The practice of stakeholder capitalism requires an awareness that stakeholders are people, each with specific roles and responsibilities in society: consumers, suppliers, workers, citizens, activists, protesters and more. People are, in their own way, trustees of society, because they form the social organisms like institutions, professional organizations, communities or social aggregations.
But the traditional capitalist model hasn’t been designed to deliver for people and with people. Its single-minded focus on profit maximization and the interests of shareholders makes it far removed from true societal needs.
At this time in history more than ever, with protests and other forms of collective action springing up in every corner of the world, companies need to engage or re-engage people in new ways - and to rethink the way they partner with stakeholders, communities and organizations in civil society, pushing the limits of current economic model.
What would a shift in collaboration look like? What does it mean to include people and vulnerable communities in partnerships? How does the relationship between corporations and civil society organisations representing the interest of people and citizens need to change to respond to today’s challenges in a more participatory and accountable way?
The tech world offers some interesting insights for reflection. Technology-and-innovation-related collaborations between businesses and civil society organizations are now more mainstream than ever. Particularly with the global diffusion of technologies in the development, humanitarian and civic-engagement space, tech companies and civil society organizations have developed various forms of partnerships aimed at using technologies to address social challenges.
From AI-based chatbots to connect supporters with communities to data trusts collaborations to protect data privacy to shared code of conducts for the responsible use of unmanned aerial vehicles in humanitarian crises, the past decade has seen a number of civil society-tech sector partnerships employing new technologies for social good.
These partnerships have initially focused on new ways to gather financial resources and develop programmes via digital tools, emerging technologies, open source and crowdfunding platforms, etc., However, the disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the mounting evidence around the negative impacts of advanced technologies on civil liberties and data privacy have moved the tech sector-civil society relationship into a new space.
Increasingly, civil society organizations – more dependent on the very digital systems and emerging technologies that once seemed optional and non-essential – are today calling out complex dilemmas about data regulation and human rights and working with tech partners to collectively define a policy agenda that reflects civil society’s values of accountability, transparency and non-discrimination.
This approach requires a new way of working and partnering. It is no longer about “tech for good,” but rather what is “good for tech”. There are a set of values, standards, safeguards and regulations that should be in place to avoid the risks associated with a technology of exclusion and inequality (such as privacy breaches, lack of agency and human jobs displacement).
This new way of working would require major adjustments in the current spectrum of tech-civil society partnerships, putting the focus on how these partnerships are built and operationalized. It requires the acknowledgement that, at the end of the day, a public-private partnership can only be as strong as the level of voice we give to the least powerful and represented voices.
The power dynamics within these partnerships need to be equalized and inclusive of every partner’s interests and values. Not only are many tech companies now bigger than actual nation states from an economic perspective, but their products are "increasingly viewed as instruments of state power," playing a strategic role on the global stage. In this context, the power imbalance between tech conglomerates and civil society organizations or simple individual stakeholders is massive, raising questions around the ability for both to engage in partnerships that are truly equal and deliver equitable benefits for all involved.
In addition, the predominantly “Northern” geography of technology governance conversations and the threats of digital colonialism to the “Global South” is per se creating a power division that is exacerbating global inequalities of wealth, opportunities and resources. It then becomes imperative for civil society actors to develop capacity and effect the organizational change needed to respond to the fast-paced impacts of digital and technological transformation in their work, structures and communities.
In this respect, accountable tech partnerships are in the interest of both private sector and civil society entities. They invest in critical infrastructure, capacity building and digital transformation for communities and grassroots organizations to represent their perspectives and raise their voice in technology conversations and governance.
It is fundamental to ensure that (big) tech-civil society partnerships move away from traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices into more meaningful collaborations based on true alignment with the core mission and bottom lines of respective organizations. Particularly for the tech industry, this means earlier action to open up some of their key business areas (data collection, analytics and trade, design, development, implementation and distribution of technologies) to relevant civil society actors, in parallel with the prevailing model of addressing tech disruptions at a later stage, in the form of side collaborations on research principles and values, technical protocols, or legal/normative frameworks.
It could be argued that the extent of disruption that some of these emerging technologies are propagating in society – think of CRISPR and gene editing – is so pervasive (across countries, people and generations) that we should increasingly treat them as the main drivers and enablers of global public goods and regulate them as such, with a mix of collective responsibility and regulation. In this context, accountable tech partnerships are the ones with strong commitment to create shared evidence on the impact of technologies on people, as a way to drive stronger policies and responsible practice.
Finally, it is key to ensure that these partnerships are representative of the voices and communities we want to protect from tech-related harm and/or empower with new tech tools. This is particularly critical for public-private partnerships in the development, human rights and humanitarian space, where increasing reliance on data collection and analytics emphasizes “duty of care” as a key area of liability and responsibility for any organization – be it public, private or within civil society – practicing data gathering, storage, processing and use.
Data harms are real, and as data increasingly becomes a feature of modern society, it will be fundamental for civil society-business partnerships in the tech space to focus on individual and group data protection and consider the current and future human rights implications of data collected on generations of populations.
Doing this requires an intentional strategy to go beyond multistakeholder ethics councils and review processes as in past years, and to critically invest in and engage with local actors, communities and organizations underrepresented in technology conversations in the short term and for the long term. In this context, accountable tech partnerships are the ones designed with specific long-term strategies of inclusion and collaboration with local actors.
Evidence shows that when societal perspectives aren’t properly included early in the design, development and use of technologies and related regulation, backlashes emerge rather quickly. Facebook employees launched their first major protest against what they considered an incongruous political speech policy allowing false claims in political ads.
Humanitarians and certain segments of civil society strongly reacted to the World Food Programme’s 2019 announcement of a $45 million partnership with algorithmic intelligence firm Palantir following concerns about potential third party data-related harm to vulnerable people. Four US cities have enforced an outright ban on face recognition by the federal government following strong pressure from privacy, civil rights, investor and faith groups worried by the lack of safeguards around the widespread and non-transparent use of this technology.
Clearly, a shift to more equal, inclusive and accountable partnerships is a transition and requires a new way of thinking. We need to see a cultural change on how to partner differently, who to partner with and how to do it while remaining in business, whether for profit or not. This new decade will require ambitious partnerships to deliver for the planet and humanity. We can only hope for public-private partnerships (PPPs) to evolve stronger and emerge with a new meaning: cross-sectoral collaborations where People, Power and shared Principles and values will become key for success and impact.
Welcome to a new decade of PPPs.