The fourth industrial revolution is a new chapter in human development, forcing us to rethink how organisations create value, and shifting the relationship between companies and its stakeholders. However, while technology has no doubt generated many positive impacts, benefits and considerations, it has also created a new set of challenges.
One of the leading concerns about technology today, is the way digital platforms can be exploited for propaganda purposes that create societal harm. This concern is magnified with the perceived power held by “big tech”. The scandals surrounding ethics and the tech industry have raised eyebrows, and cast doubts on the kinds of liberties that companies might take in pursuit of profit: invasion of privacy, algorithmic biases in predictive policing or facial recognition, or simply building app features that manipulate our brain chemistry, might just be the tip of the iceberg. There are also issues that inadvertently arise as negative externalities to the “big tech” business models – disinformation, misinformation, deepfakes – all posing growing threats to the democratic system.
Tellingly, tech insiders have started speaking out against some of the products they help create. The wider public is also demanding greater accountability from the industry, to mitigate the negative impacts of the technology it has created. Beyond this, stakeholders are also looking to tech companies to use their power and platforms for good.
With a growing number of areas that they need to navigate, technology companies might find themselves struggling to address these, or even respond to this ongoing ethics conversation, if they do not have a holistic approach to understanding the impacts of their technology and the ensuing issues. But before that can even happen, companies have to step up to their responsibility, and learn to be responsible stewards of the technology they are deploying.
TAKING STOCK AND GETTING STARTED
The concept of materiality, specifically double materiality, is a good place to start in understanding the impacts of the technology a company develops or uses, and how it affects different stakeholder groups. The process of a materiality analysis will help companies to understand and assess not only the impacts of the business (and its technology in this case) on society and the environment, but also the impacts of issues such as data privacy and misuse of data on their business performance.
A materiality assessment process will provide the opportunity for stakeholder engagement, which is crucial for understanding their perspectives, and seeking feedback on how potential issues can be addressed or even circumvented. Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2020 revealed that 66% of people worry that technology will make it impossible to trust what they are hearing or seeing. Its research also showed that there is a 5% drop in trust in the tech industry since 2012 (Edelman, 2022).
Companies such as Solvd Together believe that only with a real human understanding of people’s barriers, successes and challenges, can companies develop technology that truly serves society and ensure equity of access and use. Solvd Together builds human-centred solutions that help companies improve their employee experience. As Toby Kheng, Director at Solvd Together, put it, “Our perspective is that we should be developing tech that enables and empowers people not to do the bare minimum, but to excel and be successful. This requires audience research, insight and analysis of their input. Without such research, very rarely will an organisation be able to truly understand an employee challenge and build a utilitarian solution that empowers people to be better.”
To address the implications that their technologies might create, companies must first turn inwards to examine their own ethical principles. Technology products and systems often reflect the human creators behind them, together with their inherent biases and blind spots. This is a problem that may never be solved, but it is possible to introduce “checks and balances” into the technology design and development process, to mitigate such biases.
A diverse set of perspectives should be incorporated as early as possible in the process, to allow a broad consideration of possible implications and anticipation of unintended consequences. Ensuring diversity in the technology development team provides a strong start with an inclusive point of view. Companies can also assemble user communities through focus groups, especially those traditionally excluded, to uncover the potential issues their products and services may create. Having an ethics specialist participate in the process – someone who can help the technology development team think with more foresight and nuance about ethical dilemmas – can also help the company move past pure compliance or technical considerations.
A 2019 study from Deloitte, found that organisations with a clearly defined decision-making process, also appear to be more concerned with the ethical use of Industry 4.0 technologies. This might suggest that a structured approach to making technology decisions, can provide greater visibility into potential ethical issues and how to manage them.
Salesforce, for instance, has even set up an Office of Ethical and Humane Use, with a mandate to ensure that its technology is used to help, not harm, society and uphold the basic human rights of every human being. It also hired its first-ever Chief Ethical and Humane Use Officer in 2018, Paula Goldman, who explained, “We have to remember that ethics is not a checklist, it’s a mindset – the prize is a culture in which everyone owns thinking through the consequences of our technology.”
CREATING POSITIVE IMPACT
Technological duality is nothing new. History is filled with examples of its potential both to do good and to cause harm. Beyond minimising harm, businesses should proactively look at how their technology deployment can be harnessed to improve lives and enhance their positive impact.
Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading superapp, is guided by its mission to drive Southeast Asia forward by creating economic empowerment for everyone. In particular, it sought to make its app more accessible and inclusive, so that more people can partake in the benefits of a digital economy. For example, it developed GrabAssist, an offering that allows consumers with mobility issues to book rides with driver-partners trained in providing specialised assistance to them. The app also features a customisable delivery radii for persons with disabilities (PWD), so they too can join as a delivery partner and deliver food or groceries within a comfortable distance. Iris Chang, Head of Sustainability at Grab, said, “Grab has always been a company that believes that what is good for society is good for business. Grab not only looks at ways to tap on technology to help our communities, but also to digitalise them so that more people can tap on the benefits of digitalisation.”
Entel is another example of a company that uses its technology to enhance its impact. A leading technology and telecommunications company in Latin America, its purpose is to leverage the infinite possibilities of technology to responsibly transform society. Jimena del Valle, Sustainability Director, explained, “Our Sustainability Strategy is a roadmap to achieve a conscious, inclusive and responsible transformation.”
The exciting and evolving world of emerging technology, has even greater potential to do good. Some categories of technologies include advanced analytics and AI, connectivity and platforms, robotics, the Internet of Things and cleantech. Businesses in such fields can focus on technology deployment and solutions that simultaneously improve their bottom line and the outcomes for society. Here are some examples:
- Job security: AI augmentation can complement existing employee skills. Some examples of this include enhancing front-line customer-service roles, allowing mobility for digital cloud-based workspaces, and using robotics to shift human labour to high-value work.
- Inclusion and equal opportunities: AI can reduce discrimination in recruiting, by surfacing biases. It can advise the vulnerable in financial decisions and in seeking much-needed support and aid. In other areas, “smart” glasses can be used to help people with autism on cognitive, social and emotional skills, and “smart” power projects can allow access to cooking appliances and small machinery for rural households.
|Red de Alimentos Chile is a non-profit foodbank, that is tackling hunger and food waste by adopting smart mobile and cloud technologies to match corporate donors with social organisations. The climate crisis, Covid-19 and the Eastern Europe conflict are threatening food security, so platforms like this play a crucial role in optimising food distribution.|
- Environmental sustainability: Autonomous drones and monitoring devices can be used in agriculture to reduce costs and improve productivity. AI and IoT power automated traffic optimisation, helping to reduce emissions. Autonomous vehicles could help reduce carbon emissions and fuel consumption by up to 10-20%.
|Polybee, a start-up company from Singapore, develops autonomous drones that make for precision pollination in indoor farming. It aims to enable efficient and large-scale pollination, as well as pollination indoors where natural pollinators cannot be used, thereby increasing productivity in agriculture.|
Ultimately, technology can and will play an integral role in ushering in a more sustainable and inclusive future. But with widespread adoption of technology to facilitate all manners of modern life, it is a moral imperative for companies to understand and take ethical responsibility for ensuring the humane use of technology, while also embracing opportunities to enhance positive impact for the society.
With the super-fast pace of technological development, companies can join industry-wide initiatives that provide an avenue to not only gain new perspectives and even pre-empt issues that are lingering at the edges, but also access and co-create solutions with partners.
Tech For Good Summit and Tech for Good Call are an example of many key players coming together to ensure sustainable and just developments of technology. French President Emmanuel Macron started the summit in 2018 to bring businesses, start-ups and non-profits to the table, to discuss various avenues to put technology at the service of humanity and the common good. There are 80 signatories to the call, including Alphabet, Salesforce and HPE. They are committing to certain action items in these areas: education; gender equity and diversity; future of work; economic and social inclusiveness; and environment protection.
Working together, we can harness the immense power of technology to transform the world for the benefit of everyone.