecy.  Although the interests of these proposals are different ones, their similarity in method suggests that they may not be too far apart.

What about from the perspective of the Start-up founders? They may not agree that start-ups ought to be the focus of any kind of governance.  I have not found any systematic research on their views, but my sense is that while not all of them follow Peter Thiel, who apparently “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible” , they do have a strong libertarian streak on average. Startup-companies are private enterprises, and as such it may be argued that they don’t have the same duty of care to the public at large as does publicly-funded research. Nevertheless, internet companies have caused social change; which suggests that some input from public values is appropriate.  Apart from ideological concerns, start-up founders are likely to want to avoid heavyweight governance processes as sources of economic ‘friction’, not necessarily wrongly. If only a low proportion of startups are problematic, it may be unreasonable to place a burden on them all.

As Guston notes, “governance does not consist simply of government or the activities of public sector organizations, but rather also includes governing activities that are more broadly distributed across numerous actors.”  Start-ups may be more receptive to grass-roots involvement of citizens, especially if this provides them with valuable feedback.  I’m not sure whether a twitter mob can be counted as governance, but perhaps it can evolve in that direction.

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