Ethics and innovation; or why ethics is the new black

The science and technology research group at SBS, which I form part of, recently hosted a group of EMBA students from the Technical University of Denmark for a one-day seminar on innovation.

The aim was not to deliver Porter-esque, but rather to provide a set of disruptive tools and empirical tales for thinking differently about ‘normal’ practices and things.

It is always tricky to work around conventions, but it is a rewarding task, nevertheless.

While my own research on ethicising organisations is not usually cast under terms such as innovation, ethics stands centrally in so many corprate processes that it is becoming increasingly hard to ignore as an important category in developing new technologies and contemporary modes of management. Hence, my presentation for the day carried the same title as this post: “Ethics and innovation; or why ethics is the new black.”

To cut a long story short, I demonstrated in empirical terms how stock markets, corporate reporting techniques, institutional investment and lending criteria, and mundane consumer demands are increasingly brought to bear on non-financial tales of value such as ‘sustainability’, ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, and ‘socio-environmental performance.’ Think of this mess in terms of triple bottom line reporting, carbon footprints, Fairtrade products, ‘ethical’ cosmetics, etc.

In addition to this multitude of indicators, I put forward three specific examples of the complex web of accountabilities that are put into play when such ‘goods’ enter the market:

1) The recent ‘Green My Apple‘ campaign orchestrated by Greenpeace demanding ‘greener’ products from Apple. Interestingly enough, and this is probably why the efforts were highly successful, Greenpeace utilised Apple’s own sleek design principles and managed to bring on board the company’s own dedicated cult of followers (including yours truly).

2) The new ‘combo’ offered by Land Rover for buyers of its sports utility vehicles (SUVs). The cars have often been singled out as the very epitome of bad environmental conduct, especially when put to ‘use’ in urban settings. In response to these criticisms, and to release potential owners of their guilt trip, the vehicles now come bundled with a 45,000-mile CO2 offset package.

In other words, the lucky owners now not only buy a ‘car’, but also a narrative about bringing hydropower to Tajikistan and increasing the efficiency of stoves in Uganda.

Embedding products in tales of various sorts is nothing new – the discipline of marketing takes this as its core project – but the tales have taken on a new language, i.e. that of ethics.

3) My own difficulties in finding an ‘ethical’ lock as part of my research collaboration with a property company. The ‘ethical’ lock was just one among many products assessed in my efforts to develop a sustainable supply chain.

However, putting in place boundaries as to where to stop and start in such matters is as far from straight forward as anything could be; you can always go deeper and ask further questions. For example, when asking an expert about what it would take for a lock to be ethical, this is the answer I received back:

If their manufacturing facilities adhere to ISO 14001 standards, that’s a good start. Are emissions monitored?, particulates captured? Do they support public transportation for their employees?, in-house recycling? Do they use recycled-content packaging?, efficient lighting and space conditioning in their facilities? Consider the sort of lubricants they use, on their product and in their production facilities – biobased rather than petrobased, perhaps. In terms of materials, recycled content would be about the only thing available to contribute to a lock’s green virtue. Manufacturers would have to be queried about the sources of the brass, stainless steel, zinc, etc., that they use. There may be considerations about finishes and additional components-trim pieces, coatings, etc.

So, what do these three examples tell us about innovation?

There was a time when technologists, mainly engineers, were the foremost innovators, captured best in Taylor’s scientific management and Henry Ford’s famous quote about the Ford T: “You can paint it any color, so long as it’s black” (well, maybe he did not say it, but the statement is still important).

Then came the mantra of so-called user-driven innovation embodied in user trials, user panels and other means by which to democratise the design process, pioneered by organisations such as Xerox PARC and the so-called Scandnavian School of software development.

Now, with the developments described above, technologies become embedded in what I term the new economies of ethics. This translates into a number of things; an increased focus on ‘invisible’ but distinctive features such as provenance (supply chains) and disposability; new accountability and verification schemes for measuring and displaying ‘ethical’ performance; and new currencies, e.g. Tesco’s carbon score.

Turning the inside out of products come with severe implications for innovation and design processes, I suggested. For example, companies should become better at thinking of technologies and products, no matter how simple, as networked entities encompassing human and non-human elements. Also, they should adopt more generous definitions of ‘stakeholders’, ‘users’, ‘technological drivers’, and ‘competition.’

Lastly, I made the point that science and technology studies (my preferred neck of the academic woods) offer a set of highly useful tools for mapping these new landscapes and, eventually, creating better solutions.

One gentleman, who was a self-proclaimed sceptic about climate change, noted that this is all hype, that climate change “and stuff like that” are not real. The point here is not about the ‘realness’ of current affairs and threats, and I never saw it as my case to ‘defend’ climate change or other ethicalities.

To put it bluntly, whether something is hypothetically ‘really real’ or not has nothing to do with effects and opportunities; whenever there is a belief, there are real consequences for those involved. Whoever claimed that markets respond to realities never studied economics. Why on earth would all the big consultancies and McKinsey otherwise be racing to develop competencies in these areas and capitalise on the honeypot of these new awarenesses?

My presentation is available on YouTube, but the look, feel, and flow are really – yes, really! – rather appauling: Ethics and Innovation; or why ethics is the new black.

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