• The rapid pace of emerging technologies is a real challenge for businesses.
  • Trust in technology is declining globally.
  • Report highlights organizational design principles that can drive more ethical behaviour in technology.

As new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and blockchain become mainstream, and their practical uses more pervasive, myriad new business opportunities will be created.

All too often, technology can have unintended implications; facial recognition software used inappropriately, or customer data sold for profit without the user’s knowledge, can create an environment of mistrust between makers, sellers and buyers.

Trust matters

Research conducted by Edelman shows that 66% of people worry that technology will make it impossible to know if what they're seeing or hearing is real. Consumers also believe that data privacy is critical, according to research by Deloitte, 53% of global consumers surveyed would never use a company’s products if their data is sold for profit.

Behaving ethically clearly matters when creating sustainable value. In fact, the concept of stakeholder capitalism was born from the idea that businesses can create lasting value for society by aligning their practices with the needs of all stakeholders, including the community at large.

Ethics add value

The ethical use of technology enables businesses to build trust and capture opportunities while also mitigating potential harm. Considering the ethics of how technologies are used isn’t just a philosophical discussion or a matter of legal compliance.

Organizations are learning that ethical lapses related to the development, deployment and adoption of technology can be costly, and that buyers—and in some cases, regulators—are turning their concerns into action through consumer boycotts.

In a report published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Deloitte and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University “Ethics by Design - An Organizational Approach to Responsible Use of Technology", we examined how organizations successfully incorporating ethics into their use of technology are building stronger and more sustainable businesses that benefit both the bottom line and society as a whole.

We found five traits shared by organizations that use technology ethically and are willing to consider the potential harm to humans and humanity as part of their decision-making process.

1. Technical knowledge

Ethical deliberations often start with societal principles and values (e.g. human rights, fairness, etc). However, to fully assess the implications of a new technology requires a proportion of an organization’s workforce to have a strong understanding of fundamental technology concepts.

Combining technical know-how with voices from diverse backgrounds provides a pathway for organizations to consider the impact of the technology they are using. Decision-makers need to know what their organization’s technology does and how it works.

2. Social responsibility

Organizations successfully incorporating ethics throughout their use of technology—workstreams and decision-making—are those who amplify their awareness and acceptance of the company’s role in society beyond economic transactions. These organizations engage with social enterprises, assume social duties and hold themselves accountable.

3. Foundation of trust

These organizations are known for creating corporate cultures that breed trust amongst co-workers and customers. They achieve this by honouring the ethical concerns and moral arguments of all individuals, in situations that affect them or in which they have expertise.

4. Ethical deliberation

Organizations that excel in applying ethics to technology have a deliberate approach to making decisions and forming policy: they rely heavily on data; involve people who will be impacted by their choices; consider the downstream effects of their decisions; and when possible, share the thinking behind those decisions. By engaging those involved, a consensus on the right course of action often emerges.

5. Leadership commitment

Executive sponsorship is essential for the responsible use of technology. Rapid technological innovation creates new opportunities and risks to society. Leaders who develop a practice of ethical leadership model and teach empathy; create a strong sense of community internally; adhere to professional ethics; and are systems thinkers are more likely to create a growth mindset in their organization’s culture and encourage ethical behaviour. Ethical deliberation requires constant, iterative learning.

With disruptive technologies being introduced at breakneck speed, it’s essential for organizations to get ahead of ethical concerns. Cultivating a culture built on ethics requires not only a supportive environment but a structure that ensures human values are considered in every technological decision.

The report details steps and makes recommendations organizations can take to infuse technology ethics into operations through the use of behavioural economics concepts, empowering people throughout the organization to make choices that are in the best interests not only of the company but society as a whole.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.