Responsible Innovation: the Entrepreneurial Imperative

Philippe de Woot

He was Emeritus Professor at Louvain Catholic University in Belgium, where he taught Business Policy, Strategic Management and Business Ethics. He led multidisciplinary research in these fields and was actively committed to research and promotion of Corporate Social Responsibility.

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Philippe de Woot argues that we need to transform our creativity into real progress for humankind, and shows how social innovation can open the door for new methods and practices.

Innovation and creativity are essential to the dynamism of an economy. Faced with the growth of emerging countries, the competitiveness of developed countries mainly depends on innovation.

It is the individual or collective entrepreneurs that give strength to the economy. With their creativity, they take initiatives and make the transformations necessary to survive in a competitive global system. The vitality of the economy depends on a sufficiently active and dense entrepreneurial culture.

If society is ill-suited to the pace of economic and technical creativity, it’s not a reason to blame innovation, as Luc Ferry tends to do in his recent book1. If one criticism should be made of the market economy, it is not found in human creativity but in the inadequacy of our structures. The creative capacity of humanity is a scarce resource to be cultivated and better focused. We need entrepreneurs and their creativity. Through their innovations, they are able to help us cope with the societal challenges of the 21st century.

As long as economic theory gives so little importance to innovation and the societal changes it causes, it will continue to produce superficial analyses and ignore the real role of companies, their power and their responsibilities.

More importantly, it will be unable to offer the development strategies that are needed. It will remain powerless to ask the real ethical questions about our future.

Turning creativity into progress

We have seen that corporate power, especially power over science and technology, is ambiguous. Cut off from its social purpose, it can become threatening2. To believe, as some economic theory does, that the market will fix this is an illusion. The market cannot do everything, and if economic action and thought lack ethical and political dimensions, the Holy Grail of economic fairness sought by Jean Pierre Hansen will not be found3. The economy must become again a moral science. Is it not the societal responsibility of the entrepreneur to complete his work and to serve the common good

Questioning the purpose of entrepreneurial creativity is to question material progress, its focus and its ambiguities. If entrepreneurs want their extraordinary creativity to turn into progress for humanity, they have a duty to direct, to give it meaning through its moral and societal dimensions. The definition of progress is inseparable from an ethical and political reflection.

Is economic progress not a more serious basis than profit alone to specify the action of entrepreneurs? A more serious basis than quantitative growth alone? A growing number of economists4 question the concept of growth and its measurement, gross domestic product (GDP). They suggest more refined economic goals, such as sustainable development, “different” growth, prosperity without growth, the green economy, social solidarity…They also have to use other criteria, and other performance measures such as the human development index plus many other indicators: ecological footprint, “living better”, “real progress”, “national happiness”, etc.

To give a responsible meaning to entrepreneurial action, one has to reflect on and answer the following questions: Economic and technical creativity
For whom?
The answers to these questions can only be ethical and political. The market alone is unable to respond.

Is it really necessary that our economic empowerment and our extraordinary creative ability should be devoted exclusively to developing only solvent markets and the unceasing hyperconsumption of a society driven by feverish and pervasive advertising? Are there no other priorities in the world that are not being met and whose importance is incommensurate with advanced hyper-comfort or leisure pursuits?
For whom?
Is it morally acceptable and politically reasonable to tolerate the fact that half of humanity is still excluded from the benefits of the creativity and dynamism of an economy that works without it or against it? How long will we tolerate the paradox of creating wealth unparalleled in human history and such an unjust distribution of that wealth?
Will the creativity of business prioritise the race for growth to which rich countries are committed? Will this race continue to pollute the atmosphere, destroy its limited resources, and foster a kind of individualistic and selfish society, trapped in the bubble of its success and privileges? Would the capacity to innovate not be better directed towards the priority problems of the planet and humanity?

Entrepreneurs cannot answer those questions alone. They will be increasingly drawn to political debate and ethical reflection. We should recall that the European tradition from Aristotle considers economics, ethics and politics to be part of the same set5. This is a significant cultural shift that goes further than most discourse on social responsibilities. It is all the more necessary given that we are faced with challenges that go beyond our policy and institutional frameworks: population growth, pockets of extreme poverty, inequalities in education, health and employment, crisis and social anxiety, migration, violence and radicalization, climate change, destruction of biodiversity, ocean pollution, and the dichotomy between political governance and the global economy.

Embedding a social imperative in entrepreneurial action means integrating creativity within the context of wider challenges and sustainable development. We must stop pretending that there is an automatic convergence of the current economic creativity and overall development of humanity. We must stop claiming that only personal interest must guide economic behaviour and respond to global challenges; simply trusting in technical ingenuity and market indications is misguided. Choices are necessary. A company will only be responsible if it operates with a view to human and sustainable development.

From this perspective, we propose defining the purpose of the company as follows: the creation of economic and societal progress in a sustainable and globally responsible manner6.

Economic progress is only a subset; it should not dominate society to impose its limited vision of progress. Other forms of progress exist in cultural, social, political, spiritual and educational realms. While economic progress promotes some of them, it does not cover the whole field of human progress.

But economic progress is created by innovative companies. They have created it through ruptures, destruction and drift but we must recognise that they are the source of continuous material progress for people and societies who can benefit from their creativity.

Despite the failures and deviations of the market economy7, it is the individual and collective entrepreneurs who, in the wake of science, are behind the concrete improvements in the lives of hundreds of millions of people: housing, health, transport, information, communication and entertainment. In the long term, it is through creativity that companies provide material progress but also employment and the competitiveness of regions, countries and continents.

This is also where the keys to economic development lie. This article is an extract from Responsible Innovation by Philippe de Woot and published by Greenleaf Publishing. 


  1. L. Ferry, 2014, op. cit.  
  2. J. Van Rijckevorsel, L’entreprise, un moteur de progrès? (Thélès,  2012). 
  3. See J.P. Hansen, Une quête de Graal (Académie en Poche, 2014). 
  4. See I. Cassiers et al., Redéfinir la prospérité. Jalons pour un débat  public (L’Aube, 2011); T. Jackson, Prospérité sans croissance (De  Boeck/Etopia, 2010). See also works on growth and “happiness”,  particularly B. Frey and A. Stutzer, Happiness and Economics  (Princeton University Press, 2002); see also See also R. Gaucher,  Bonheur et économie (L’Harmattan, 2009) and R. Layard, G. Mayraz  and S.J. Nickell, The Marginal Utility of Income (London School of  Economics and Political Science, 2007).
  5. European Commission, Livre Blanc sur la Gouvernance (Brussels,  2001). 
  6. Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), A Call to Action  (Brussels, 2005).
  7. P. de Woot, Repenser l’entreprise (Académie en Poche, 2013). 

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