Many of us feel angry and powerless at the moment. Sickened that our world has been turned upside down by nameless others, whose values we don’t share, who never gave our views, or our lives, a cursory thought. Welcome to the world of Trump and Brexit voters, and many others of all political persuasions in different parts of the world. They have been feeling like this for the last ten years and it’s why they did what they did.
The US election has focused attention on issues which are at the heart of social cohesion across the West. We need to get past our own disappointment and fear to think hard about how we use this knowledge to shape the future in a more inclusive and responsive way.
Technology is an important part of a complex set of trends driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as the digital age creates some jobs, threatens others and changes the way our societies function.
From my perspective, leading an NGO that works at making sure innovation addresses social challenges, we need to draw on the lessons of recent months. Here are three observations:
1. We must put people before ideas
Many of us involved in technology innovation are so enamoured of our ideas and entranced by our vision for the future that we forget about the wider implications for people and the environment. We need to focus innovation to serve real people, not just scientific kudos, shareholder value or our egos.
This year’s Trump and Brexit votes were primarily about giving a voice to those left behind, whose jobs, communities and futures have been decimated by the policies and priorities of recent years. We need to do more to think through the wider impacts of our innovations and choose options which are empowering and life enhancing.
For example, I hear a great deal about how robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and many other technologies will have a dramatic impact on jobs and prosperity. We need to look carefully at our priorities, be hard-nosed about asking what benefit these technologies bring to us all, not just the few who reap the financial rewards with the promise of a trickle-down effect that often never materialises.
We must ask ourselves if we are in danger of letting our imaginations run away with us at the expense of real lives - people who, as we have seen this week, demand a meaningful job and a meaningful life, but get left behind in the clamour for “progress”.
2. We are only listening to the people we agree with
Behavioural science shows clearly that we all listen and respond positively to those who we agree with and disregard the views of those we don’t. Contrary views even reinforce our sense of the rightness of our own opinion. The jaw-dropping truth of this phenomenon has been a hallmark of the US election campaign.
The digital age amplifies this, where algorithms give us search findings that chime with our views, or we only get friend requests from people who think like us, or shopping sites show us adverts for things we’ve already looked at.
We have to guard against this and ensure that we give weight and consideration to diverse views to inform our opinions, aid our decision-making and help us to consider the wider implications of how we are using technology to shape our world.
3. If we want to restore trust, we must be trustworthy
A lack of perceived trustworthiness for both the presidential candidates made a significant contribution to both the final result and the fact that 44.4% of eligible US voters stayed at home. Many people fundamentally didn’t trust either candidate.
But asking “how do we build trust?” only takes us so far. As the philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill eloquently advises:
“The slightly plaintive question ‘How can we restore trust?‘ is on everyone’s lips. The answer is pretty obvious. First: be trustworthy. Second: provide others with good evidence that you are trustworthy.”
A focus on building the trustworthiness of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is central to its ability to deliver appropriate solutions to the many problems we face. I believe there are four key components to ensuring technological innovation is trustworthy.
Lead with Social Benefit - Pure scientific endeavour, the power of serendipity and the need for technological progress are all important. But innovation should first and foremost focus on social and environmental benefits, ensuring it's more responsive to the needs of individuals and societies across the world.
Action on Broader Impacts - Innovation shapes society and invariably brings with it disruption; indeed, it is often designed for that very purpose. Those involved in directing or delivering innovation must take action to understand and mitigate not only new health, safety or environmental risks, but also broader social, ethical or cultural negative impacts
Involve Society - people contribute to the process - from debating the focus of policy and the strategic direction of research and innovation, through allocating funding, research (in academia, companies and elsewhere), corporate strategy, new product development, use and lifecycle.
Practice Radical Openness - Providing good evidence of trustworthiness is critical. It is challenging certainly, but innovation in this area too is already delivering surprising results in building trust in organisations and technologies resulting valuable solutions to complex problems.