The Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT

ORBIT stands for the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT. ORBIT started as a project funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The project provides services and support for the UK research community to implement and integrate principles of responsible innovation in Research and Innovation activities. It builds on the earlier EPSRC project of a Framework for RRI in ICT.

The aim of the project was always to disseminate as widely as possible the insights gained through research and good practice and developed as part of community engagement and service provision. To ensure that these insights remain available to the research community, in 2020 ORBIT established a training company that could continue to provide the services after the end of the project.

The ORBIT project started in January 2017 with an overall lifetime of 5 years, thus ending in January 2022. ORBIT-RRI Ltd, the company, was created in December 2020, as a Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) (see here for the Companies House entry). This means that it is a not-for-profit company and any income generated by the company has to be used for its purposes as laid down in the Articles and Members Agreement. 

The Articles of Association state that 

             4.1 The Company is not established or conducted for private gain. Any surplus or assets must be used principally for reinvestment.

      5 OBJECTS
             5.1 The objects for which the Company is established (the Objects) are:
                     (a) to seek to promote a culture of responsible research and innovation in information and communications technology and other areas of technology, research and innovation through its support for, continuation and expansion of the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation project; […]

The Members Agreement states that: 

“The Company was incorporated in England and Wales as a private company limited by guarantee on 3 December 2020 under the Companies Act 2006 to operate on a “not-for-profit” basis to seek to promote a culture of responsible research and innovation in information and communications technology and other areas of technology, research and innovation through its support for, continuation and expansion of the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation project.”

As a CLG, ORBIT-RRI does not have shareholders who benefit financially from the company. Instead, its owners are called Members. ORBIT has five Members: two institutions: De Montfort University, the University of Oxford, and three of its directors: M. Jirotka, M. de Heaver and B. Stahl.

Information and communication technology (ICT) creates huge benefits and has numerous uses. It pervades our personal and professional lives. Despite the many advantages of ICT, there are numerous examples of problems and downsides. ICT can lead to new privacy issues, raises security concerns, can deskill labour or support surveillance. Researchers and innovators in the area of ICT as well as other stakeholders in innovation processes have the opportunity and maybe the duty to consider their role and influence on the desired and undesired consequences of ICT.

Responsible research and innovation (RRI) is a aims to align Research & Innovation (R&I) policy with societal goals. The probably most widely used definition of the term was suggested by von Schomberg (2011, p. 9) who sees it as

“a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view on 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)”.

It is important to underline that the emphasis that this definition places on acceptability and desirability of R&I processes and products can be seen as equivalent to addressing the grand challenges.

Novelty of RRI

Despite the relative novelty of the term itself, it is important to note that RRI can draw on a long history of activities. These include an array of options and methods that aim to clarify possible consequences of R&I activities, such as risk assessment (Kastenhofer, 2011), technology assessment (Grunwald, 2009) or other types of ethics or impact assessments (Wright, Gellert, Gutwirth, & Friedewald, 2011). Attempts to come to a better understanding of possible futures that inform the different types of assessment can be found in technology foresight (Georghiou, Harper, Keenan, Miles, & Popper, 2008; Martin, 2010) and other types of future studies (Sardar, 2010).

RRI and Responsibility

RRI exhibits a novel feature: It explicitly links R&I to responsibility (Grinbaum & Groves, 2013; Owen et al., 2013). This allows shifting the focus to open up new horizons on how to conduct R&I. This does not necessarily mean that it requires new approaches. Instead the major novelty of RRI is the integration of existing approaches such as research ethics and social sciences in a novel way by shifting focus and placing new emphases (Grunwald, 2011). Furthermore, RRI entails new insight into how existing approaches can be embedded ‘in a day-to-day operational context (i.e. implementation and practice).’(Owen & Goldberg, 2010)

RRI is a complex term whose primary purpose is to help societies make difficult and often contested decisions with regards to R&I policy. RRI is based on a number of already existing responsibilities and its novelty and practical relevance is in the fact that these are treated as a whole that needs to be addressed in order to lead to desirable outcomes and contribution to grand challenges.

RRI can therefore be understood as a higher level responsibility or meta-responsibility that aims to shape, maintain, develop, coordinate and align existing and novel research and innovation-related processes, actors and responsibilities with a view to ensuring desirable and acceptable research outcomes. The analysis of the current research landscape in ICT should be sensitive to these different aspects and dimensions of established research governance.