Responsible research and innovation

What is Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

Responsible research and innovation is a key issue in the European Union’s Framework programme Horizon 2020, which, in this framework, is defined as “an approach that anticipates and assesses potential implications and societal expectations with regard to research and innovation, with the aim to foster the design of inclusive and sustainable research and innovation”[1]. Hence, adopting the RRI principle makes it necessary to consider research and innovation not only from a science centered perspective or through economic interests or political considerations, but also from environmental and societal perspectives. In this frame, several facets of RRI overlap. RRI is inclusive and encourages the involvement of different categories of actors, from scientists, industrialists and politicians to NGOs, associations and educators. It takes the notions of transparency, open access, ethics, social desirability and sustainable development seriously and gives new dimensions to those terms. Von Schonberg defines RRI as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)” [2, p. 63].

Why is RRI needed?

The term social acceptance is currently frequently used in the energy domain, especially when projects are poorly accepted by the population. This notion has several weaknesses [3][4]:

  • it generally reflects a top-down and normative vision of the implementation and management of energy-related projects;
  • it is called on, on a post-hoc basis, once the project and its location have been defined, and when the public starts to be seen as an obstacle to the development of the project. In this context, controversies are generally perceived as destructive and opposition as deviant behavior, guided by emotions and ideologies.

The principle of RRI aims to reverse this trend since it requires engagement upstream, an exchange between the project leaders and the public, and encourages the co-construction of projects. Manzela et al. plead that “efforts should be made to ensure that society becomes a partner in co-constructing the path of innovation from the initial planning stages and throughout developments as opposed to seeking public approval and social acceptance only in the final phases of developments” [5, p. 57]. In this way, projects become more respectful of the social identities of the local populations and may meet the criteria of social desirability.

Figure 1. An RRI approach to the social dimension of geothermal energy projects.

How can stakeholders engage in and respect the RRI principles?

RRI requires stakeholders to reflect more about how to develop a project, how to facilitate the involvement of local authorities or even that of inhabitants in the definition of projects, with all possible consequences this may have in adapting the communication strategy and project governance. In this context, social science research related to geothermal energy can provide important insights for the adoption of the RRI principles. Social research conducted within the framework of the DESTRESS programme accounts for the different contextual factors that may impact both the definition of a project and the engagement of different social groups in the project. These may be cultural or social factors. Local culture, local traditions, identity, or the relationship between the population and nature or between the population and the urban environment may influence how people perceive, interpret and become involved in a project [6]. They may be political factors. Local political action in favor of renewable energies or innovation may play a positive role in the development of a partnership approach to project definition and implementation [7]. These different factors may contribute to the embeddedness of a project.

Territorial issues

  • Operators and institutions need to see the territory through the eyes of its inhabitants. This means that they should pay attention to what the inhabitants value in their territory, how they define it (do they see themselves as a region known for innovation, as a place to enjoy and respect nature, or as a bridge between different cultures?) along with the region’s potential plans for its future (is the region engaged in industrial reconversion, are plans underway to develop specific activities, etc.).
  • Operators and institutions need to expand their own expertise by taking advantage of the territorial expertise provided by elected representatives, inhabitants, local residents' associations and environmental protection associations. What could be interpreted as fears or as peculiar interests of certain stakeholders may be early warnings concerning issues that could crop up at later stages in the process. For instance, concerns about project governance or the feeling that the project has been enforced by the State may provide insights into the way local people or their elected representatives would like to get involved in the project and which aspects of the project they would like to see developed.
  • Operators and institutions also need to consider the changing aspects of a context when planning communication and engagement processes and actions, i.e., it is crucial to root such actions in a local reality. Indeed, as soon as residents become aware a project is planned for their locality, they will expect either future benefits (for instance green heat at a cheaper price), risks or nuisance (induced seismicity, pollution, noise, etc.) and act accordingly.

 Political and societal issues

  • National institutions must provide frameworks that legitimize geothermal energy yet and allow projects to emerge from – or adapt to – local realities. For this purpose, it is important to take the relationships between different institutions into consideration. For instance, if a region wishes to assert its autonomy with respect to the nation state in a country where geothermal energy is regulated at national level, it is possible that opposing a geothermal project is one way to assert this autonomy and does not necessarily imply opposition to the technology per se.
  • Local institutions must support projects by providing them with a sufficiently robust political basis. Their commitment should not be limited to exchanges or transactions with industrialists but should aim to support projects during the design and development phases and be forward looking. For instance, if heat could be distributed to industries, farmers, urban heat networks and so on, local institutions should accompany these projects and communicate about them.
  • Operators and local institutions must be aware that – despite their efforts – a project will not necessarily succeed, whether for geological, political or societal reasons. Strong opposition to the project should be on a par with unfavorable geological conditions. Geothermal developers would never dream of drilling a well without first assessing and monitoring the specific geologic conditions at the proposed site. So why should they do the equivalent while ignoring the social and political conditions?

 Communication issues

  • Operators and local institutions should identify and inform residents about the sensitive areas that may pose risks, be they drilling, stimulation or surface installations, and the precautions taken to control these risks. They should be fully transparent about the pros and cons of projects and the potential impact of projects in all its developmental stages. If they are not, in the event of controversy, criticism may focus on points that were not adequately explained during the first communication campaigns and their credibility may be largely undermined.
  • Operators should prefer partner-based communication over persuasive communication. Accompanying a project using communication should not simply aim to gain acceptance, but rather to give people the opportunity to understand, and to enable them to build their own opinions by considering positive and negative aspects in an environment that is already full of meaning and knowledge.
  • Operators and other stakeholders should take into account how the media function and favor long-term communication as a framework for event-driven communication. They should provide the media with comprehensive information on the technical aspects of projects, their incorporation in a given territory, and the economic, political and territorial objectives to which they respond.



[2] Von Schomberg, R. (2013). A vision of Responsible Innovation. In Richard Owen M. Heintz and J Bessant (eds.), Responsible Innovation (pp. 51-74). London, John Wiley.

[3] Batellier, P. (2015). Acceptabilité sociale. Cartographie d’une notion et de ses usages. Cahier de recherche, Centre de recherche en éducation et formation relatives à l’environnement et à l’écocitoyenneté / UQÀM.

[4] Meller, C., Schill, E., Bremer, J., Kolditz, O., Bleicher, A., Benighaus, C., et al. (2018). Acceptability of geothermal installations: A geoethical concept for GeoLaB. Geothermals 73:133–45.

[5] Manzella A., Allansdottir, A., Pellizzone A., eds. (2019). Geothermal Energy and Society. Springer

[6] Chavot, P., Heimlich, C., Masseran, A. Serrano, Y., Zoungrana, J., Bodin, C.  (2018). Social shaping of deep geothermal projects in Alsace: politics, stakeholder attitudes and local democracy. Geotherm Energy 6, 26 (2018).

[7] Ejderyan, O., F. Ruef, M. Stauffacher (2020). The entanglement of top-down and bottom-up: socio-technical innovation pathways of geothermal energy in Switzerland. Journal of Environment and Development 29(1): 99-122.

[8] Chavot, P., Ejderyan, O., Puts, H., Willemns, W., Serrano, Y., Masseran, A., et al. (2018). Risk governance strategy report. Demonstration of soft stimulation treatments of geothermal reservoir project (DESTRESS), Horizon 2020 EU Research and Innovation Program, Deliverable 3.3.


Philippe Chavot, University of Strasbourg


Olivier Ejderyan, ETH Zurich