Designing an ethical use of technology

Source: World Economic Forum.

Ethics is about doing the right thing, making the right choices, and protecting the common good. It can also integrate technology and help it serve humanity, Globethics’ Professor Obiora Ike explained in a previous article on the subject.

A new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) invites companies to rethink how they use technology in an ethical and responsible way.

As digital technologies, from 3D printing to artificial intelligence and robotics, become more widespread, companies are faced with new ethical challenges, such as data privacy and algorithmic bias that can leave them exposed to new risks.

The report presents a behavioural approach that can be applied across sectors and operations in a company to make sure the technology they use is trustworthy. It means a new design of organisations “to ensure that the people creating, deploying and using these tools are motivated and equipped to make ethical choices.”

A comprehensive approach. The implementation of technology becomes a complex endeavour when its negative potential impacts are considered. Preserving human values in all aspects is key in the development. The WEF highlights three design principles based on Nicholas Epley’s theory, to promote ethical behaviour, to create effective programmes, policies and decision environments.

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  1. Attention: Timely reminders, checklists, refresher trainings on the ethical implications of technology.

  2. Construal: Individuals interpret their work in ethical terms, with deliberate choices of ethically freighted language, in mission statements. Leaders are responsible to carry the vision and share the values.

  3. Motivation: Naturally, people are motivated to act ethically, especially if it is the cultural norm of the organisation. Pro-social actions, “norm nudges” and other culture-changing activities can be used to reinforce that context.

Not only must the individuals integrate ethical principles but the environment itself needs to be shaped differently, as Nicholas Epley and David Tannenbaum explain in their quoted article:

“Improving ethics often requires altering the type of situation a person is in, not simply altering the type of people in a given situation.”

This behavioural model, according to the WEF report, creates the foundations enabling leaders to build and maintain ethical frameworks where the use of technology puts human values first.

The research and its findings. The authors of the report representing the WEF, Deloitte and the Markkula Center, led an in-depth study with thirteen companies in seven countries. The interviews revealed the importance of integrating attention, construal and motivation. The three pillars can manifest through one single action, but discrete activities also have an impact at every level.

Moreover, ethical cultures become the rule, as a growing number of organizations are instituting ethical reviews and assessments. It also means that employees look to their leaders to provide the needed framework.

The findings however reveal that more straightforward guidance is necessary if companies are to integrate that ethics “is fueling innovation and adding long-term value – and not the opposite.”