To harness the power of new technologies for social good, the UN, governments, businesses and civil society groups are calling for new frameworks for global, national and local cooperation around technology development.
These may require a redesign of systems, new models, new skills and new mindsets to rise to the opportunities and challenges posed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
This will be tough for policymakers, businesses and for citizens – we humans don’t much like upheaval and change, particularly at the current speed and scale that seems unlikely to slow down.
So what should we consider when designing policy and governance to focus new technologies on the flourishing of people and the planet, without causing more problems than they solve?
Remember – ‘tech is not like weather’
With the sheer pace of change, it is understandable that many feel technology development is out of control; like we’re strapped to a speeding train, trying desperately to figure out whether that’s a light at the end of the tunnel or another train coming to flatten us.
While technological advancement can be exciting, it can also be disempowering and unnerving, not least for policymakers, as tech appears to move faster than the capacity to steer or govern it.
But the 2018 Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer urges us to remember that, “Technology is not like weather, it doesn’t just happen to us.”
He reminds us that technology is fundamentally under our control and “if we collectively set our minds to improving technology, we can improve it in a direction that seems to be important to us and at a faster rate”.
While there have been some significant technology missteps in recent times, there are also many examples where we are indeed “collectively setting our minds” to creating positive change and basing policy and tech development on human values.
Make values and ethics central to policy and tech development
The vision of the WEF Global Future Council on Values, Ethics and Innovation is “to make it normal to discuss values and ethics and bring them to life in policy, investment, business and governance”.
It might seem obvious that the well-being of people and the sustainability of the planet would be at the core of these critical areas, which control every aspect of our lives. What seems almost bizarre, is that it is currently seen as “normal” to deliberately avoid these issues in many areas of policy and business as irrelevant at best, or even as inhibiting, in pursuit of narrow, mostly economic goals.
Discussing perhaps doesn’t feel purposeful enough. But psychology tells us that making something a normal topic of discussion is a massive first step in creating change. If policymakers, governance designers as well as technology developers, and even researchers, started more often by discussing how they can work more closely with society to understand the values and ethics underpinning their work, that would be hopeful.
If they then took the practical steps to embed these values even more in their policies, governance instruments, research projects and products, it would be transformative.
Again, there are signs of real hope. Global debates about the values and ethics of data use, artificial intelligence, robotics and gene-editing are omnipresent.
There is no shortage of discussion and debate about how values can better influence policy and governance, R&D and product development – though only time will tell how effectively this is connected to real action and behaviour change.
Join the dots – integration essential
The recent World Economic Forum white paper Values, Ethics and Innovation Rethinking Technological Development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution highlights the importance of a systemic approach to policy. One which explores where and how values and ethics can be integrated into policy, from education to funding, product design to governance.
The report outlines a compelling vision. It illustrates that only through a genuine joined-up approach, with new collaborations and partnerships between policy, academia, business and civil society working across the entire innovation ecosystem, can we begin to really influence priorities and actions at every level to help design the 4IR from the bottom up, as safer, more equitable, and more sustainable than those that went before.
The First Empowerment Revolution
One of the defining characteristics of the 4IR is that citizens are no longer compliant and trusting of those with power. Many companies and policymakers are seeing a transformation brought about by social media and mobile technologies, where many more are able to express themselves directly and powerfully to challenge the status quo.
Perhaps what we are seeing is not just a Fourth Industrial Revolution, but a First Empowerment Revolution?
Vocal citizens across the globe are demanding that their views are listened and responded to, as can be observed from the Arab Spring to current political developments in the US and Europe. But the reach of this phenomenon goes well beyond these examples.
It also occurs in a more focused, 4IR-related context: think of employee opposition such as that of Google’s employees’ against the proposed censored search engine in China, or Microsoft employees’ concerns about AI being used for the US military.
A new, empowered, vocal society may be quite unnerving, particularly to those who are used to having a sense of control. It could feel anarchic, chaotic, worrying, difficult to know how to respond.
Our work exploring the roots of trust and distrust in technologies and governance sought to understand how other intractable disputes, such as peace negotiations, are conducted successfully.
There is a rich seam of knowledge yet to be explored, but three key factors appear paramount in designing successful collaborations from a base of potential conflict:
1. A shared belief that the status quo is not working for all parties.
2. The smallest glimmer of shared values and a shared mission, which offer a connection to the greater good as well as everyone’s self-interest can move things forward into a space that didn’t exist before.
The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with much more than a glimmer of hope; they offer us a go-to agenda that can help shape technology to be more inclusive, responsive and focused on social and environmental good.
3. Processes that are designed to embed respect for each other and earn the trust of diverse parties, with evidence of that respect being clear to all.
Process matters; it is through collaboratively designed, trustworthy processes that we will best be able to navigate the potentially conflicting priorities, difficult trade-offs and clashes of values that will be an inevitable part of navigating the complexities of the 4IR.
It may not be easy, but creating a world in which people and planet flourish like never before is most certainly worth our utmost effort.