Symposium Panel: The Governance Challenges Associated With Leading Edge Technology

The 2011 J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Conference was held at The George Washington Law School from March 23-24 and was devoted to discussions of the central topic, “Environmental Governance at the Leading Edge of Technology.” Fittingly enough, the symposium opened with a panel of presentations on the governance challenges involved in the implementation of said technology. The following is an observer’s attempt to summarize the topics discussed at this panel – please note that the summary is dependant on the observer’s notes and does not necessarily portray the views of the participants.

The panel was composed of the following participants:

Moderator: Scott Schang, Vice President, Climate and Sustainability, the Environmental Law Institute

Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Professor of Law, Arizona State University

David Rejeski, Director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars

Gary Marchant, Lincoln Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law, and Ethics, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Lee Paddock, Associate Dean for Environmental Studies at GW Law, began the panel by introducing the participants and describing a few of the themes that would be touched upon. Dean Paddock noted that although environmental problems have been present within the public consciousness for years, the emergence of new technologies not only introduces new challenges within the field, but magnifies the scope of those that are already present. He described how business and society’s eagerness for the benefits of these innovations can lead to their implementation before their effects are fully understood and wondered, in light of this eagerness, what roles the public, business, and the government have to play in the regulation of these technologies.

Professor Allenby spoke first and sought in his talk to highlight what he perceived to be the most worrisome trend in the realm of environmental governance: a lack of imagination, adaptability, and clearheadedness in enacting regulation to address the already-present environmental problems of our time. In his description of this “avoidance” mindset, he touched on phenomena and evidence of profound shifts in societal norms such as the technology-mediated reformulation of conceptions of “nature,” changes in cognition such as greater computing performance, reformulations of biodiversity, geoengineering, factory meat, and radical life extension. Professor Allenby concluded by citing three dimensions of the changes that have taken and will continue to take place: increases in complexity, changes in degrees of contingency, and a steady factor of unpredictability regarding the world to come.

Professor Rejeski was next to speak, giving a presentation evocatively titled “Dancing With Elephants.” He employed this metaphor throughout his talk to present the various changes taking place within the techno-environmental landscape that regulation must keep abreast of: changes in tempo, shifting requirements of agility and flexibility, changes in clockspeed, and changes in the rate and scale of innovation. Professor Rejeski described at length a current phenomenon he called “the molecular economy,” which is the result of a fundamental shift occasioned by technology allowing us to see, simulate, and manipulate matter at the nanoscale. In explaining how this came about, he utilized a graph illustrating various “types” of innovation as a function of change potential and difficulty of forecasting: all innovation before the era of fusion was incremental, combinatorial, or modular innovation, none of which implicated a fundamental change in the paradigm. With the fusion era, however, innovation became radical and what he described as “game-changing.” Professor Rejeski concluded with two predictions for the near future: what he described as “wildness” would become a trend in emergent behavior and accidents, formerly occurring mostly at the fringes, would become more normalized.

Professor Marchant was the final presenter within the panel, giving a talk on “The Five Common Governance Issues With Emerging Technology.” The first common issue he described was ethical and social concerns. As he explained, some of these are very real, such as health effects, but some are based on repugnance or the “yuck” factor, and it is crucially important to deal with each of the categories appropriately within the relevant regulation. Second, he described issues of risk, uncertainty, and how much precaution to take: too much precaution can stifle innovation, but too little accomplishes nothing. Third, he touched on issues of public engagement, both normative and utilitarian: the public possesses not only a right to participate, but important information. Finally, Professor Marchant described issues of international harmonization and coordination and the pacing of technology and oversight, both of which if neglected could lead to a critically harmful gap between regulation and emerging technology.

Overall, these experts highlighted the widening gap between governance and emerging technologies and emphasized the need for both industry and governments to address this gap in the near future.

-Melanie Shultz, Electronic Articles Editor

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