The Ethics Of Innovation

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Friday, 8.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without ethics, man has no future. This is to say, mankind without them cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities. – John Berger

Nav Sawhney’s The Washing Machine Project is an inspiring example of using innovation and ingenuity to improve the lives of women in low-income communities that do the bulk of domestic chores such as hand-washing clothes. A hand-cranked washing machine that works without electricity saves them time they can use to “take charge over their lives”, spending it learning, socialising or finding work. At the other end of the spectrum is a company like Apple that has contributed to the creation of a world where you can map the relative affluence of neighbourhoods by counting the number of types of smartphones used. Spoiler – rich neighbourhoods are full of iPhones.

Some would argue that Apple, with its vast wealth and resources, should do more for the needy. Others might counter that it created a new category of pocket computers with keyboards and spawned an entire ecosystem of mobile devices for every price point, democratising access to computing capability and the power of networks. Are either of these arguments right? Are they both right? And what does ethics have to do with anything?

Ethics in a Western context has to do with deciding what is the right thing to do. Utilitarianism, for example, prefers the option that helps the most people. Apple wins here. Their phones and alternatives have given billions access to information and markets. Sawhney’s work, on the other hand, aims to empower a marginalised group of women and is an attempt to redress the unfair and unbalanced conditions they labour under.

The challenge is that determining whether a person or company is ethical or not is never a simple issue. It is instead a list-making exercise. You have to list the good and the bad and add up the points. Good Apple for innovation and beautiful engineering. Bad Apple for using suppliers that exploit labour and constantly changing headphone port designs. Who has the time to work this all out, especially when the question you are asking is whether to get a new phone or donate to a good cause?

A short-cut you may prefer is a rules-based approach, where the right thing to do is determined by applying a series of rules. The Ten Commandments are an early example of that. As an innovator you could do worse than starting with “Don’t be evil.” Although you could do better by aspiring to “Leave the world a better place than you found it.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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