Publication date: 31/05/2009


Innovation occurs in a world of inequality which it may ameliorate or exacerbate. The best hope for steering innovation toward positive ends is that it should respond to people’s self-determined needs and aspirations, provided that certain background conditions of information and deliberation are met. In short: good innovation demands good democracy; and, especially in times of change, good democracy demands an expansive, energetic, constitutive role for law.

Regrettably, global innovations in science and technology over the last few decades have not kept pace with innovations in our imagination of democracy itself. Three tried and true systems of governance brought to bear on innovation – the market, regulation, and ethics – are all associated with models of democratic participation, but each is flawed in its techniques of representation: representing the range of public views; representing all affected parties; representing people at times when they can influence innovation; and, not least, representing the very nature of the actors who need to be represented.

In wrestling with these difficulties, makers of science and technology policy have propagated two strikingly different images of the human subject. One, tacitly built into the market and regulatory frameworks, is of citizens as capable of knowing and rationally processing information. The other, born out of frustration with public resistance to new technologies, is of ignorant and helpless publics, held back from reason not only by lack of information but by systematic cognitive biases. To some degree, the removal of value debates to ethics committees rests on and reinforces this reductionist view of popular incompetence.

For citizens in the emerging global order, this state of affairs calls for reclaiming the turf of democracy by reasserting who should be served by innovation and for what purposes. I have suggested that the resources of the law can be mobilized from the bottom up, to support constitutional imaginations that are at once more human and more humane than those that emerge from the alliance of science and technology with the state. Contracts, even virtual ones like the contract between science and society, need law to enforce them. Innovative publics around the world may look to the law to reinsert themselves into a social contract from which they have been strangely excluded.

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