The ethics of innovation

Innovation can’t do good without ethics.

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

I spent this past Monday (Feb. 18) at the Conference Board of Canada’s “Business Innovation Summit,” listening to business leaders and civil servants talk about how Canada is lagging on innovation, and how much is left to be done to promote and manage innovation. Innovation is all over the news, while developments like Google’s new glasses and 3D printing are making for compelling headlines.

So sure, hot topic. But how is it connected to ethics? What is an ethics professor like me doing at an event dedicated to innovation?

Innovation is very much an ethical matter because ethics is fundamentally concerned with anything that can promote or hinder human wellbeing. So ethics is relevant to assessing the goals of innovation, to the process by which it is carried out, and to evaluating its outcomes.

Let’s start with goals. Innovation is generally a good thing, ethically, because it is aimed at allowing us to do new and desirable things. Most typically, that gets expressed in the painfully vague ambition to ‘raise productivity.’ Accelerating our rate of innovation is a worthy policy objective because we want to be more productive as a society, to increase our social ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense. The 20th century has seen a phenomenal burst of innovation and increases in wellbeing, exemplified not least by the fact that life expectancies in North America have risen by more than half over the last hundred years. The extension and enriching of human lives are good goals, which in turn makes innovation generally a good thing.

Indeed, when looked at that way, innovation isn’t just a ‘good,’ but a downright moral obligation. Yes, life for (most) people in developed countries is pretty good. But many remain unhappy and unfulfilled; many children, even here, still go to bed hungry. Boosting productivity through innovation is a key ingredient for making progress in that regard. And if less developed nations are going to be raised up to even a minimally tolerable standard of living, we need innovations that will help them, and we need innovations that will make us wealthy enough that we can afford to be substantially more generous toward them than we currently are.

Which brings us to the ethical evaluation of the specific fruits of innovation. Some innovations, like penicillin, are plainly good. Others, such as nuclear weapons or perhaps the complex financial instruments Warren Buffet famously referred to as “financial weapons of mass destruction,” are less good.

The problem is that innovation brings risks. Some of those risks are of course borne by the innovator, by the entrepreneur. Others are borne by society. For one thing, we often don’t fully understand which category a particular innovation will end up in until years later. Is the net benefit of splitting the atom positive or negative? The jury is still out.

But ethical evaluation doesn’t just apply to individual innovations: systems of innovation bring a mix of risks and benefits. If you give your tech company’s R&D department free reign, someone may invent the next ‘killer app,’ and someone else may simply crash your server. And the only way a system can preclude ‘negative’ innovation altogether is probably to discourage innovation altogether.

Hence the recent interest not just in innovation, but in managing innovation. The notion of managing innovation reflects the fact that innovation can be fostered—doing so is an obligation of ethical leadership—and is an activity rooted in creativity, not anarchy. So for practical purposes, the ethics of innovation ends up being a branch of the ethics of management and leadership. Organizations, from small teams to nations, face a range of ethical questions as a result. They need to figure out how much to spend on encouraging innovation, as compared to spending on existing programs. They need to figure out what combination of carrots and sticks to use to foster innovation. They need to figure out how much autonomy to give potential innovators, how much freedom to experiment. And finally, they need to figure out how to spread the risk of innovation, in order to make sure that risks and benefits are shared fairly, and to make sure that fear of risk doesn’t dampen our appetite for innovation. All of these are fundamentally ethical questions.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.