Published 8 January 2024
Technological breakthroughs can play a critical role in addressing the societal challenges of our time. Staying ahead of the technological curve, such as rapid advances in AI and the solutions that emerge from them, has become an imperative for nations striving to thrive in the 21st century. Yet, strategic choices in R&I policy are needed to shift the focus from merely appreciating the inherent value of technology development to exploring how these advancements can be harnessed and their risks mitigated for the purposes of key societal goals in areas such as green transition, geopolitics and the security of supply.
Demos Helsinki, together with Aalto University, 4Front and an international panel of academic experts, are supporting the Finnish government through the TYSTI research project: Technological Neutrality and the Promotion of Society’s Strategic Objectives – Emerging Technologies in Research and Innovation Policy. The project aims to establish a knowledge base that will help to ensure Finland’s research and innovation policy is strategically impactful while exploring the practical application of the principle of technology neutrality and its implications for supporting emerging technologies.
The principle of technology neutrality in R&I policy
The principle of technology neutrality, which stands as a cornerstone within both national and EU regulations, carries the idea that governments must guarantee their regulatory frameworks refrain from either imposing undue constraints or exhibiting bias towards any specific technology. In terms of R&I, the principle seeks to ensure that government policies, such as regulation, funding and programmes, reap the benefits of bottom-up, open technological innovation and markets.
Finland has embraced an objective to increase government R&D funding to 1,2% of GDP and a 4% R&D spending level of GDP by 2030. Cognisant of its resource limitations, Finland faces the central task of identifying and attending to domains where it possesses distinctive advantages. Finland has embraced this in recognising the necessity of strategic choices in R&I policy in enabling ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development and growth. One of the renewed tasks of the Research and Innovation Council is to propose initiatives for national strategic choices. This raises the need to focus on ensuring the legitimacy of these choices. Currently, both technological neutrality and strategic choices coexist on the current government’s agenda: the Government programme of Finland outlines the effort to promote technology neutrality, while the opportunities of certain technologies, such as quantum technologies are emphasised.
First insights from the project
The initial results indicate that the impacts of technology neutrality are context-specific. Technology neutrality is well-suited if the market economy is efficient in developing solutions aligned with strategic societal objectives. However, in some cases, it can serve to slow down the uptake of new technologies and their potential in addressing societal challenges. The results suggest that, although the importance of emerging technologies is recognised, very few organisations take a systematic approach to anticipating future technology developments. At the same time, the existing structures, funding instruments and processes to support emerging technology companies and projects have implicit implications regardless of the intention to aim for technology neutrality. The results of the TYSTI project build on literary review, examination of earlier policy, case studies, interviews with international advisory panel and stakeholder workshops with industry, academia, funders and public bodies. In the first phase, led by Aalto University, the focus was on comparing the views of industry and public administration on the means by which to identify emerging technologies and the criteria to assess their future impact and potential. At the same time, the role of technology neutrality was examined in how the different parties balance the strategic choice between openness and the chosen development focus.
A situational analysis on the regulation, promotion and funding of emerging technologies, in particular from the perspective of the public sector and R&I policy, was carried out in the second phase led by 4Front. It assessed how these instruments are balancing between technology push and market-drivenness and how the principle of technology neutrality is being taken into account in R&I policies for emerging technologies.
Strategic choices for impactful R&I policy
Overall, the TYSTI project will produce knowledge aimed at supporting the shaping of national R&I policy that acknowledges the impact of technologies of societal significance, such as AI, quantum and biotechnology, and the hydrogen economy, while following the key aim of the technology neutrality principle. The above results support the conclusion that technology neutrality is not incompatible with strategic choices and long-term R&I policies. However, this requires R&I policy choices to be transparent, well-informed, and based on continuous collaboration, and not disconnected from the realities of RDI actors. So far, the project has defined three core aims for impactful R&I policy, which need further principles to be actionable:
1. Converting societal objectives into concrete strategic R&I choices
2. Seamless flow of information and collaboration between research, industry and public bodies
3. Continuous foresight and assessment of emerging technologies
The project continues with the Demos Helsinki-led process of identifying key driving forces that contribute to technological transformation and highlights the main tensions associated with the government’s role in supporting technology development. The results of previous work packages serve as a basis to identify the general principles that can guide technology development towards society’s strategic goals in an impactful way. The principles are defined in close cooperation with a variety of stakeholders, such as R&I policy experts, technology companies and civil servants, as part of an iterative research process. By the end of the project, an innovation policy model for strategic R&I policy will be developed alongside policy recommendations. The final report and English policy brief will be published in the first quarter of 2024.
For more information on this project, please contact:
Managing director, Demos Helsinki
Expert, Demos Helsinki
Feature Image: Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 5 / CC-BY 4.0