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Technology in emergency response needs ‘responsible innovation’

QIAN HONGWEI and ZHUANG WEIJING | 2020-12-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A joint search and rescue exercise that tests a range of advanced rescue equipment such as underwater search and rescue robots, drones, and high-tech rescue boats is staged along the Yangtze River in Fuling District, Chongqing Municipality on Nov. 15, 2019. Photo: CHINA DAILY


Today, scientific and technological innovators have begun to pay attention to technology's impact on mankind, society, and the environment, in addition to economic gains. The phrase "responsible innovation" is starting to appear in academic and policy literature. This approach anticipates and assesses potential implications and societal expectations for innovation, with the aim of fostering the design of inclusive and sustainable innovation. In the emergency response industry where scientific and technological support are urgently needed, incorporating responsible innovation has become a realistic proposition that practitioners and scholars in China contemplate.
 
Definition
In recent years, with the national economy's rapid development, some emergencies have drawn wide public attention, while the Chinese government has strengthened its emergency preparedness and response capabilities. At the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, a Peaceful China initiative was included in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035. The realization of a Peaceful China requires the establishment of a modern emergency management system.
 
In 2013, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology estimated that the output value of equipment and services used in emergency response, such as fire protection, security, disaster prevention and mitigation, and emergency communication, had reached nearly one trillion yuan. In 2017, the State Council proposed the 13th Five-Year Plan for the Construction of the National Emergency Response System, emphasizing that China should vigorously promote the healthy development of the emergency response industry and formulate a development and cultivation plan for the industry. At a parallel forum themed "Intelligent Emergency Development" at the World Intelligent Congress in 2019, the National Emergency Response Industry Alliance announced the launch of an emergency equipment sharing platform. 
 
As the emergency response industry expands, it is imperative to stress responsible innovation. The concept of responsible innovation was coined by German scholar Tomas Hellström, and has since gained traction in the academic community and in practice. For example, responsible research and innovation was included in the EU development plan Horizon 2020. It is believed that a more responsible vision of innovation could be heuristically helpful for governance.
 
British scholars Jack Stilgoea, Richard Owen, and Phil Macnaghten further explained the concept of responsible innovation as a way to take care of the future through the collective management of science and innovation at present. They then developed a framework of four dimensions—anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and responsiveness—to articulate and measure what they believe qualifies as responsible innovation.  
 
In essence, responsible innovation has put techno-scientific advances on par with corporate social responsibility. Compared with traditional innovation, it focuses more on the organic integration of corporate responsibility with scientific and technological innovation. This is of great theoretical significance and practical value to the coordinated development of economy, society, and science and technology.
 
Emergency response technology encompasses traditional and emerging technologies such as emergency monitoring and warning, emergency information platforms, emergency simulations, and more. At present, China has established an emergency management system with Chinese characteristics. However, problems have surfaced with technologies in emergency response, such as safety risks of rescue robots, incomplete emergency information platforms, and untimely information sharing. 
 
To this end, while strengthening emergency techno-scientific advances, we should also consider their practicality, and the negative impact that they may bring to mankind, society and the environment, so that precautionary prevention and control measures for uncertain risks and hidden dangers could be embedded within the innovation process. 
 
Importance
Technological advancement has made emergency response and rescue missions more efficient. On March 15, 2019, a landslide occurred in Xiangning, Shanxi Province. After careful assessment, the rescue team successfully saved those in distress with the aid of rescue dogs, detection equipment, and construction machinery. On July 21, 2019, a group of backpackers was trapped in Yichuan, Jiangxi Province, and rescue workers relied on technical means such as mobile phone signal positioning and drones to locate and rescue the hikers.
 
However, technological innovation has drawbacks too. For example, not long ago, news about senior citizens who were rejected from a public bus because they didn't have an electronic health code went viral on the internet. It reminded us that while technology brings convenience, it also has the burden of limitations. This is equally true for emergency response technologies. 
 
At present, several types of rescue robots, such as underwater and aquatic rescue robots and crawler rescue robots, have been put into use. However, if the robot's system is hacked or if the embedded chip is damaged during the rescue process, the people in danger may not be rescued. In a worst case scenario, this may even lead to rescue worker casualties. These potential risks could cause public support for the application of emergency technologies to waiver. 
 
To better carry out emergency response and comprehensive coordination, emergency departments at all levels have put in place (or are building) an emergency information platform. Unfortunately, each department is fighting their own battles, making information sharing a problem in trans-regional rescue. 
 
Similarly, facial recognition is widely used in education, finance, medical treatment, and transportation, as well as in the field of emergency management. However, data protection remains an issue. In the case of information leakage, the consequences would be catastrophic.
All these prove the importance and necessity of responsible innovation in techno-scientific advances, particularly in the field of emergency response.
 
Four dimensions
Going forward, to carry out and regulate responsible innovation in emergency technologies we might resort to the four dimensions, namely: anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion, and responsiveness. 
 
The anticipation dimension calls for a prediction of the social, ethical, and political stakes associated with techno-scientific advances. The detrimental implications of new technologies are often unforeseen, and estimations of harm have commonly failed to provide early warnings. Therefore, when developing robots and artificial intelligence, we encourage researchers, organizations, and regulators to consider more contingencies, asking what is known, what is likely, what is plausible, and what is possible. 
 
The reflexivity dimension demands that the development of emergency technologies must comply with all kinds of relevant procedures, laws, and regulations to ensure their legitimacy and feasibility. This dimension covers all aspects and stages of scientific and technological research. For example, in the construction of the emergency information platform, it is necessary to consider whether there is leakage of personnel information and core technologies. In the case of emergency UAV's (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), their adaptability to harsh environments such as fog and smog, and the ability to scan disaster areas with the aid of landmarks must be examined. 
 
The inclusion dimension points to the importance of considering the interests of all parties, as well as environmental and social impacts. This approach attempts to diversify inputs and maximize benefits. Even after the construction of an emergency information platform, different regions may fail to exchange information due to different procedure standardization. To solve this problem, relevant departments, enterprises, and individuals should improve communication, and further modify and improve the platform design for future use.
 
The responsiveness dimension asks developers and innovators to expand their vision into the broader social environment, considering the impact of technology on society and ethics. Responsible innovation should have the capacity to change shape or direction in response to public values and changing circumstances. In some cases, applying a precautionary principle, or a code of conduct may be appropriate. For example, we should strive to avoid failing rescue robots or remote assistants, to reduce casualties and property losses.
 
The proposal of a Peaceful China initiative raises the bar for technological innovation in emergency response. To promote the healthy development of both the industry and the market, the concept of responsible innovation must be incorporated in all endeavors. 
 
Qian Hongwei and Zhuang Weijing are from the School of Emergency Management at Henan Polytechnic University.
Edited by YANG XUE