Andy Stirling, co-director of the new STEPS Centre at Sussex University, wants technologists and development professionals to work together in the fight against poverty. Andrew Lee reports

‘Our licence to operate rests in part on our ability to deliver mutual benefit for people living in local communities.’ This quote comes from the website of BP under the section headed ‘Responsible Operations’ but you could find similar sentiments expressed by any number of multinational engineering and technology groups.

Responsibility, whether to the environment, communities or future generations is on the global corporate radar as never before. It also poses some uncomfortable questions for business, not least over the consequences of technical innovation for the world beyond the company and its direct customers, and particularly for the planet’s poorest people.

Those questions include the effect of emerging technologies — both positive and negative — on the wider world, and the devastating impact on all concerned of getting it wrong.

Among those hoping to come up with some answers — and indeed some progress — is Prof Andy Stirling, co-director of the newly-launched STEPS Centre, based at the University of Sussex.

STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) is an attempt to bridge the gap between the social and natural sciences to benefit the least advantaged people in regions including Africa, India and Latin America. It will develop projects that focus on some of the big issues, including engineering-based areas such as energy and water supply and other key technologies such as bioscience and healthcare.

Stirling believes that gap needs bridging because the various parties with a stake in building a better future for the planet’s poorest often inhabit very different worlds, and nowhere more so than in the case of technical experts and those whose speciality is development and poverty reduction.

‘There are different sorts of tools used to look at technologies and decide what would be the best way to use them,’ said Stirling. ‘There are analytical tools, cost-benefit analysis, expert-based approaches and risk-assessment.

‘In the development context there are things like participatory appraisal, conferences, village reviews and other types of procedures. One tends to be the baby of the technical people, the engineers, the scientists. They know what risk assessment is, they know how it works, they like it.’

On the other hand, according to Stirling ‘the social scientists tend to bang on about the more participatory, inclusive, deliberative approaches. The two don’t tend to join up very much. They both have something to offer though neither is the full story, so there are all sorts of opportunities. One of the things we want to focus on is how these processes can be joined together so the whole is more than the sum of its parts.’

Stirling is convinced that getting technologists and development professionals on to a common agenda that also includes governments, regulators and others could make a big difference. Providing, of course, that it’s the right agenda. Deciding this isn’t easy, and won’t happen without meaningful input from the people they are setting out to help, said Stirling.

‘We have to ask ourselves quite hard questions about how we know what is in the best interests of people. I’ve seen time and again how with the best of intentions things unfold in quite a perverse way, providing bits of kit to people who just aren’t able to use it because the infrastructure isn’t there, or it affects their lives in a way that introduces some sort of imbalance. That’s why to be sure about the impact you need to interact with the people themselves.’

If we are serious about providing that help, said Stirling, we need not only a new way of acting but a new way of thinking. At the heart of Stirling’s argument is what he describes as ‘the politics of technology.’ All too often, in his view, technical innovation is presented as a straight road towards a destination sign called ‘progress’.

‘It’s about asking what is the nature of technological progress,’ said Stirling. ‘We’re getting used to hearing about the importance of technology from people like Gordon Brown, or the US president, or the head of the World Trade Organisation. Typically when we hear these discussions it’s presented as a choice between being pro or anti-technology, being in favour of innovation or somehow conservative and anti-innovation.’

According to Stirling, this implies that there is just one route, when a study of the history of technology and innovation reveals how choices made and not made led us to where we are now. It also puts critics on the back foot by branding them as ‘antis’ simply by questioning whether that route is the right one, he contended.

‘We wouldn’t have the same situation if we were talking about education or crime policy. Senior politicians might argue with their critics over education or crime, but they wouldn’t just be able to dismiss them as “anti-policy”. That just wouldn’t be a credible thing to say, because everyone knows that how we take things forward depends on which policy we choose, and that different policies take us in different directions,’ said Stirling.

‘That’s politics, and that basic truth applies to technology as well. It goes in different directions, and if we accept that, it follows that we should be thinking a lot harder as a global society about the kind of processes we have in place to ensure it goes in the directions we want it to.’

Interesting stuff, but what has it got to do with the price of fish? Surely most innovation inside a technology-led business is driven by the market the firm operates within. The issues outlined by Stirling, it could be argued, are addressed by the increasingly ubiquitous Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes of big companies.

Not surprisingly, Stirling has a different view. ‘The routine argument is that we have the market, and the market is a phenomenal servant in helping us to identify efficiencies and so on. But it’s far from clear that the market is the only thing we need. We don’t see the market as the solution in education or health or criminal justice. It’s part of the mix, but not the sole thing we look to.

‘That isn’t about state control. It’s about thinking a bit harder about how we attune markets to the directions that are favoured by society at large. In our case we’re worried about the way in which those with least power tend to get excluded the most. Once you recognise that there’s something called the politics of technology, we can be much more upfront about which directions best serve the needs of the poorest people.’

Stirling insisted that, for all the good some CSR programmes do, he is talking about something far more fundamental. ‘Whether you call it CSR, or stakeholder engagement or participation, there’s a tendency to think “oh well, these have got departments of their own, we need to do it because we need to persuade people that what we’re doing is the best thing”.

‘I think people who think in that way are in a very vulnerable position, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not glorified marketing, but about the strategic decisions taken and the way you take your research efforts. It’s not about presenting those decisions after you’ve made them, it’s about how you frame them in the first place.’

Misreading the impact of a new technology in the wider world can have serious implications, not least for the businesses responsible for it. You don’t have to look much further than GM foods which, at least in Europe, created a firestorm of controversy.

‘That thinking [on GM] was seriously discordant with the thinking going on in important parts of society, maybe customers, maybe people other than customers, but those who would have a big voice when the proverbial hits the fan,’ said Stirling. ‘That’s very much an issue of business competitiveness.’

Stirling believes, however, that the right approaches — which STEPS hopes to develop — can bring dividends for businesses. ‘If we can help people within businesses look at their processes more widely than they might normally do, consider options they might not normally consider, and get the credit for it, then we’ll be achieving something.

‘We need to have all sorts of practical tools and measures that cross those divides so we don’t just say to businesses “get on with it, we don’t want to hear about it” then come down on them like a ton of bricks when they get things wrong.’

Stirling is one of an eclectic mix of academics brought together to form STEPS, which is made up of engineers, natural and social scientists, anthropologists and ecologists, with a common interest in helping marginalised people.

His own background is in science and technology policy, with a spell as a Greenpeace campaigner and member of that organisation’s international board.

Stirling rejects any suggestion that he or his colleagues are yet another academic think-tank burdening businesses with more obligations. Indeed, he insisted that in a complex, globalised world the type of issues he is highlighting are inescapable.

‘There’s no doubt that all this does make the business environment more complex, but that complexity is non-negotiable. And in the long run, the more enlightened view is that this is a way to be more effective in the market.’

If you still need persuading that wider impacts affect every stage of the innovation process, Stirling has a simple message: ‘Look at energy. It took something as big as climate change to really start a shift in the innovations systems for energy. Even now it’s only at the edges, but the shift is under way.’