How European Governments Can Help Spur Innovations for the Public Good

Essay by By Marieke Huysentruyt: “…The stakes are high. In many OECD countries, inequality is at its highest levels in decades, and people are taking to the streets to express their discontent and demand change (in some cases at great personal risk). Only governments—with their uniquely broad scope of functions and mandates—can spur innovations for the public good in so many different domains simultaneously. Ideally, governments will step up and act collectively. After all, so many of today’s most pressing societal problems are global problems, beyond the scope of any single nation.

We Need a New Kind of Legal Framework to Activate and Transform Dormant Knowledge Into Innovations for the Public Good

Tremendous untapped potential lies dormant in knowledge and technology currently being used only for commercial purposes, but which could be put to significant social use. Consider the example of a cooling system currently being developed by Colruyt Group, a large Belgian retail group, to keep produce cool for up to three days without consuming electricity: such a technology could be applied elsewhere to great effect. For example, to help African farmers transport their milk or distribute vaccines over long (unelectrified) distances. Colruyt Group is therefore always looking for cases to implement their technology, so that it does not become dormant knowledge.

To facilitate this activation of dormant knowledges like these, we need a legal framework encouraging the development of “social impact licenses.” This would allow, for example, a technology holder to grant time-bounded permission to bring an intellectual property, a technology, a product, or a service to a predefined market for societal value creation at preferred rates or reduced costs. Another important step would be for EU governments to mandate that recipients of their innovation grants be required to give others access to their research, so it can be leveraged for practical, social purposes. Putting these sorts of measures in place would not only influence the next generation of researchers but could encourage businesses (who hold a great deal of intellectual property) to think more ambitiously about the positive societal impact that they can make.

We Need Better Information to Activate People to Search for the Public Good

Most of us lack a clear understanding of the societal problems at hand or have flawed mental models of pressing societal issues. Complexity and ambiguity tend to put people off, so governments must provide citizens with better and more reliable information about today’s most pressing societal challenges and solutions. The circular economy, greenhouse effects, the ecological transition, the global refugee problem, for example, can be difficult to grasp, and for this reason, access to non-partisan information is all the more important.

Sharing information about feasible solutions (as well as about solutions that have been tested and abandoned) can hugely accelerate discovery, as demonstrated by the joint efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, shared across many labs. And just as they have played a key role in the development of the Internet and aviation technologies, governments can and should play a major role in building the technological and data infrastructure for sharing information about what works and what doesn’t. Again, because the problems are global, coordinating efforts across national boundaries could help reduce the costs and increase the benefits of such knowledge infrastructure.

Another essential tool in governments’ toolbox is fostering the development of other-regarding preferences: the more people care about others’ well-being, the more willing they are to contribute to search for the public good. For example, in a recent large-scale experiment in Germany, second-grade children were matched with mentors—potential prosocial role models—who spent one afternoon per week in one-to-one interactions with the children, doing things like visiting a zoo, museum, or playground, cooking, ice-skating, or simply having a conversation. After two years, the kids who had been assigned to mentors revealed a significant and persistent increase in prosociality, as captured through choice experiments and survey measures. Evaluations of this large-scale experiment suggest that prosociality is malleable, and that early childhood interventions of this type have the potential to systematically affect character formation, with possible long-term benefits….(More)”.