Responsible Innovation: the ethics of innovation, from the perspective of various disciplines


Biotechnology, artificial Intelligence, solar energy: these are all innovations about which ethical questions might well be put. Whom is the innovation for, and what are the external effects, some of which might be hidden ones? These questions touch on more than just sustainability.

lotte pet leidenThis is exactly the kind of subject that you should approach from the perspective of various disciplines. The collaborating Leiden-Delft-Erasmus universities are doing just this with their minor in Responsible Innovation. This minor was the first collaborative project taken on by the universities, and has grown into a great success since its start. Approximately sixty students take this minor every year, with an average of twenty from each of the universities. They represent an interesting mix of disciplines.

   We mix the groups in a way that facilitates a real exchange between the various disciplines.’

Coordinator Lotte Pet from Leiden University’s Humanities Faculty, the coordinating faculty for the minor, explains why students are attracted to this minor: ‘For students, having lectures from various lecturers from diverse disciplines offers added value. And they contribute their own expertise too, as they are all third-year Bachelor’s students. This is very valuable, and we mix the groups in a way that facilitates a real exchange between the various disciplines.’

Henk de vriesEach of the students works on a case study together with a group of other students. Henk de Vries, an alumnus of TU Delft and currently a lecturer at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, supervises groups like these. What kinds of case studies are included in this minor? ‘One of the case studies is about the effect our use of computers has on the climate. The effect is much greater than you’d think. What the students are asked to consider is how to make users of computers aware of this, not only by providing them with factual information but also letting them experience this impact – the real innovation is how you do that.’

‘We have also received a request from the Ministry of Economic Affairs to investigate how we can make SMEs aware of the importance of cybersecurity. Students investigate a question like this from the point of view of the intervention cycle, a method they learn in one of the skills labs held within this minor.’


The intervention cycle

This cycle starts with a detailed definition of the problem. ‘Pollution’, for example, is too vague and too general, and first needs to be specified in more detail. Thereafter, the students carry out a stakeholder analysis, in which they map out all the stakeholders involved, citing their interests, relative power and influence and values. After this, they draw up a list of values not necessarily mentioned by the stakeholders themselves, but that need to be taken into account. Point is: the fact that the stakeholders all accept a solution does not necessarily make that solution acceptable when viewed from the perspective of all the values the problem involves. And then the students get started on the innovation itself: what is the best solution to the problem, taking into consideration all of the stakeholders and all of the values involved? And how do you underpin this? The cycle ends – and starts afresh – with the implementation and evaluation of the innovation.

The wealth of all of the disciplines

The lecturers for the Responsible Innovation minor are from all three of the LDE universities. The minor has been designed such as to take advantage of the strengths of each of the universities and the wealth of all of the disciplines. This is also reflected in the backgrounds of the students taking the course. Pet: ‘The students are from various degree programmes, such as Business Administration, International Studies, Archaeology, Civil Engineering, History, Nanotechnology, and Technology, Policy and Management.’

This allows the students to build a network beyond their own degree programme and city, and they also benefit from the various lecturers’ international networks. An example of this is the fact that the best papers submitted by Responsible Innovation students have been shared with the well-known author Shoshana Zuboff, whose book Surveillance Capitalism served as a case study in the Digital Technologies course.


Assignments from the business community, NGOs and government are often generated by the lecturers’ networks too. An example of this was the question from Hivos regarding how digital communication could be used for SDGs such as climate justice and social inclusion.

    The students develop awareness and are able to appreciate the value of the expertise other disciplines can offer in respect of complex issues.’

Would you say this minor turns students into better people? ‘I think you could say that,’ says De Vries. ‘They certainly develop awareness and are able to appreciate the value of the expertise other disciplines can offer in respect of complex issues.’ As a student, De Vries himself was involved in an interdisciplinary study group at Environmental Studies in Leiden, together with students from Wageningen. ‘The views I held as a student from Delft were changed, and enormously enriched, by this experience.’ For students who will be choosing a minor in the year ahead, this should serve as a recommendation to come and check out Responsible Innovation.

To see all the joint Leiden-Delft-Erasmus minors, consult this website and check out the vlogs on our YouTube channel.

More information:
Minor Responsible Innovation - studiegids Universiteit Leiden
Studentenvlog over de minor Responsible Innovation
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus minoren

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