London Tech Week is here and with it, an array of new wonders will be on display. Founders will showcase how their technologies are being applied to transform our cities, our healthcare, our government and every part of our daily lives. One of the great privileges of working in tech is to see what new marvels arise when some of the smartest brains on the planet come together.
But as an industry, we have been slow to recognise how our capacity to imagine new worlds has been changing the world we live in. Only now, in the 30th birthday year of the world wide web, have we started seriously to consider the consequences of our creations on the society around us. This week in London, tech ethics will finally be a mainstream part of our conversation. After too many years sleepwalking, now that we have woken up we must not just talk but also act.
We have a responsibility to use the awe-inspiring ingenuity of our industry wisely. Technology can and should be a force for social good. Indisputably the most urgent priority is to apply it to the climate emergency humans have inflicted on our planet. Unless we first address environmental sustainability, there is literally no point in asking any other questions. We will not be here to learn the answers.
The good news is, there are many people in our industry who share this view. Technologists are eager to use their talents to repair the planet and to improve people’s lives. And they are calling out companies that don’t share their values. Thousands of Amazon workers have demanded a plan to tackle climate change. Google has abandoned its Project Maven contract with the US department of defence after an employee rebellion.
These public acts of resistance are symptomatic of a deeper shift. New research by Doteveryone, the think tank I set up to champion responsible technology, found that over a quarter of tech workers in the UK have experienced a decision being taken about a product that they felt could be negative for people and society. That is worrying. But the response is heartening. The vast majority of them took action, with around half raising concerns with colleagues or managers and almost one-third reporting the issue to an external body. Nearly one in five of them felt so strongly they left their company as a result.
Leaders must heed the wisdom of the men and women who design and build technologies. As entrepreneurs, we know that success hinges on hiring and keeping good people. Organisations that meet their teams’ demands to work responsibly will have a new competitive advantage.
Tech workers believe in the power of their products – 82% said they expect technology to have a positive impact on society in the future. To achieve this they will need more than a philosophical treatise on tech ethics. They require responsible leadership, clear values and guidance and skills to navigate the dilemmas they face. Doteveryone has begun working to meet this need with practical resources for strategy, product development, and product design that help businesses make better technologies for people and society.
As technologists we are driven to innovate. Now we must turn our creativity on ourselves and rethink how and why we make technology. Let us harness the full potential of our industry’s brilliant minds to meet the needs of people and planet.
Martha Lane Fox was the cofounder of travel and leisure website lastminute.com, which went public in 2000, and more recently founded Doteveryone, a tech think-tank championing responsible technology.