A few years ago I saw one of the broadcasts of Tegenlicht about algorithms. In this broadcast the poignant example was shown where a black man was held in prison longer than his fellow inmates because of the calculated ‘risk’ of releasing him by an algorithm[1]. Could you imagine your life depending on an algorithm? What could be the ethical consequences of digital developments and how to deal with these ethics? 

Last week I joined the TECH talk of RightBrains with Jo-An Kamp (Lecturer, researcher and coordinator at Fontys University of Applied Sciences) and Paul Slot (EVP KPN Infrastructure). As an ambassador for RightBrains[2]. I support RightBrains mission to offer education, mentors and role models especially for women in digital technology. During the TECH Talk, Jo-An and Paul provided insight into their experiences relating to technology and ethics, and why ethics can no longer be ignored in technology.

First, what does ‘ethics’ mean. Ethics is a system or set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong. Although this sounds like a black & white statement, it often is not that easy and dependent on multiple factors such as culture, religion, group, individual and even the era you live in. A striking example is that smoking when your pregnant was something totally normal in the sixties, while today it is considered unethical. As in society, also companies are confronted with ethical dilemmas. Paul Slot mentioned a few examples of ethical questions that KPN was confronted with. For example a government that requests mobile data from all users to see if everybody is home[3]. Or the fear of a part of the population for 5G transmission towers[4].

All organisations busy with a digital transformation should clearly incorporate ethics in their approach. But how to incorporate ethics in your digital transformation and organisation? Nowadays we mostly ascertain an ethical breach after the fact. But the negative effects of these wrongdoings are detrimental. That is why we need ethics, but how?

1.     Ethics by design

We need to incorporate ‘ethics by design’ or ‘ethics from within’[5], just like we are increasingly working with ‘privacy by design’. Although what is considered ethical can vary across cultures, religions, groups and individuals, having this discussion as soon in the process is possible, where multiple views are heard is crucial. Decisions are namely made by individuals, not organisations. As digital professionals, we all need to determine what is the ‘right’ thing to do and what is the ‘wrong’ thing to do[6]. Incorporate ethics in all the stages of your design (process) and make it a set subject to discuss. These decisions and trade-offs need to be addressed from the start of the design process[7].

2.     Culture of safety and trust

To have all (ethical) viewpoints heard in an organisation, a culture of psychological safety and trust is indispensable[8]. The belief that you will not be punished when expressing your opinion, make mistakes or ask questions lays at the foundation of high performance teams. As a leader but also as a digital professional, become aware of your unconscious bias. Tribalism, stereotypes, sexism, prejudice, discrimination… although we hate to admit it, we are sometimes not aware of our own biases. When there is a culture of safety and trust, multiple viewpoints can be discussed and ethics could turn into a deliberate part of your offering and culture. It should not be just compliance or risk driven, it could even turn into a source of innovation[9].

3.     Diverse & multidisciplinary approach

To be successful a diverse culture is key[10], also for ethics. Even further, ethics is not a subject just for the designers, engineers or technology nerds in a company. Ethics is multi-disciplinary, cross-functional and really in need of an approach based on believing in the added value of every voice.

My honest opinion is that companies exist to improve society. Digital technology is just the means to an end, which could uncover a lot of added value. Still, it is crucial to accurately develop your technology towards an ethical offer for your customers. Ethical tech will need to be a part of your design and innovation process and included in your digital transformation plan to prevent societal, environmental, reputational[11] and financial risks.

[1] Source: VPRO Tegenlicht – https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/tegenlicht/kijk/afleveringen/2017-2018/verslaafd-aan-het-algoritme.html

[2] See my story here: https://rightbrains.nl/stories/anneke-veldink.html

[3] Source: RTL Nieuws – https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/tech/artikel/5114711/providers-mogen-data-coronapatienten-niet-delen-met-overheid

[4] Source: Trouw: https://www.trouw.nl/economie/5g-boezemt-veel-nederlanders-angst-in-maar-ook-kpn-zet-de-knop-om~b355fa05/?referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

[5] Source: Medium – article Jo-an Kamp – https://medium.com/@joankamp/why-ethics-can-no-longer-be-ignored-in-technology-4242397e9e8d

[6] Source: UK Consultancy news – https://www.consultancy.uk/news/16602/the-top-five-ethical-moral-principles-for-digital-transformation

[7] Source: Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/sponsored/2020/04/dont-leave-ethical-tech-out-of-your-digital-transformation-plan

[8] Source: Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

[9] Source: Medium – Article Jo-an Kamp – https://medium.com/@joankamp/why-ethics-can-no-longer-be-ignored-in-technology-4242397e9e8d

[10] Source: McKinsey – https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity#

[11] Source: INC.com – As an example what can happen – https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/tim-cook-may-have-just-ended-facebook.html

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