Responsible innovation

By Sam Brown

Building sustainable services requires leaders to balance profit, people, and the planet. Decision makers have a responsibility to do this.

It’s important for teams to practically address delivery challenges in a way that creates products and businesses with positive impact. Responsible innovation is about being:

  • open and accountable with intent

  • aware of the potential consequences of business decisions and taking steps to address them

  • inclusive and thoughtful about who is involved in the innovation process

In 2018, London-based think tank Doteveryone created Consequence Scanning, an innovation tool for leaders and digital delivery teams to bring responsible innovation into tech development by exploring the potential consequences of their business decisions and the products they launch. Teams can adapt and design Consequence Scanning sessions to create a practice that is consistent with their values.

Responding to universal challenges

Before Consequence Scanning was created, Doteveryone carried out research in partnership with what is now Fluxx. They spoke to people across the technology sector including engineers and designers, product owners and CTOs, CEOs and sector supporters like consultants. The research revealed common problems preventing innovators from practising responsible tech development.

Research showed that:

  1. Every product and innovation comes with consequences. There is no such thing as neutral change and there will always be an impact associated with creating something new. A consequence is a result of an action. The word ‘consequence’ tends to be associated with something negative, but that shouldn’t be the case—consequences can be both positive and negative, intended or unintended.

  2. Failing fast is valued more than foresight. Failing fast is the motto that set the mindset of a generation of technologists— there is a lot of pressure to move quickly, test and iterate. This pressure supports our inclination to believe we’re working on something amazing and important. When you’re working on something closely, it can become difficult to step back and see the wider picture. We can be so focused on developing the best product in the world that we forget about asking if it’s the best product for the world. Everyone we spoke to in our research lamented how there was no time or space for them to pause and ask questions that could have prevented huge mistakes.

  3. Everyone has blindspots. For the most part, there are legal structures and incentives in place to ensure we’re creating something that isn’t going to cause rampant harm. Nearly everyone has some way of weighing consequences, of making decisions that account for what might happen—for most experienced professionals, this thought process can be automatic. Our research showed that while people might weigh consequences independently, or with a few relevant people after a meeting, or at the pub, there wasn’t really a formal place in product development where you were supposed to think about consequences out loud, and could listen to other people’s concerns and experiences. And everyone has blindspots— having diverse teams with people who have different perspectives and lived experiences can make all the difference in spotting and determining how to address consequences.

So, to go back to the original question—how do you start to build responsibility into tech development? You address the biggest challenges by:

  • dedicating time to thinking about consequences

  • creating a recognised and replicable process that will let you do that

  • creating forums for diverse perspectives to share their ideas and contribute to addressing challenges

Consequence Scanning supports all of these things by providing a dedicated time and structured process for teams to consider the potential consequences of what they are building.

Building for longevity and in-line with values

Consequence Scanning can help organisations hold themselves accountable to the intentions of their designs and the values they have agreed and put in place. A sustainable product, service or organisation is designed and built to last. If the teams involved in creating them are intentional about their business practices and consider the possible impacts, they will be more likely to create something resilient and sustainable.

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