Embedding ethics in tech innovation

By: Charles Radclyffe

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It’s almost impossible to imagine a part of work in the future that won’t be touched by technology. We can already access education and work from almost any place in the world thanks to online learning and remote work – trends that many expect to grow. Artificial intelligence is removing the administrative burden from many roles, and robotics promises to dramatically improve health and safety from warehouses to construction sites. Technology holds vast potential to improve people’s working lives and increase overall worker wellbeing.

But many experts predict that technology will also displace some workers. In 2015, a PwC survey estimated that one third of all jobs could be at risk of automation by the mid-2030s. The pandemic appears to be accelerating this transition in many industries. More than half of people worry about job loss due to automation, according to 2020’s Edelman Trust Barometer. New technology designed to make some workers’ jobs easier also can run the risk of harming workers. For example, apps and software aimed at improving communication and collaboration have enabled an ‘always on’ culture leading to troubling levels of worker burnout. None of the above are good outcomes for society or for business.

The significance of tech in the future of work means that the people and companies developing new technology have a critical role to play. The creators of tomorrow’s technology have the power to shape and impact the lives of millions of people they will never meet. Such a role in the future of work comes with great responsibility.

Ethics is an important tool for helping both tech companies and civil society understand the human impact of new technology. But ethics isn’t an exercise we can check off in an afternoon. It needs to be an ongoing activity – a dialogue among leaders, creators, users and non-users of tech about how products shape or could shape our lives. If we can make this dialogue an integral part of tech’s development and use, we have a great chance to unlock tech’s potential as a positive force in the future of work.

A new era for tech

Ethics is often not the first priority in tech innovation. The industry’s culture of ‘move fast and break things’ can make taking the time to consider the ethical implications of a new product and engage with diverse groups of stakeholders challenging. In the UK, 63% of tech workers surveyed said they would like more time to consider the ethical implications of their products, according to research by the organization Dot Everyone.

This speed of development in the tech sector also can make it challenging for policymakers, workers and civil society to keep up. And while this year has seen concerted effort from governments in the U.S., Europe and China to improve regulation in the industry, finding the right balance between mitigating against harm while fostering innovation is no small task. On top of this, the tech pipeline is so complex, with many different actors involved and many aspects of new technology that are difficult even for experts to understand. This has led to an accountability vacuum in the industry – no one agrees about who should be accountable for what part of tech development when things do go wrong.

But, as described above, change is beginning. Tech workers are increasingly questioning the impact their work has on society. Consumers and investors are also growing ever more concerned and critical of the tech industry. The companies who take the time to consider the ethical implications of their products, and to engage with a broad mix of stakeholders, will be the ones that attract the best talent, and draw in customers and investors in the future.

Bringing ethics into tech innovation

The COVID-19 pandemic has handed us an important opportunity to rethink our relationship with work and technology, and start building a future of work with humans at the center.

Companies can get ahead by thinking beyond fixed ethics principles and values statements. Instead, they should try to think of ethics as an activity. This means ensuring tech governance structures are in place that support ethical considerations throughout the tech innovation process, and that these are connected to overall corporate governance policies. A key area to focus on is stakeholder engagement. Companies need to expand their definitions of stakeholders to reflect the far-reaching impact of technology. This means including non-users and other unexpected groups who bring in unique perspectives and can challenge a team’s blind spots early in the innovation process, and maintaining ongoing feedback loops with them. It’s a very useful model to apply because where there is misalignment between different stakeholder groups, this is often where problems are born. This is the heart of ethics – it needs to be a continuous conversation, with the aim of better understanding diverse perspectives.

When it comes specifically to the future of work, we need to bring together businesses, policymakers and civil society to agree what tasks should or shouldn’t be done by tech. Humans excel in tasks that require creativity, empathy and critical reasoning. Some experts predict that labor-intensive industries – far from being automated – could grow. A survey of employers by Manpower found communication, customer service and collaboration to be among the top-most sought after ‘human’ skills. The food industry is a great example of these types of skills in action. Small wine producers, breweries and specialty coffee shops are popular for their personalized touch and the experience they offer. Even supermarkets provide an opportunity for human interaction, now especially craved after the pandemic. These examples may seem small, but they apply across many sectors, from tourism to therapy. Instead of seeing automation as a direct cost-saving exercise, we should be asking: how can we use automation to enhance these uniquely human parts of work and improve the long-term relationship with customers? By collaborating, we can start to define the role that both tech and humans can play in a positive future of work.

Shaping a positive future of work

Over the last six months, I’ve been part of the Future of Work initiative, led by Verizon and Xynteo. As part of the Technology and Ethics working group, I’ve joined business leaders and academics to explore ways to ensure a positive role for technology in the future. Together, we’ve defined actions for businesses to help them better navigate tech’s role in their organizations, from tailored ethics training, to better stakeholder engagement.

Projects like this hopefully help us move toward a more responsible relationship with technology in the future. I hope it can also help us raise awareness that the future of work is something that we have the power to design and shape for ourselves. By making ethics a business priority, and working to increase transparency in the industry, effectively engage diverse groups of stakeholders and clearly define the roles that humans and technology should play, we can help create a more positive future of work for all.

This is part four of a five part series on the Future of Work initiative

Learn more about the Future of Work initiative

About the author:

Charles is a serial entrepreneur who has focused his career on solving tough technology challenges for some of the world's largest organisations.

A self-confessed 'geek' at heart, Charles combines his technical fluency with his business nous to really get to grips with how best to conceive, design, build and implement solutions which can unlock transformative business value.

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