I believe that technology companies must commit to ensuring their innovations are a force for good.
What I mean by this is twofold: technology products must deliver good and do no harm to customers, and those products should be put to work to address a higher purpose to help both people and our planet.
First, Do No Harm
The first tenet is positioned at the intersection of technology and morality. The “move fast and break things” mantra of Silicon Valley must be adjusted to find a balance between hyper-fast movement for the sake of breakthrough innovation (and profit) and thoughtful consideration of any potential negative ramifications a new technology might have on individuals and society.
A January 2019 article on MarketWatch summed up the critical questions technology companies must ask themselves today:
“These challenges won’t be strategic, financial, or technical, but instead will be more focused on philosophical, societal, and ethical questions. Questions like: What role does our technology play in society, and what responsibility do we, the creators of these innovations, have in shaping the societal and economic consequences that accompany them?”¹
This issue took centre stage in 2018 with the Facebook crisis involving the misuse of customer data. Unfortunately, this is not a one-off example. Just this past October, Google announced it was shuttering its Google+ social network after a Wall Street Journal report revealed the company failed to disclose a bug that exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users.² These two examples demonstrate the issue data giants struggle with over how to “reconcile their competing priorities of safeguarding user trust and turning a healthy profit.”³
All of this speaks to the importance of placing ethics over profitability and putting customers above everything else. To that end, companies must ensure they safeguard customer data to protect their privacy and use it only with their permission, and for their benefit. Cloaked use of customer data for profit or manipulation purposes is simply unacceptable.
In addition, companies must assess and consider the many ways their products might be used, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. If in this process, they discover ways their innovations can be used to do harm, they should proactively take preventative measures… not wait until problems start. An obvious example here is Facebook’s fight to keep “fake news” out of its social network.
Many companies are stepping up to address the issue of ethics and technology. At the 2018 Viva Technology conference in Paris, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty articulated her own company’s philosophy and principles around AI, which include “ensuring companies remember that data belongs to the person who created it, AI must be transparent and explainable, and it should be used to augment human intelligence, not replace it.”4
Technology and Moral Purpose
The other critical aspect of using technology for “good” involves putting innovations to work to address a societal problem, whether it’s developing sustainable products that help the environment or donating products or services to the underprivileged.
Companies across all industries and geographies are identifying a moral purpose that is a true extension of their core business, finding powerful ways to give back to society. This “force for good” is the clarion call of today that appeals to all stakeholders – and millennials, in particular.
I’ll use another IBM example here that brings this to life. In May 2018, the company announced its “Call for Code” initiative, which is “the largest and most ambitious effort to bring startup, academic, and enterprise developers together to solve one of the most pressing societal issues of our time: preventing, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters.” Its goal is to unite the world’s developers and tap into data and AI, blockchain, cloud, and IoT technologies to address social challenges.5
So many of today’s innovations have enormous potential in addressing societal issues. For example, AI can be used to improve everything from healthcare and environmental sustainability to protecting endangered wildlife, providing urban mobility and public welfare, and assisting in low resource communities.
Many other technologies, such as mobile phone networks, IoT, voice recognition technology, search technology, apps, software of all kinds and data analytics, can and are being used to solve world problems.
Here are a few quick examples:
- Johnson & Johnson launched a program in India that uses cell phone technology to send pregnant women and new moms voicemail messages on health-related topics and critical information about raising children.6
- Big data company SAS is leveraging data insight expertise to help crime fighters secure critical pieces of information.7
- Vodafone is extending e-commerce to African merchants by providing a payment system platform.8
- China-based Ant Financial’s Ant Forest tree-planting app is gamifying carbon footprint tracking for more than 450 million users in China to help tackle climate change.9
I am, and always have been, an avid champion of all things tech. I’m astounded by the incredible impact innovations have had on my life and society in general, and I’m enthralled by where technology will take us next. But with all of this innovation comes the responsibility to ensure products are used with a sense of morality and purpose. Companies that get this right will naturally appeal to today’s socially conscious consumer and become the iconic brands that define this era.
4. VentureBeat, IBM Ginni Rometty Calls on Developers to Embrace Responsible AI Principles, May 24, 2018, https://venturebeat.com/2018/05/24/ibm-ceo-ginni-rometty-calls-on-developers-to-embrace-responsible-ai-principles/
5. IBM News Room, IBM Leads “Call for Code” to Use Cloud, Data, AI, Blockchain for Natural Disaster Relief, May 25, 2018, https://www-03.ibm.com/press/in/en/pressrelease/54007.wss
6, 7, 8, 9. Fortune, Change the World 2017, September 15, 2017
Larry Weber is the Chairman & CEO at Racepoint Global, an agency member of PRHK, Hong Kong’s association for PR and communications professionals. His latest book is Authentic Marketing: How to Capture Hearts and Minds through the Power of Purpose.