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Operationalizing Anticipatory Governance: Steering Emerging Technologies Towards Sustainability

  • Author(s): Philbrick, Mark
  • Advisor(s): Winickoff, David E
  • et al.

Technological innovation is a double-edged and contested arena. On one hand, it has brought us global communications and unprecedented access to information for those connected to the Internet. The last 100 years have seen the widespread deployment of household electricity, potable tap water, and a host of transportation options in the Global North. Technologies allow us to manipulate matter at the subatomic level, and to observe the far reaches of the universe. Humans have been to the moon, discovered life in the deep oceans, and nearly eradicated polio. Clearly, technologies are a powerful force in the world, and innovation is seen as key to economic prosperity in the 21st century.

On the other hand, climate change threatens the survival of many species, and the livelihoods of much of the future human population. Further, it is far from alone in terms of problems to which large-scale technological deployment has contributed. Asbestos, DES, DDT, and endocrine disruptors are among the many technologies where some, perhaps many, of the negative human and environmental consequences that have ensued could conceivably have been mitigated. Technological governance is clearly an area for possible improvement, and emerging technologies present a particularly attractive leverage point, as they have yet to develop substantial sociotechnical and institutional momentum.

The dominant approach to technological governance in the U.S. is characterized by a combination of market forces, public support for basic science and targeted initiatives, and a "science-based" approach to risk assessment and regulation. In recent years, the EU has emphasized the Precautionary Principle as an alternative governance basis, and there has been much debate about the respective merits of precaution and science. This dissertation argues that much of that discourse misses a much larger point: The prevailing approaches to the governance of emerging technologies in both the EU and the U.S. are inadequate, in that they are excessively focused on relatively narrow conceptions of risk, do not provide a coherent framework for considering risks, benefits, and distributional tradeoffs simultaneously, and tend more towards reactivity than proactivity, particularly in terms of the production of public goods.

These failings systematically produce a series of governance gaps in the context of a market economy. Specifically, the rate of innovation tends to outstrip existing capacities for risk assessment, especially in the case of emerging fields such as nanotechnology. Second, the capacity lag in oversight tends to undermine public confidence and trust. Third, markets alone tend to underproduce public goods, a problem that is particularly acute in arenas with substantial environmental externalities. Finally, relevant existing institutions in the U.S. generally lack a systematic capability to incorporate foresight into current policy-making in a meaningful way.

This dissertation proposes a combination of the concepts of anticipatory governance and sustainability as a basis for addressing these governance gaps. A strong theme of transatlantic translation runs throughout; many of the recent developments in technology assessment have occurred in Europe, and require substantial adaptation to function effectively in the American sociopolitical environment. Anticipatory governance provides culturally appropriate philosophical underpinning and process; sustainability offers substantive direction. The goal is not to develop overarching theory, but to operationalize these ideas, to put the combination into practice with respect to the governance gaps articulated above. The empirical investigations of the first two gaps employ nanoscale technologies as cases to explore specific instances of the general question "what do we need to anticipate" with respect to risks and public perceptions, respectively. The inquiries regarding the third and fourth gaps are more exploratory. In terms of the production of public goods through innovation, how do the combination of historical patterns and market structures help demark the boundaries of a "constructive intervention space" for public investment? With respect to institutional capacities, how can the combination of anticipatory governance and sustainability assist in evaluating current programs, and designing solutions for the future?

Several conclusions with direct relevance to policy, strategy, and governance regarding emerging technologies result. First, existing decision-making paradigms need improvement in order to consider risk-benefit tradeoffs adequately, and to provide guidance to actors on the ground in the prolonged absence of scientific and regulatory certainty. Second, effective public engagement programs in the U.S. must complement and feed into existing structures of representative democracy, rather than attempting to circumvent or replace them. Third, the purported "Valley of Death" between invention and market penetration is particularly acute with respect to the production of environmental public goods, as the barriers to entry in these sectors are a poor match for private funding incentives, implying that this is a constructive area for increased levels of public intervention. Finally, the combination of anticipatory governance and sustainability provides a framework that highlights the fragmented nature of U.S. policy responses to the problem of technological governance, and does indeed provide a solid foundation for the design of future institutions, while recognizing that their implementation will be dynamic, contested, and theoretically impure.

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