Innovation can bring the world tremendous technology, inventions and products. New inventions never cease to amaze and excite me, that’s why I became involved with innovation in the first place. I remember watching ‘Tomorrows World’ on BBC TV in the 1980’s with wonder and excitement as a child. I imagined a high technology utopian future with flying cars, mobile telephones and 3D televisions alongside global peace, a thriving environment and happy populations. Unfortunately the utopian future that I imagined didn’t quite materialise. While there have been many technological advances, far beyond my imagination in many areas, the utopian vision seems as far away today as it has ever been. Far from a utopian world, we live in a world that is in urgent need of ethical intervention to heal the damage brought about by human progress. Steven Spielberg’s latest film; ‘Ready player one’ paints a picture of a highly technological but dystopian world, where people have to escape into a virtual reality game to get away from the unpleasant realities of real life. This is not the sort of world that anyone wants to live in, and that’s why we must prioritise ethics as we drive technological innovation to help make the world a better place.
There are many examples of unethical innovation. One only needs to consider the financial crisis of 2008 to see the harmful effects of ‘financial innovation’. Who was overseeing the packaging up of toxic financial derivatives to make them appear marketable during incubation of this idea? Bitcoin was an innovative application of a decentralised ledger technology. However, did anyone consider the effects of greed combined with energy use when they designed the ‘proof of work’ concept? This resulted in huge mining rigs sucking up unfathomable amounts of electricity as various entities profited from the speculative frenzy. Could this have been avoided? Numerous consumer technology companies innovated their supply chain to reduce cost by outsourcing to foreign companies that lacked regulation, resulting in terrible working conditions and low pay which was really an exercise in exploitation. In the meantime profits soared as western consumers continued receive the latest gadgets. Where was the oversight? Sadly, it is human nature to be greedy and so unethical innovation will always emerge and proliferate in some areas but, as leaders and innovators, you are in a unique position to ensure these sorts of innovations are minimised.
Bringing ethics into innovation
As an innovator it’s easy to get carried away with excitement when a new solution begins to look promising. Innovation can sometimes feel a bit fortuitous and haphazard if we are failing many unsuitable projects at an early stage. So when an idea progresses and demonstrates high potential to deliver large profits or cost reductions it is understandable that we might get a little carried away with a sense of our own genius. While all focus is on customer experience, design and the potential for a breakthrough idea there will be a tendency to ignore the indirect harms. We can become so focused on delivering the benefits that we fail to examine the impact on the wider environment. We must therefore prioritise ethical considerations alongside design and profit, and build them into the innovation process. Of course we don’t live in a perfect world and not every new idea can be highly profitable as well as being positive for humanity, but we can examine the potential harms of an idea and develop plans to minimise them. We can also place more emphasis on the prioritisation process for ideas and projects. For example, if a project offers incredible potential for improving the environment, but monetising it is proving difficult, we might consider other approaches. These might include collaborating with government or academic institutions to ensure that the project ultimately delivers it’s benefits, regardless of profit. The idea might even provide an opportunity for good public relations even if there are no direct financial benefits.
How do we bring ethics into innovation?
There are a number of areas that we should consider to ensure that we are innovating ethically:
Innovation is delivered by collaborative organisations that have innovation embedded into their culture. Likewise, if we want to deliver ethical outputs, we must embed ethics into an organisational culture. It’s not something that can be considered as an afterthought, it must be prioritised alongside other benefits.
An innovation process must include elements of ethical review so that, during the conception and design phases, the idea is rigorously tested for it’s impact on the wider environment. ‘Fail fast’ does not only need to apply to ideas and projects that fail the profitability test. Projects that fail the ethics test should also be failed, or at least re-invented.
Business cases must examine the harms as well as the benefits and have plans to eliminate or minimise them. Harms must also be considered in the wider context beyond organisational boundaries. What if a highly profitable idea is reviewed and exposed to be harmful to the environment or third parties? Then it should go back to the drawing board to find creative solutions that eliminate the harms.
Legislation is there to protect people and the environment but we should not use this as a boundary that we can push the limits to. If a small percentage of the profit margin needs to be sacrificed to make our innovation efforts beneficial to the wider environment then we should actively be attempting to make it happen. Prioritising projects that offer significant ethical benefits as well as financial benefits should be considered best practice.
The bottom line is that we are living through highly technological but somewhat destructive times. It seems that the pace of change and the thirst for profit has got a little ahead of itself and we need to consider the contribution that innovation plays to humanity as well as the balance sheet. As innovators and leaders we have a responsibility to do the right thing.
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