The story of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is one of optimism —technology saving lives and the environment— and slight fear – consequences we are unprepared for. Professor Klaus Schwab rightly points out that he, “sometimes [wonders] whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation”. Though Schwab is contemplative about the possible impact of technologies, others are far more risk averse, unwilling to accept the unknown and wary of optimistic narratives around abundance, especially when trend lines such as global temperatures are heading in the wrong direction. Even if we take cynics and pessimists out of the equation, a global concern about our future is legitimate and urgent.
Like Professor Schwab, I consider myself an optimist, but I also worry about invisible hands in labs or boardrooms determining how we interact. I feel anxious facing the complexity and inaccessibility of governance of algorithms and the fluctuating definitions of privacy rights. I feel despair for the fate of all those people living in extreme poverty and on the periphery of our societies for whom the Third Industrial Revolution hasn’t yet arrived.
What is more, the notion that there is an unstoppable phenomenon larger than us happening without an accountable human behind the wheel is driving polarized thinking, reactionary regulation, and stalling progressive technology. In a very human response to the unknown, societies around the world are embracing populism and short-term thinking and electing leaders who promise change.
Who is behind the wheel? A look at business
Academic institutions have traditionally stood at the forefront of producing cutting edge technologies; however, business-led commercial research is taking a new lead with bolder, more innovative applications. Much in the way Uber poached 40 robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, talent, breakthroughs and funding are moving to the private sector.
If key decisions on the future of technology and society are made within private businesses, then it is time to take a look at the governance maxims that ought to guide these decisions. Below, I propose three principles which can serve as a starting point to ensure a more human (and humane) Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Good by DNA. A new look at the purpose of business
What is worrying about businesses leading the technological advances that drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that their governance is private and their legal structures oblige them to maximize profit. Hiding behind innovation secrecy, the process of researching, designing and deploying new technologies and platforms can be void of oversight or values thinking. This opacity, combined with the regular pressures of obtaining a return for investors, ensures that traditional businesses have all the incentives to think of humans and the planet last. That is, unless these businesses have it in their DNA to do more than just maximize profit.
Traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts won’t solve the transparency issues of regular business. Neither will efforts around company culture. While some companies, like Google, have created internal maxims (like "Don’t Be Evil") to guide their teams, there is no evidence that maxims transcend beyond a slogan.
Considering these concerns about the standard corporate structure, the B Corporation is worth examining. A B Corporation is a hybrid entity that operates as a regular business with a slightly different DNA: in its governing statutes it states a purpose beyond profit and creates accountability mechanisms to ensure its compliance. This is perhaps why B Corporations are already the mechanism of choice for founders who are concerned that their innovations could be used to do harm to others or the business might lose its course if new investors don’t align well with its founding mission. What is more, B Corporations, by their very nature, guarantee boards and shareholders hold administrations accountable for fulfilling a purpose beyond profit.
Given their transparency and values-driven purpose, one could imagine a far more empowered, less reactionary future if the world’s foremost technology businesses were B Corporations. In fact, Singularity University - the incubator of exponential technologies for solving humanity’s challenges - was one of the first entities in California to file for B Corporation status in 2008. Referring to its structure, they post on their website, ”we are a certified benefit corporation ... our company actually operates with our people, planet, and purpose uppermost in mind.”
Innovation as what we want to preserve
In a 2015 interview, Chilean scientist and philosopher Humberto Maturana explored the nostalgic societal reflection that makes us fear transformative innovations because there are almost always elements of our present we do not want to lose. “What is most important in an innovation is what we want to preserve, that is the key” he explained. Seen from this perspective, businesses – and the individuals behind those businesses – have total agency over designing how their innovations will transform and what will they preserve.
Business leaders, tech designers and coders should have the conversation from the beginning: How do we design our innovation to preserve “x valuable human or environmental trait” as a feature, so it doesn’t come back to haunt us later as a bug? By doing so, we take essential values such as human rights, traditions, the environment, and we embed them into the company’s operating system by design.
A clear example of this principle playing out is the design and governance of algorithms. In an effort to save time, a British University set up a computer model to streamline its admissions process. The algorithm learned from patterns discovered among rejected applicants and when applied, it exposed systemic gender and racial discrimination when it unfairly rejected applicants that are women or had non-European sounding names. The algorithm was merely reflecting patterns that already existed in admissions. No feature was built in to prevent the formula from learning human misbehaviours, so when the discriminatory practices were discovered in the system, the values of inclusion, diversity and gender equality came back as bugs in the code, and the damage was done.
Values are central to designing business innovations, but which?
“The reality of disruption ... does not mean that we are powerless in the face of it,” says Professor Schwab. We must “establish a set of common values to drive policy choices ... that will make the Fourth Industrial Revolution an opportunity for all.” Choosing which common values we establish represents a complex question, far larger than I can attempt to answer. Yet, in the context of business, we could pragmatically explore at least two.
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First, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. As my colleague Damiano di Felice has argued, human rights already represent a universal core set of values that might guide us through the Fourth Industrial Revolution to a brighter future. Transcending state-centric notions of rights, businesses have adopted them as principles through well-documented initiatives, including the Global Compact, human rights impact assessments and certifications. What is more, as High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein reminded us this year in Davos, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights became a foundational document of the United Nations at a time when the world was still shocked by our own ability to lose our humanity in the face of populism, violence and geopolitics. One might argue that ignoring the effects of the Second Industrial Revolution on the lives of ordinary citizens contributed to such state of affairs in the first place.
Second, in asking ourselves what we want to preserve, I defer to a recent reflection by the Dalai Lama. Why, he asks, if we are living in times of peace, prosperity and hope, are there so many in the United States, Europe and Britain convulsed in frustration and anxiety over the future? The answer comes both from research (seniors who don’t feel useful are three times more likely to die prematurely) and teachings - what he calls the “natural hunger to serve our fellow men and women.” Human beings need to feel needed. Yet, with headlines about disappearing jobs and automation taking over our lives, it is entirely possible that the shift to political polarization is a silent expression of fear of obsolescence. Usefulness then, might become a global common value we may want to preserve as we think about steering the wheels of progress.
In short, taking back the reigns of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require agency and determination to redefine success in business, make new technologies good by design, and preserve what we value most as humanity. History shows the alternative path through reactionary politics, polarization and violence is not a viable option. Hence, values-based business leadership is in our hands, and in the hands of future business leaders as they too lead us through the transformative innovations to come.