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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

3 - Public Acceptance and the Regulation of Emerging Technologies

Summary

The history of innovation is full of cases in which a new technology, despite its initial promise, quickly encountered substantial public resistance and never reached its economic potential. Examples include nuclear power, genetically modified food, stem cell research, and many others. In some cases, carefully crafted market entry campaigns were derailed by hostile media coverage, creating fear among customers. In other cases, companies were targeted by well-organized activist campaigns. A major reason for these difficulties is the importance of influences and intermediaries. Journalists, experts (real and so-described), regulators, and politicians all shape customer and stakeholder perception about a product, as does the growing importance of peer-to-peer communication through internet channels such as blogs, websites, etc. As a consequence, the relationship between companies and customers is increasingly no longer bilateral and direct, but multilateral and mediated.

The history of genetically modified food products (GMOs) offers an instructive example. Excitement about technological innovation quickly turned to concern, with disastrous consequences for the industry in the European market. Such issues of product acceptance not only pertain to consumer-oriented products, as in the case of, for example, the Flavr Savr® tomato, the first genetically manufactured food product in the United States, but also for business-to-business products, as in the case of Monsanto's Roundup Ready® soybeans, used as an ingredient in many processed food items. In both cases the issue was triggered by worries in the general public about product safety, environmental impact, and the like. In the consumer product case, this may undermine consumer trust, resulting in lower sales. In the business-to-business case, the direct impact may not be on the supplier (e.g., Monsanto) but rather on the branded company that is using Roundup Ready® soybeans as an ingredient for its products, say, candy bars. Concerned about loss of customers, consumer brand companies then will put pressure on their suppliers to ensure that products are “GMO-free,” which in turn undermines the sales of the supplier (here, Monsanto). In other words, if there are concerns about a product or technology, these concerns quickly move up the supply chain, undermining the business success of the technology.

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