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Designers, engineers connect poetry to safer batteries

Max Shtein

The Next Idea

This summer, as the latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise hits movie theaters, we’ll be confronted with a larger-than-life, in-your-face reminder of the dark side of innovation, as a bunch of scientists yet again get so caught up in their inventiveness that they fail to imagine the consequences.

Back in the original 1993 movie, Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, famously warned: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”  Despite its origins in the world of entertainment, it’s a warning that increasingly resonates as our technological capabilities threaten to outstrip our understanding of how to use them safely and ethically.

When it comes to identifying and nurturing the best ideas for the future, Michigan – with its great universities, proximity to the Great Lakes, and large-scale manufacturing capacity – is positioned as a natural leader. The choices we make help set the tone for the country.  In this leadership role, how seriously should we be taking the concept of “responsible innovation”?

As the complexity and the “out-there-ness” of new tech accelerates, there’s been a growing awareness that successful innovation relies on more than just smart ideas.  Great tech that has the potential to hurt people, harm the environment, or challenge people’s sense of what’s “right” doesn’t go down so well these days.  Neither does tech that people think might be risky – irrespective of whether those risks are real, or simply imagined.

Rather, entrepreneurs, and businesses are increasingly faced with the challenge of innovating with an eye to being socially and environmentally responsible.

There’s just one problem – no one’s quite sure what “responsible innovation” actually means.

Last summer, I pulled together a group of folks at the University of Michigan to explore just this question.  This was no normal academic meeting though. 

For starters, it was led by couple of avant garde Dutch designers. They were being funded to address the question: “What the heck is this 'innovation thing' anyway?” (my words – they put it more politely). 

Secondly, the 15 of us were a rather eclectic group.  We had people from Engineering, the Business School, Public Health, Architecture, Art and Design, even the Department of English.  It was an admittedly crazy mash-up of expertise and ideas.

A book of haiku can't provide concrete answers to developing safer batteries. But it can prompt developers to think through factors that might influence long-term success and failure ...

Over two days we explored what we thought innovation was, and what it wasn’t.  We talked about how fear and imagined risks can kill good ideas. We discussed how unexpected risks and public distrust can pull the rug out from under an enterprise. And we considered what it means to innovate responsibly.

When we finished, we were pretty sure of three things: that responsibility is important when it comes to innovation; that responsible innovation is a slippery idea that can’t be neatly boxed up; and that, if we wrote our great ideas and insights up in an academic paper, no one would give a damn.

So we wrote abook of haiku.

The idea (not mine) was an inspired one. It started off, almost as a joke, with someone pointing out that the then-president of the European Council was a haiku fanatic. When we stopped laughing and thought about it though, something interesting happened. We realized that, when it comes to capturing complex ideas and inspiring people to think differently, poetry – and haiku especially – are incredibly powerful.

The beauty of haiku is that they encourage the reader to reflect on the subject of the poem, and to pull meaning out of the words and phrases that is specific to them. In effect, they provide innovators with a tool – a muse almost – for developing approaches to responsibility and innovation that are uniquely tailored to their needs.

Take for instance development of next-generation batteries. Innovators are now exploring the use of nanotechnology-based materials that could significantly extend battery capacity and power delivery, and yet may also have unexpected health and environmental impacts.

A book of haiku can’t provide concrete answers to developing safer batteries.  But it can prompt developers to think through factors that might influence long-term success and failure, and to develop plans and strategies that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

For instance, the haiku “Narratives open / Innovations responsive / to lives of users” focuses on the power of storytelling in developing products that connect with and gain support within society. And “Choosing among risks / We need imagination / Of lives yet unlived” stresses the need to think through how new products will impact on future lives. Both capture the essence of developing a competitive edge through thinking about long-term consequences. 

The collection may seem a little quirky (OK, I admit it – a lot quirky). But the poems creatively address a serious need in Michigan and beyond for innovators to think critically about how they will succeed in an increasingly complex and “social” world, where Twitter posts and TV celebrities are as likely to determine success as engineering prowess. 

Before practical approaches to responsible innovation can be developed at the grass-roots level, however, there needs to be a creative leap in how we think about innovation and responsibility. This is the leap that the 17 haiku set out to stimulate.

And of course it doesn’t hurt to have a little help from Hollywood.

Andrew Maynard is director of the Risk Science Centerat the University of Michigan and a leading authority on responsible development of emerging technologies. His blog is called 2020 Science