What’s Ethics Role in Responsible Innovation?

International Society for Business and Economic Ethics (ISBEE) celebrated its 6th world conference in Shanghai July 13 – 16. And I had the honor and pleasure to participate in the proceedings. Although it touched on a variety of topics, at the center lay the ethical and social dimensions of innovation. In this post I have gathered some of the main ideas I thought you might find interesting for some personal reflection.

In a broad sense, the innovation applies to products, services and processes which through the use of technology introduce quite often, radical changes. We also find innovation in concepts, some successful such as “sustainability”, “microcredit” and the “collaborative” or “sharing economy”.

At first glance, innovation appears to be ethically indifferent and its moral valuation seems solely related to its use. Social networks, WhatsApp messages and the like can facilitate a close relationship such as that of capturing terrorists. Internet fosters both the search for information just as much as its distribution (dispersion). It’s true that responsibility lies with the user, but at the same time it is also true that innovation often brings important consequences for people and communities alike.

An example at our finger tips is the influence tablets and smartphones have on our lives today – unimaginable a few years ago – or the impact of social networks on the multitude of people.

Innovation: How Technology Has an Impact on People

What is clear is that innovation is not just technological or economical, but also ethical and social. Innovation can contribute to the creation or destruction of jobs, the fight against crime, the invasion of privacy, finding the cure for hereditary diseases or the manufacture of synthetic genomes. Innovation is related to education, interpersonal dialogue, participative democracy and new and innovative economic models.

Responsible innovation is crucial. But it is not always easy. We are in a complex era full of disruption that requires careful consideration, especially in relation to the positive and negative consequences associated.

Such consequences are not always easy to predict, but it is necessary to try. And in any case, it would help to follow each innovation to analyze its outcomes. And from this point on it requires creativity to humanize innovations.

New isn’t always a synonym for good, yet it can mean more effective in some cases. Let’s take, for example, lethal weapons which eliminate human lives without consideration. From this we learn that purpose-driven innovation needs to include the possible consequences for people and its integral development.

Innovation generates challenges for those who study business ethics as it raises the question of new situations and unchartered waters. The ethical reflection needs to start with a deep understanding of the phenomenon. That is what happened with the new financial instruments of the 15th and 16th century and with the post-Industrial Revolution “labor question”. This calls for serious interdisciplinary investigation to fully understand this phenomenon.

Psychology and Sociology provide empirical data and history the memories of the past as reference. The moral reflection needs to take into account the empirical data, weighing up the good of the people and in light of the virtues that contribute to their flourishing.

Avoid Abuse and Addictions

Virtues and human flourishing were around long before innovation. You don’t have to innovate virtues, as they are an inherent part of the human condition. But it necessary to live them in other contexts. For example, the virtue of moderation (self-restraint) or temperance which help to avoid overuse or abuse which can lead to addiction in some cases. In the past these referred to aspects such as over-indulging in food, drink, social debauchery, or gambling. Today there are new additions to the list of things that we need to control. We need temperance when faced with videogames and with pornography, which has spread through the use of new technology at an immense rate and prevents us from dedicating ourselves to more important tasks.

Even if we have human values, and as such fundamental ethical principles in common, we need to have moral discernment in local, international and global contexts. Openness and dialogue are needed without pretending to resolve everything with national values, nor applying universal principles without considering the specific circumstances and the cultural context. The first would be relatively cultural, the second extreme rigidness that lacks practical wisdom. Without cancelling out fundamental principles, rules and virtues we need to learn to apply them to innovation. The ethical reflection needs to give rise to conclusions that allow for informed social debate.

And last but by no means least, ethics does not only evaluate, it also impulses us to do the right thing, to do well and this way we have a proactive role in innovation. Moral motivation leads to moral imagination, which is why great innovative social companies have come about from thinking of how to make the world a better place, in finding a solution to world poverty or creating employment for disabled.

In short, ethics brings criteria for evaluation, it show us ways to humanize innovation and increase moral imagination for innovation built around people and serving their needs.