While research and innovation commonly aim at improving living conditions and social wellbeing, the public responsibility of the results is not always guaranteed. The recent shift from a shareholder-centred to a stakeholder-centred perspective fosters consideration of the non-financial benefits brought by innovative ideas. Sustainability, social contribution, privacy and equality, among many other values, are gradually being incorporated into the innovation schemes of organisations, regardless of their nature, propriety structure or function. However, describing and accounting for the global impact of meaningful ideas and changes requires professional supervision.
A Societal Impact Assessment (SIA) analyses the opportunities, risks, externalities and consequences (both intended and unintended) of those initiatives and ideas that involve a change of the relationship between applied knowledge and society: products, services, technologies, policies, programmes, systems, etc. This type of evaluation helps to incorporate social values and achieve best practices concerning Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), thus enhancing the social dimension of innovative interventions.
Moreover, ignoring societal risks may also bring negative consequences for those organisations accounting for their impact. Among them:
· Disproportionate allocation of effort and recourses to address risks that were not conveniently considered at first.
· Unnecessarily increased iterations and reviews for the design and development of a product or service.
· Implementation delays and project cancellations.
· Diminished quality of the product or service (performance, functions, etc.).
A Societal Impact Assessment entails work with values inspired by human rights. Fairness, transparency, sustainability, acceptability, empowerment and respect for cultures and communities are some examples of the goals to be incorporated into the final work of an innovation process. Responsible innovation should contribute to the promotion of the maximum amount of social values possible: trust, dignity, choice, autonomy, security, health, equality and equity, inclusion, trust, mutual benefit, accessibility, privacy and so on.
In order to make a difference, it is useful to consider a set of principles that may transform a Societal Impact Assessment from a mere formality into an impactful process that effectively creates and incorporates societal value.
1. Be demanding. The integrity and determination of the evaluators will be continuously tested. However, the assessed projects should be thoroughly examined. Assessments should evaluate the most fundamental aspects, which even means asking ourselves whether the product or service at stake is actually responding to an existing need. Monitoring societal impact embraces so many aspects that organisations can find it very difficult to fully comply with all of them from the outset.
2. Work with flexibility. Methodologies are useful, but analyses may be complex. The ‘one size fits all’ principle is hard to apply in the case of SIA work. One of the first steps is to recognise the type of project being assessed and adapt our approach to its specific nature and features, which will facilitate the detection of positive and negative impacts.
3. Do not forget the stakeholders. Mapping the involved stakeholders is a key step when conducting an effective Societal Impact Assessment. A crucial aspect of responsible and ethical innovation is that it looks after the interests of all those individuals and collectives potentially affected by the driven changes. Instead of focusing the decision-making around benefits to shareholders, public responsibility will be considered as a fundamental factor. While SIAs seek to maximise the positive impact for the society as a whole, identifying the most relevant social groups and communities facilitates an insightful analysis: which collectives are more vulnerable? Are local communities endangered? To this end, the inclusive character of the assessment can be improved by considering participatory approaches and research techniques.
4. Identify risks. It is recommended to adopt the risk management approach, which considers both the probability and impact level of an undesired consequence. It also implies defining the risk mitigation strategies, which include several handling options (avoiding, controlling, transferring, watching or assuming the risk).
5. Examine the balances. Although identifying risks and undesirable consequences is a core part of SIA, a fair analysis must also consider the contributions and benefits of the examined project. Societal Impact Assessments should therefore evaluate both positive and negative impacts, along with opportunities and risks, and highlight the unbalanced relations between stakeholders as well as any suspicious trade-offs between drawbacks and benefits.
6. Consider the whole process. A useful SIA will comprise all the relevant design and implementation periods. Before the implementation, there are a significant number of decisions still to be taken. Therefore, timely corrections are to be introduced, avoiding unnecessary risks and negative impacts. It is crucial to examine the first drafts to foresee the most important undesirable consequences. However, this is not the only moment to intervene. The development process may imply different iterations, for which continued monitoring is recommended. After the final implementation, it is also advisable to test the product or service with proper control of the societal impact. Ideally, any further changes and modifications introduced should be subject to prior supervision of the potential impact.
7. Embrace the complexity. The ‘societal’ dimension of this type of assessment implies there is a wide range of aspects and subjects to be covered: environmental issues, community risks and ethical concerns, but a longer list of concepts may also be considered: demographics, culture, development, economics, inequality, privacy, health, etc. The human rights baseline is a common reference for redirecting the objectives and means of a project. But these evaluations should not only account for externalities: intra-organisational aspects are also important. For instance, if a start-up idea is being assessed, the proper economic and social sustainability of the organisation can be included in the analysis.
8. Work in diverse environments. Multidisciplinary teams are encouraged for a thorough and comprehensive evaluation. On the one hand, both technical and Social Science profiles may contribute to building a useful understanding of the positive and negative impacts. On the other hand, diversity of profiles would ideally also mean ensuring teams incorporate perspectives of gender balance as well as diversity of ethnicity and ability. While empathy is a key tool for identifying societal risks, expert views, research and diversity improve the chances of conducting a wide-embracing assessment.
In summary, conducting an ambitious SIA requires dedicating effort and resources, but in return, it may spare further undesirable scenarios and provide an increased level of public responsibility. For a useful assessment, evaluators will need to show an open mind and adopt an integral approach, and decision-makers will need to show patience but also awareness and engagement in what concerns societal issues.
Initiatives like the Social Innovation Academy (SOCIA) facilitate the exchange of ideas and resources for social innovators. The very concept of social innovation aims at contributing to the generalised awareness of the societal impact and its incorporation into the work of innovators. Training in social innovation skills, like analysing, setting goals, thinking outside the box or adapting, help in understanding the importance of societal impact and in communicating with evaluators.
José María Zavala Pérez
Societal Impact Consultant & Researcher
His main expertise is the SIA of Science, Technology and Innovation. He holds a Bachelor degree in Sociology (UPV-EHU), a Diploma of Advanced Studies in Contemporary Problems of the Information Society (UCM) and an MA in Society of Information Society and Knowledge (USC).
José María has more than 10 years’ experience in social research, consultancy and societal impact analysis working at companies based in Spain, Ireland, Germany and the USA. He gained the Google Policy Fellowship 2019 to work at the Cotec Foundation researching the relationship between digitalisation and inequality, and he has been a collaborator on several international projects and publications. He is currently working as a researcher at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) and as a freelance consultant.
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