Go Studio team members talk about creating products and services that are inclusive and ethical.
The world’s most successful companies worship unabashedly at the altar of innovation. After all, innovation enables a business to gain market share, drive profits and even elevate their stock price. This unyielding devoutness to innovation may be explained by the belief that progress, or development towards a new and improved condition, is more marketable than something that is old. But for every great innovation (telephone), there are questionable ones (atomic bomb). Innovators need to consider all the potential ways their idea could contribute to the greater good, and all the ways it could create problems in society. With people and the planet in mind, more businesses are beginning to adopt the tenets of responsible innovation, which challenges the intentions, ethics and equity of the innovation.
To explore responsible innovation in greater depth, we gathered several members of Go Studio for an enlightening discussion. Joining in our roundtable confab are:
Billy Harbinson, Director of Innovation
Rahim Snow, Software Architect
Jack McWhinnie, Senior UI/UX Designer
Welcome gentlemen! Let’s begin with an important question concerning innovation. Who gets to control innovation? Is it scientists, universities, businesses, regulators or society?
JACK McWHINNIE: Innovation is a collaborative effort. No one group should have full control of it. Whether the innovators are scientists, UX designers, coders whomever, it’s a collective effort to push the boundaries of what the idea could be. If it’s a new technology, it’s up to regulators to ensure that the innovation is being used ethically and fairly, and it’s up to the public to decide if it is actually useful and should be available.
RAHIM SNOW: There are many layers. The innovation first occurred when people were brainstorming; they were exploring some new territory, looking for clues ─ and ultimately, they hit on the innovation. I think the first person to discover it is initially in control, but when it is released to the public and will impact the wider society, then regulators and the public need to weigh in on how this will affect people’s lives.
BILLY HARBINSON: The applications of scientific methods to business problems is really where innovation happens. It’s trying a bunch of different things, and failing and moving forward, learning and finding something that works. In the end, the idea belongs to the communities that it’s for, and for the problem that it’s solving.
What does responsible innovation framework mean to you?
JM: It’s innovation with a conscience. I would say it’s about advancing while keeping an eye on ethics, sustainability and societal impact. Basically, any technology has the ability to be misused, but it’s up to innovators and society in general to ensure safe applications of emerging technologies.
RS: Responsible innovation considers the ethical impacts and social impacts and asks what are we trying to do as a society with a new idea. There is some thinking ahead involved about the potential benefits and risks.
BH: For me, responsible innovation is solving problems that really need to be solved; solving problems that fit the human-centered design Venn diagram. If I were to get a tattoo, I would get that Venn diagram without the words!
Ha! We’d all like to see that tattoo. Next question: Why does our society need responsible innovation?
JM: It’s needed because the technologies that are being developed, particularly right now, are extremely powerful. They have the capacity to completely change the world, but like anything they can be misused.
RS: The urge to commercialize and profit quickly is so prevalent among so many kinds of companies that it has to be tempered by ethical frameworks to help society make sense of who we are as human beings and where we want to go as a planet.
BH: We need people who are advancing technologies for the greater human need as opposed to just the short-term benefits or financial growth.
We all know about Artificial Intelligence (AI) rocketing on the scene as this formidable engine that will drive innovation. But it also arrives with a serious caveat that it could cause societal harm. Now, coming on its heels is this emerging practice called harm modeling, in which innovators attempt to anticipate the potential for wrongdoing and identify product gaps that might compromise consumers’ safety. Given AI’s prodigious rise, is harm modeling even more necessary than ever?
BH: I think so. There are a lot of ethical concerns with AI ─ which goes back to your ownership question. If we end up in an AI world where AI generates everything, we need to remember that AI is only trained on what’s been created before it. So there becomes a kind of cyclical self-feeding system that is only training itself on itself. There are ethical concerns and certainly technological concerns to that as well.
JM: AI technologies are wonderfully powerful tools that can be used to solve so many different problems, but because they’re so powerful, they can be misused by groups that either are trying to cause harm or inadvertently causing harm. They could be used for large-scale cyberattacks and drive economic inequality, so keeping responsible innovation close at heart is important to ensuring that we’re creating things that will benefit society and keep the raw power of these new technologies in check.
RS: For many years we have been prepared by Hollywood movies and novels for the impending crisis with AI, and the ethical questions of what happens when we let technology run amok. So, responsible innovation has become more necessary because we’ve got a platform now that is doing things that no other platform has done before, and if we’re going to hook any of this up to the existing infrastructure and systems, we have to have some responsibility in place. Responsible innovation has to go hand in hand with the spread of artificial intelligence.
Good answers. Let’s discuss how businesses can bring ethics into their innovations.
JM: Ideally, businesses should incorporate ethical standards right from the beginning of the innovation process by setting clear guidelines to the type of work being produced and fostering a diverse team. It’s important in the innovation process to involve the public and a very diverse group of stakeholders to ensure that the technology is created with good intentions.
RS: When companies talk about the technical and the logistical aspects of an innovation, there needs to be an ethical discussion, as well. They should be asking who is getting excluded. How can we use these innovations to help support, encourage and inspire the people who are less fortunate, and widen their access to resources.
BH: I agree. I believe that companies can accomplish a lot by bringing underrepresented communities into their work. People who work at large companies all have gone through college, earned their degrees and then they go to work. The result is that a lot of the voices end up sounding like people who have their college degrees and work in their field. I think that there are opportunities for finding the voices of the people who companies don’t interact with on a regular basis.
Each of you has made it clear that innovation is not just technological or economical, but also ethical and social. Can you give an example of a product or brand that prioritizes fairness, inclusiveness and environmental responsibility?
RH: The first thing I think of is the World Wide Web. As long as somebody has access to a server that is reachable by the public Internet ─ it doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, what your income is, your ethnicity or social status ─ you have the ability to say something, to put something out there and have your voice be heard.
JM: One company that’s known for fairness, environmental responsibility and inclusiveness is Fairphone. They’re all about responsible sourcing, fair labor practices and eco-friendly products. They claim to be tech that cares about the people and the planet.
BH: I’ve always looked up to Apple. I admire their willingness to go first on some of these issues. There are a lot of companies that are fast followers, but don’t want to be first. Apple is willing to address diversity, climate, and socioeconomic issues as part of their philosophy, their reason for being and why they do what they do.
AI was made available to the public before any government regulatory scrutiny. Even the CEO of Open AI recently stated that AI integration needs to slow down. Do you think that corporations should decelerate tech innovation to guard against more (and possibly new) unethical outcomes emerging over time?
JM: Even if we wanted to, I don’t think it’s possible to slow down innovation. We should be navigating with caution, though. If you keep ethics in mind and you’re working with the public and regulators as these new technologies are emerging, you’re doing your part.
BH: In a world that is increasingly ethically aware and with people willing to call out ethics and responsibility issues, it’s not that we need to slow down ─ in some respects, we should speed up. Sometimes when issues are discovered, we all just kind of stick our heads in the sand and everything grinds to a halt ─ and that ethical issue just sits for a long time without any real action. So, the faster we can solve problems when they arise, the better.
RS: I think if you use the phrase slow down, it scares everybody. We should move, but at the speed of responsibility.
The conundrum is companies are trying to be competitive, so they’re striving to innovate quickly. Unfortunately, they’re not self-regulating. Their mindset seems to be, “if we don’t do it first, someone else will, and we’ll miss out on tons of revenue.”
Thank you, gentlemen, for this great discussion! Here is one final question for you: Do you think society will need to educate the next generation of tech leaders differently to shift their mindset towards responsibility?
RS: Definitely. Society will need to educate the next generation differently and introduce responsibility as a first step. It’s already being done in the medical industry. It institutes an ethical framework at the very beginning of procedural and product developments, which does not hamper innovation.
JM: One place to start is schools should mandate an ethics class within their curriculum for computer science degrees. Probably the largest group of people who are creating new products have a lot of technical acumen when it comes to creating lines of code, but don’t really think about how their products could be used or abused.
BH: To be honest, I think the next generation of tech leaders is going to teach the older generation how to think differently. Millennials, Gen Z, Gen Alpha are going to be teaching us a lot about our world through labor, through technology, through ethics. They’re going to reground us on a lot of things that we may have forgotten along the way.
Mindful Technology Solutions
Looking to innovate responsibly? Go Studio can make it happen. We are a comprehensive innovation studio, focused on delivering breakthrough solutions that are ethical, effective and keep your organization’s technology on the cutting edge. Our innovation labs are bursting with creativity, and our specialized teams are zealots about finding new solutions and embracing the future. Ready to get visionary? Request an introduction now.