Company Strategies for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

By Ibo van de Poel

Company Strategies for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

In the past few decades, many companies have assumed social responsibilities beyond what is legally required of them. This has taken many forms, from local charitable activities to the branding of new socially responsible products and services. Although several companies, mainly large ones, have assumed responsibility for many parts of their operations through CSR, they have only done so to a limited extent for their R&D and innovation processes. Current CSR efforts usually focus on later phases of the product development and life cycle, for example the manufacture, use, and disposal of products. RRI emphasizes the earlier phases of R&D, innovation, and design when addressing responsibility in product development and its life cycle phases. This is important for industry, too, because the outcome of the innovation, namely its limitations and its effects on users and wider society, depends on decisions made in these earlier phases of the life cycle. Changing the product at later phases of the product development is likely to induce higher development costs and delay the innovation process and eventual market entry. It is therefore important to think about what social challenges and what values need to be included during the early product development phases, which can lead to the development of products that better meet such challenges and values, and are, as a result, socially, environmentally, and financially more successful. Hence, RRI strategies can help companies reach the well-known triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit from the very beginning of innovation activities.

However, companies themselves feel that the RRI discourse is not always sufficiently attuned to them. Moreover, many of them already undertake activities that resonate with RRI, albeit using different terms, like sustainable innovation, participatory design, open innovation, stakeholder dialogues, scenario development, circular economy, and risk assessment. RRI is also congruent with what has become known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is a more established concept in business and industry. At the same time, the foreseeability of social and ethical impacts increases as the life cycle proceeds. Therefore, some benefits, values, risks, and concerns are hard to foresee in the early phases. This poses the well-known Collingridge dilemma: In the early phases of technological development and innovation, technology is still malleable and the costs of change are limited, but social effects are hard to foresee; at the later stages, the social effects are better known, but the technology may be so well embedded that it is hard to change or can be changed only at high costs. What is needed to resolve this dilemma is a balance between foreseeability and the cost of change. This brings RRI into the equation. The goal of developing an RRI strategy is to identify early in the product development and life cycle process of new innovations, what potential social effects are associated with the invention and how to accommodate these before the technology’s embedding is irreversible or can only be undone at high costs and with delays in market launch.

Responsible Research and Innovation for Companies

The aim of a CSR strategy is to ensure that business operations are principle-driven and ethically sound both at home and abroad, expressing genuine regard and care for the interests and needs of all legitimate stakeholders of the firm. Responsible research and innovation is more specific and concerns the early phases of technology development. RRI may be defined as an “on-going process of aligning research and innovation to the values, needs and expectations of society”. A central idea is that social and ethical issues brought about by new innovations are anticipated and integrated in the innovation and design process from the very start.

RRI may have clear advantages for companies and contribute to competitive advantage. It helps them to better know and understand their clients and stakeholders, and thus to identify their needs and concerns and translate these into the development of products that will be better accepted and more socially acceptable. This process creates more value for both users and society. Furthermore, because this process encourages timely consideration of potential issues that products may raise, it sidesteps or mitigates scenarios in which companies face public criticism. More generally, it may help to build a relation of trust with society, which may make companies less sensitive to resistance or protest. In addition, it may help them to show governments that they take their responsibility seriously, and thus be allowed to make voluntary agreements rather than being regulated. As indicated above, this may also result in mere window-dressing if companies do not at the same time seriously take on board a proactive responsibility to develop more responsible technologies.

Porter and Kramer argue that CSR is often disconnected from corporate strategy. Some companies undertake CSR activities in areas that are not central to their core business activities. For instance, a chemical company that supports local social initiatives but does not invest in making its production process more sustainable. Moreover, Porter and Kramer maintain that a lot of the debate about the responsibility of companies focuses on the tension between business and society, rather than on their interdependence. They argue that a broader perspective shows that companies need society as a nurturing environment, for example for the acceptance of their products or to find good personnel, while in many cases society needs companies to achieve certain goods. Therefore, both CSR and RRI should aim at creating shared value together with social actors.

In terms of developing an RRI strategy, this means that companies should establish in which areas they can have an added value for society. These areas vary depending on the company; for example, how a company can add value depends on the technological area, the type of market, and the company’s resources and capabilities. It also means that RRI strategies should be closely attuned to the more general corporate business strategy of the company. Companies should be selective in their RRI strategy and look for those areas where they can add value to society while making a profit. Such RRI strategies are typically focused not only on avoiding harm, but also on doing good.


The implementation of responsible research and innovation (RRI) in industry is still in its infancy. While the RRI concept is well known in the EU policy arena, many companies have not yet heard about it, and are unaware of the scientific and governance discourse that has developed around it. Although some companies already undertake de facto RRI activities, this usually does not amount to a systematic integration of RRI in the company. What is needed is not just more tools for RRI, but a more integral view of RRI in a business context, and of what this can yield in terms of societal, environmental, and financial benefits. We have argued that this first of all requires a more comprehensive view in which RRI is connected to a company’s business strategy and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy and activities. This requires companies to think about where they can add value to society and to make deliberate choices rather than necessarily undertaking the full spectrum of RRI activities.



This is an excerpt of the journal article: Company Strategies for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI): A Conceptual Model, by Ibo van de Poel, Lotte Asveld, Steven Flipse, Pim Klaassen, Victor Scholten and Emad Yaghmaei. Published: November 8., 2017 in Sustainability 2017, 9(11), 2045; doi: 10.3390/su9112045 under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0). 

Ibo van de Poel
Full Professor

Ibo van de Poel is Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor in Ethics and Technology and head of the Department Values, Technology & Innovation of the School of Technology, Policy and Management at Delft University of Technology. During the last few years, he has done research and published in the following areas: the dynamics of technological development, engineering ethics, the moral acceptability of technological risks, values and engineering design, moral responsibility in research networks, ethics of new emerging technologies like nanotechnology, technology as a form of social experimentation.