With great innovation comes great responsibility

With great innovation comes great responsibility
By Michael Whitaker, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President of Strategy Enablement and Innovation Services
Jan 18, 2018
3 Min. Read

Now more than ever, technology companies must consider their impact on the overall global citizen experience.

The proliferation of mobile and cloud technology has opened new financial, economic and social opportunities worldwide. Increased access to the internet and a web-linked device has transformed the way people from diverse communities share ideas, goods, money and culture. Software is at the heart of it all.

Tech companies creating, developing and improving software now hold more power than ever. Many of the ‘most innovative’ companies fuel the on-demand economy and respond to consumer-led demands in delivering not only services but also by creating experiences that impact how humans interact with the world. In addition to making the lives of relatively well-off citizens incrementally more comfortable or efficient, their software platforms also have the power to connect the previously disconnected, serve the previously underserved or hold the powers that be – including governments, elected officials and tech companies, even themselves – accountable for their actions or inaction. With rapidly increasing power and influence comes even greater responsibility for the full impact that these software platforms have on society and citizen experiences.

Innovation at Superhuman Speed

We have reached a tipping point where the pace of software innovation has exceeded human capacity to fully comprehend and learn new iterations. Some innovations – including technologies and software tied to artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality, machine learning and open source APIs – fundamentally change the way people do business, interact socially and live their lives. Some innovations, like incremental improvements to wifi connectivity on planes or app updates on smartphones, happen regularly and without fanfare.

Notably, consumer adoption and understanding of these innovations consistently occurs at a slower pace than the technology developments meant to improve, change or augment humanity. For their part, potential consumers (regular people) want to understand how innovations work – and even if the innovation in question is relevant to their own human experience – but often lack the technical knowledge or time to assess the tradeoffs introduced by new innovations. Further, the ability for artificial intelligence enabled software to subtly or overtly manipulate humans without their knowledge makes it nearly impossible for citizens to make clear-eyed assessments across all rapidly evolving platforms. If the consumers of a technology cannot be expected to fully understand how it influences their social interactions and society as a whole, it is imperative that companies hold themselves accountable. To me, consistently addressing the social impacts of software on the citizen experience in a responsible and effective way is the tech world’s greatest challenge. And solving it is much easier said than done.

Tech Giants Impact and Responsibility Goes Beyond Philanthropy

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously asked the Twitter community what he should do with his philanthropy-bound money. Amazon touches many consumer businesses, fuels just under half of America’s total ecommerce sales and hosts many of the world’s top websites through its Amazon Web Services business. While the responses to Bezos’ question from media, tech, business and regular people ranged from the wild to the reasonable to the dire (sending clean water to Flint, for instance), one thing was clear: Bezos, and other wealthy people in tech, are actually in a position to use their personal wealth, their proprietary technology and their commercial infrastructure to help less fortunate people.

Bill and Melinda Gates caught on to this realization early in modern tech’s history, launching a global foundation in 2000 that now delivers tech, education and resources to communities around the world. They also chose to siphon a large portion of their Microsoft fortune into accounts that will eventually go to charity instead of stay in the family. Similarly, Alphabet promotes data-driven, human-focused philanthropy through Google.org, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative promises to advance human potential and promote equal opportunity.

However, no matter how large they are in terms of dollars, these philanthropic initiatives represent only a small piece of the social impact of tech giants. As Mark Zuckerberg recently noted in a Fast Company interview, “I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want. A lot of companies do nice things with small parts of their resources. I would hope that our core mission is the main thing we want to accomplish, in that almost all of our resources go toward that.”

The implication of Zuckerberg’s statement is that ultimately the positive or negative social impact of software companies of all sizes should not be judged by their charitable initiatives but by how their core operations and platforms change society.

Indeed, many of the world’s most pressing problems including humanitarian aid, disaster relief, energy grid diversification, food security, education and remote assistance now fall under the purview of both public sector entities serving people and private technology companies. As a result, consumer-facing tech giants, smaller companies, and startups face a challenging balancing act between developing software-driven technology for profit and for good. Moreover, they must continually re-assess and protect the social values of their companies by proactively evaluating the positive and negative impacts created along multiple dimensions.

CSR: Corporate Software Responsibility

Ultimately, this point in technology’s history reminds me of when global businesses realized they needed a public conscience in the 1990s. Regular people in communities around the world were significantly impacted – in various ways – by socioeconomic decisions, shifts, updates and improvements made as a result of commercial projects they had no control or sway over. Consequently, businesses were faced with a crucial decision: to dedicate a portion of their resources and staff to pursuing a triple bottom line that advanced economic, environmental, and social outcomes, or to continue focusing on promoting commercial interests over community welfare. Society as a whole benefitted greatly from this focus on more inclusive prosperity.

Technology has the power to connect and shrink the world with the potential to not only improve the lives of the well-off but also to uplift and empower those with fewer resources. However, with software platforms increasingly penetrating every aspect of our lives and having continuous intended and unintended influence on our social interactions, there is a newfound responsibility for technology companies to consider their impact on the overall global citizen experience. Now is the time for the technology industry to define and adopt a more holistic corporate software responsibility code focused on how it will use software innovation to protect and uplift society, serve humanity, and improve the experiences of citizens around the world.

Meet the author
  1. Michael Whitaker, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Strategy Enablement and Innovation Services

    Whit is an expert in enabling leaders to better deliver on their strategies, advance the effectiveness of their organizations, and drive greater innovation. View bio

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