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ethix – lab for innovation ethics

Corporate values for sustainable innovation

Ethics require the constant consideration of arguments and points of view. Photo: Simon Tanner
Ethics require the constant consideration of arguments and points of view. Photo: Simon Tanner

ethix was launched six months ago. Since then, the start-up has held workshops for around a dozen companies. Based on five case studies, the pioneering project now provides insight into its work.

ethix has thus far collaborated with companies from a wide variety of sectors: food, transport and biotechnology, for example. Jean-Daniel Strub, co-founder of the project, sits in the meeting room of the start-up in Zurich’s District Five and looks back on an intensive six months. During this time, they devoted a large part of the work to draw attention to their offering and to approach companies in the innovation sector. The feedback has been positive: “The interest in our consulting service was greater than expected,” says Strub.

Transparency for a functional society
The focus is mainly on start-ups from the technology sector, but sometimes also on established companies. Especially if they are in a transition phase, for example if they are growing rapidly or launching a new product.

A society in which digitisation plays an increasingly important role is also one that can create greater transparency: customers look for information about products and manufacturing conditions online. And if they are not satisfied with a product or a service, they share it online.

Johan Rochel (right) initiated the project together with Jean-Daniel Strub (middle). Photo: Simon Tanner

But digitisation also produces a vast amount of data. “Many people today want to know what happens to their data when they use a service,” says Strub. This calls for an ethical approach to data. The way in which online providers collect, use and resell data is associated with important – and now widely recognised – risks. Risks for customers, but also for the companies themselves. The consistency, reputation and suitability of the product are at stake. Start-ups in particular can jeopardise their survival right from the start if they make serious mistakes.

“Corporate values are increasingly important in attracting good people.”

Jean-Daniel Strub

According to Strub, this is also the reason why young companies are increasingly interested in corporate values. The ethix team is convinced that being open about a company’s values may even offer a competitive advantage. More and more investors are also interested in the values a start-up uses to orient itself and position its products, says co-founder Johan Rochel. And of course: its potential employees. “Corporate values are becoming increasingly important in attracting good people.” Because in highly industrialised countries like Switzerland, they are not only looking for a livelihood in their work, but also a sense of purpose. And the clearer a company is about its values, and the more it carries them out, the more visible and attractive it becomes to potential employees.

Start-ups in particular are often unable to pay huge salaries. However, they must still depend on good people for the company to succeed. In this interview, Strub and Rochel speak not only as ethicists and philosophers, but also as entrepreneurs.

In addition to the two founders, other employees have joined the company in recent months. Photo: Simon Tanner

ethix advised about a dozen companies during the first six months. Their process is now described in five case studies on the company’s website.

How can I revolutionise my industry?
Its consulting is tailored to the companies. “Because every company is confronted with different challenges,” says Strub. As a rule, a workshop lasts between one hour and half a day, consisting of at least these three parts: mapping of values and risk areas; analysis; discussion and evaluation. Strub and his team drill down deep. They ask questions about motivation: What is the company’s claim? To be a new, better service provider? Or to revolutionise the entire industry? Have the founders already asked themselves the difficult questions? Those about data collection, for example? Or about employees? Might their new business idea even lead to people losing their jobs? How would they deal with that?

It is mostly the founders who take part in the discussions, but sometimes the whole team is involved, as during the workshop with Cubera Solutions AG, a digital agency also known for its products for face and person recognition. Thanks to the workshop, they were able to check whether and how the company’s values corresponded to the employees’ actions, says interaction designer Franziska Wälti. Michael Fretz, co-founder of the company, offers feedback on the workshop: “We explored how we as a technology company approach solutions and which products we do or do not want to develop.”

For a world in the midst of great change
This, too, is ethix: based on social discourse, the pioneering project aims to discuss with companies issues such as “Is what is technically possible always the right thing socially?” “We certainly do not define what is right or wrong,” says co-founder Rochel. He says their goal is not to proselytise, but to raise the questions that need to be examined. That’s why they also organise public events that explore how we as a society deal with the challenges of technological innovation. “The fact that we are today already dealing with the consequences of innovation that might one day occur is also an expression of prosperity,” says Jean-Daniel Strub. The technical term for this is technology assessment.

The aim of the pioneering project is to discuss with companies the issues raised by their actions. ethix employee Delphine Bracher. Photo: Simon Tanner

Today we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. Our world is in the midst of great change. Each of these revolutions catapulted mankind into a new age. But every technological innovation, every industrial revolution, has had its downsides. Smoking chimneys polluted the air, poison contaminated the waters. Workers had virtually no rights. The damage first had to be done before workers’ rights and environmental concerns became a matter of course.

 

“With its topics, ethix is at the pulse of our time.”

Samira Lütscher

It is precisely in view of this historical experience that Jean-Daniel Strub believes society has a duty to deal with the consequences of innovations during on-going technological change – not just on those who will win, but also on those who will lose. He already wants to raise questions like: What kind of data should be fed to computers that use artificial intelligence? And again: How do we store data; who can own them? This is the only way to promote a responsible approach to innovation, he says.

Engagement Migros will support ethix for three years. “The project has its finger on the pulse of our times with its topics, which often enough are only dealt with theoretically. It deals with ethics in a practical way and aims to introduce it into the everyday lives of entrepreneurs in the field of innovation,” says Samira Lütscher, project manager at Engagement Migros. In addition to the founders, the ethix team includes two other employees who have also received philosophical training. Above all, however, ethix works with a nationwide network of specialists from a wide variety of disciplines who are all interested in a more differentiated discourse on innovation in Switzerland.