Pencil and blueprint. Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

A paper with the title “From Responsible Research and Innovation to responsibility by design” suggests that a ‘Responsibility by Design’ approach can help mitigate some of the challenges experienced in the application of Responsible Research and Innovation (sometimes called RRI) in the Human Brain Project (or HBP). This is a relatively new concept, that can help us move beyond RRI.

Since the inception of the project in 2013, and even throughout the ramp-up phase, RRI has been an important part of the project. It has mostly been promoted by the ethics and society team previously grouped in one Sub Project but now spread in several Work Packages in the HBP. Interestingly, many in the project have positively embraced the ideals of RRI. For example, RRI has helped shape how the many scientists and researchers in the project reflect on the societal consequences of their research and the outcomes of technology development within the project. Similarly,  RRI has influenced the dialogical approach used to engage with stakeholders within and outside of the project. During this time, the value of RRI has been evidenced in the extensive application of the approach in the HBP in such areas as foresight, reflection, engagement and action. Some indication of this can be seen in the positive reception of the Opinions on Privacy, Dual Use and Artificial Intelligence.

Challenges of RRI Implementation

The article highlights several challenges of RRI based on experience of its application in the HBP. It suggests that such challenges must be overcome for RRI to have a lasting impact beyond the time horizon of funded projects. For example, although the role of RRI in ensuring legal compliance has been recognised within the project there is sometimes a danger of misunderstanding the purpose of RRI to simply mean complying with legislation and regulation. Also, it is understood that interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial for the implementation of RRI, yet some scientists appear to perceive time spent on RRI issues as a distraction from their research. Another issue is the focus on gender in the RRI keys and EU policies like ‘Science with and for Society’ rather than on diversity which limits the application of an intersectional approach in research and innovation activities.

Importantly, there’s a realisation that the transition of the HBP from a research project to a research infrastructure (EBRAINS) brings new challenges that need to be addressed as RRI provides limited practical guidance in such situations. Also, the integration of RRI in the results of R&I activities is complicated by the fact that EBRAINS is a research infrastructure that also provides the basis for further R&I in a very different institutional and funding environment. Adding to this, the distributed nature of the EBRAINS research infrastructure ecosystem makes it difficult to integrate societal values not just during the development phase, but also throughout its use.

Using responsibility by Design to address challenges of RRI

The concept of Responsibility by Design is still evolving but it holds promise for addressing some of the challenges of implementing RRI. Thus, although relatively new Responsibility by Design has been suggested as a way for the EBRAINS research infrastructure to deal with the challenges of applying RRI in the HBP. This is because a core idea that Responsibility by Design promotes is the integration of attention to concerns and possible negative future impacts of the development and use of technology that will be part of a larger social structure. Like RRI, Responsibility by Design draws on evidence of anticipation, reflection and engagement to understand societally desirable outcomes of research and innovation activities. Nevertheless, Responsibility by Design is an attempt to move beyond project-oriented RRI research and practice to one that can sufficiently integrate relevant responsibilities into new research and innovation activities.

It should also be pointed out that a key feature of Responsibility by Design is that responsibility is not limited to research projects and laboratories where its implementation is limited by macro-level processes, academic capitalism, and marketisation of universities. It aims to implement responsibility at a broader level such as academic and economic systems, funding policy, and the organisation of universities and companies. It can therefore be said that Responsibility by Design is a more extensive form of RRI that seeks to integrate such responsibility as part of the preparation phase of research and innovation projects, throughout the project and beyond the funding phase.

It is understood that broader outreach is required to address some of the challenges that have been experienced during the implementation of RRI and for it to become institutionalised in the products and outcomes of research and innovation. For this to happen, structures have developed to enable RRI to become a part of the research and innovation processes of the HBP and EBRAINS rather than exist simply as an external component. For example, RRI work has been distributed across the project and embedded in diverse Work Packages to further strengthen integration with those involved in science and technology development. Some groups have been remodelled to enhance their ability to address some of the ethical and societal issues being evaluated. Also, responsibility by Design has enabled us to better focus on sustainability and the long-term impact of the EBRAINS research infrastructure. Through a targeted community-building effort, relevant scientific communities are being mobilised to use the infrastructure provisions responsibility. To this end, a capacity-building programme that targets current and future user communities of EBRAINS has been developed.

As Responsibility by Design is value sensitive, it has enabled engagement with broader societal values than those promoted by RRI. It has ensured that the Human Brain Project continues to be developed responsibly and in accordance with ethical and legal regulations and principles, including human rights, data protection, ethics standards, and good clinical practice by undertaking research and developing advice. Similarly, reflection on potential  political, security and intelligence use of concern of scientific and technological findings and outcomes is being facilitated while also responding to current ethical and societal concerns raised by the Human Brain Project and the EBRAINS research infrastructure.


Stahl, B.C., Akintoye, S., Bitsch, L., Bringedal, B., Eke, D., Farisco, M., Grasenick, K., Guerrero, M., Knight, W., Leach, T., Nyholm, S., Ogoh, G. Rosemann, A., Trattnig, J., Ulnicane, I. (2021) From Responsible Research and Innovation to responsibility by design. Journal of Responsible Innovation 8(2), pp. 175–198.

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