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ethix – lab for innovation ethics

Not flying blind into the future

Self-measurement as opportunity or risk? New technologies raise ever more ethical questions. Photo: doble-d
Self-measurement as opportunity or risk? New technologies raise ever more ethical questions. Photo: doble-d

Along with new solutions, innovation also raises new questions, such as social responsibility, or considering the winners and losers of a new approach. Critical reflection is therefore indispensable for the responsible management of innovation. Active throughout Switzerland, the pioneering project, ethix, is targeted towards startups and companies with their fingers on the pulse of innovation, working together with them and experts to develop specific resources and materials to productively discuss ethical questions.

They measure the heartbeat during yoga, the pulse during long-distance running or the phases of deep sleep: small sensors worn on armbands, in clothing or on a mobile phone. These so-called activity trackers serve an increasingly significant trend: the self-measurement of people, also known as quantified self. The more one knows about oneself, the easier it is, under certain circumstances, to recognize a potential illness early on. And it generally leads to a healthier lifestyle. Another contributing factor may be that progress is visibly noticeable and intrinsically becomes a motivating factor.
 

Between freedom and dependency

Those who sweat with a pedometer or do genetic testing for health reasons generate data that may also be of interest to others, such as health insurance companies. But, what could potentially happen with this data? Is it used to present customers with personalized offers? To reward them for making healthier lifestyle choices? Or ultimately to use it to punish them for moving too little, or for a genetic disposition?

This example illustrates that along with many conveniences, innovation also comes with the constant ambiguity between freedom and dependency. Ethical questions arise: Is what is technically possible also morally acceptable and socially correct? With support from the Engagement Migros Development Fund, the pioneering project, ethix, developed tools for the identification and handling of ethical and societal issues of innovation. The two founders, Jean-Daniel Strub and Johan Rochel, have been preoccupied with political and medical ethics in science for many years. Their shared interest in addressing questions of applied ethics not only in the academic field, but also in facilitating debate among a broader audience is what quickly brought the two together. While Rochel worked from Japan and Rome in the final months, Strub pushed ahead with the founding of the company in Zurich. “Innovation is what is imperative in our time,” he said. Some – such as the science and technology historian, Caspar Hirschi, have even described the creed of “creative destruction” as the true dogma of our time. The innovation discussion is just as omnipresent as it is politically charged.

What type of innovator are you? Initial answers are supplied by the evaluation of a survey conducted in the ethix toolbox.
They do not view themselves as guardians of what is right and good, but as facilitators of a critical and constructive dialogue: ethix founders, Jean-Daniel Strub and Johan Rochel. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Who steers whom?

“Innovation influences both our future and that of the planet, otherwise it wouldn’t be innovation at all,” stated Strub. That is what it is all about. And about the technologies that are available to us and how we use them, because they always offer opportunities and risks. How do we program and steer decisions and learn from machines that serve humans and not the other way around? How can one counter the ever increasing concentration of wealth and power? “Such questions, which automatically come with present and future innovation, must be asked by those who develop technologies and use them commercially,” stated Strub.

He was referring to startups and established companies alike, but ultimately the entire innovation ecosystem, which also includes investors and incubators as well as other funding institutions. After all, these are developments that impact society as a whole to a great degree and are not infrequently ignored. Central in this regard is the term ambiguity: in the context of innovation, unambiguity is often lacking, which makes ethical discussions about it all the more complex.
 

The time is ripe

These societal challenges and opportunities, which are associated with new technologies, are central to the issue of digital transformation at the Engagement Migros Development Fund: “We support pioneering projects such as ethix because they enable the effective and responsible use and co-design of the digital world,” explained Samira Lütscher, who is in charge of this issue at Engagement Migros. ethix offers assistance to startups and companies to become aware of their social responsibility and to recognize it as an opportunity.

Engagement Migros and ethix are not alone in their vision. The Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany has launched a project that seeks to start a public discussion about innovation and digitalization under the name Algorithmenethik. Specialized facilities are also arising in great numbers at universities as well. These include the Digital Society Initiative at the University of Zurich, those addressing similar issues at the federal polytechnic universities, as well as initiatives at the schools of applied arts and sciences in both the French-speaking and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Exemplary in England is the Digital Ethics Lab at the Oxford Internet Institute. This is in addition to specific activities in university departments; ethix has, for example, successfully submitted a paper at a conference on the topic of responsible innovation in London.

What type of innovator are you? Initial answers are supplied by the evaluation of a survey conducted in the ethix toolbox.
What type of innovator are you? Initial answers are supplied by the evaluation of a survey conducted in the ethix toolbox.

A clear basis of values is needed in case of conflict

The pioneering project, ethix, develops offers on two levels, for startups and companies as well as for the interested public: easily accessible materials, case studies and simple texts about the typical innovation ethics topics such as human enhancement, i.e. the extension of human performance, are made available on the website free of charge.

 

Companies and individuals can also use a toolbox to create their own innovation ethics profile, which provides them with an initial reference point and with a spider, an overview of their central motivations as an innovator. Taking this as the basis and building on it, this can be reviewed in a consistent interdisciplinary workshop for which ethix obtains appropriate specialists from its network extending throughout Switzerland.

For example, if a startup seeks to set new benchmarks in global tracking, while the potential there is enormous, there are also ethical challenges involved, such as whether concerned parents should monitor their children. While the company and its employees are convinced of the disruptive potential of their approach, nevertheless, the question arises of whether all means may be exhausted. The value basis of startups must be clarified to answer this question. Because when it comes to conflict, it is not enough to simply fall back upon the identity as a young company. The startup is supported by ethix in the process of identifying the challenges and developing solutions. The procedure is multileveled and interdisciplinary: after a needs assessment, a workshop is conducted at the corresponding startup, in which ethix taps into a network of experts from various specialized disciplines so that in addition to genuine ethical risks, specific issues confronting that startup can also be addressed.

New technologies create new opportunities for interaction between people and machines, while at the same time challenging our self-perception and the concept of what it means to be a human being. Eliane Maalouf, researcher at the Institut du management de l’information der Universität Neuchâtel, at the ethix launch event in Lausanne. Photo: John Patrick Walder

New technologies create new opportunities for interaction between people and machines, while at the same time challenging our self-perception and the concept of what it means to be a human being. Eliane Maalouf, researcher at the Information Management Institute of the University of Neuchâtel, at the ethix launch event in Lausanne. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Parallel to working with startups, ethix also develops participation formats for the interested public. These include moderated discussion panels with online and offline elements on central innovation ethics issues. Public events also place the spotlight on the public opinion forming process, such as by answering questions at the beginning and the end, which are evaluated and visualized. In this way, ethix creates space for social debates about the relationship between innovation and ethics.

“The consideration of ethical issues also creates commercial and economic added value.”

Johan Rochel

Those involved in innovation know how quickly the processes can take place. Participants often have no time to devote themselves to such deep thoughts. This is a mechanism of which both ethix founders are aware. “But we are convinced that the consideration of ethical issues also creates added commercial and economic value,” stated Rochel. A central lever in the process is the company’s reputation and how it is publically perceived, because humans may not be forgotten in this regard as well. A steadily growing number of well qualified employees are demanding meaningful activities, while investors are also meanwhile questioning ethical aspects of innovative approaches. Rochel and Strub are convinced: innovation ethics can become a competitive advantage.
 

Head free for content

While ethix is not the first company set up by Strub and Rochel, the financial support and supervision by the Engagement Migros Development Fund is new. They were not, as is customary, immediately preoccupied with customer acquisition, but were able to initially devote themselves to conducting test workshops and the development of content without worrying about turnover. They approached interested parties with a graphic identity and their initial materials. “The process of establishing our own positioning, which also, but not only, includes the development of a corporate identity, is something I would start considerably earlier the next time. Because only on this basis can contents be presented in our environment in such a way that we can approach partners and convince them to work with us. I underestimated the scope of this process,” Strub stated. On the other hand, ethix was quite efficient when it came to the formulation of the project in view of the special circumstances: Rochel was in Japan at the time. A relay across continents arose. When one partner was going to bed in Zurich, the other took over in Tokyo. By mid-June, at the latest, when ethix starts up, the duo will be back together in the same time zone.