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Responsible Innovation: What Every Non-Tech Company Needs To Know

October 20, 2022

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By Chloe Poynton & Sarah Ryan

All companies are now tech companies. The use of technology is becoming ever more necessary to run a business and is in turn bringing a new set of human rights risks to “non-tech companies.” From privacy impacts to risks of discrimination, the development and deployment of technology often changes the human rights risk profile of the companies involved. It also poses potential reputational, legal, and operational risks if the technology is not deployed responsibly.

Companies that have not traditionally seen themselves as tech companies often use technology in three key ways:

  1. Acquiring or developing in-house technologies. Cosmetics company L’Oréal acquired a company that creates artificial intelligence (AI) powered technology to enable users to virtually try-on makeup while Unilever is developing in-house AI technology to create and test new innovations.

  2. Purchasing third-party technologies. Ikea recently purchased third party technology to launch an app that allows users to use augmented reality to visualize how Ikea’s furniture might look in their home.

  3. Launching strategic initiatives with third party technology. Nike recently created a virtual world on Roblox – Nikeland – to engage shoppers in the metaverse.

As companies in all sectors rely on new and innovative technologies, new risks may emerge. These range from privacy risks for technology that may provide companies access to customer homes or  biometric data to risks of discrimination if algorithmic training data is not representative of the diversity of a company’s customer base. Still other risks are yet unknown. For example, while risks of bullying and harassment in the metaverse are top of mind, the broadscale adoption of the metaverse may lead to novel risks.

Given this, companies in all sectors can learn from the advancements of the tech sector when it comes to responsible development and use. Indeed, at Article One, we believe that addressing the responsible development and use of technology should not fall solely on traditional tech companies. Instead, all companies should be thinking about how they are responsibly building, buying, and deploying technology.

Based on our work with companies in many sectors on their use of technology, we have learned three key lessons:

  1. Every company is a tech company. Technology is now a critical part of how businesses operate, regardless of what their business offerings include. Most (if not all) multinational companies have websites, many offer the ability for customer to buy their products online, and many have created their own software to power their business and products. And even if a company has not created its own digital technology or software, it contracts with third parties to use theirs.

  2. Most companies already do a form of responsible innovation. Testing out new products for unintended consequences is not new. Car manufacturers use crash tests to understand how certain types of accidents may impact the passengers. Toy manufacturers test the chemicals they use in toys to ensure they are safe for children. Creating a responsible innovation program is simply updating that process to make it work for digital products like AI and software and to look beyond just the impacts to the customer and instead look at societal impacts as well.

  3. Companies in all sectors can contribute to harm with tech. All companies have a responsibility to avoid causing harm through their products and to mitigate and remedy those harms when they do occur. Companies in all sectors are coming under increasing scrutiny for the digital products they create. For example, retailers are facing lawsuits related to the collection of customer biometric data, highlighting the degree to which technology is being used in retail in ways that create the potential new human rights challenges, like surveillance and privacy.

With this in mind, here are four steps companies in all industries can take to ensure the products they create or the third-party products they deploy do not cause unintended harm:

  1. Raise internal awareness of tech risks. Empower leadership and employees to recognize that they increasingly work for a tech, or tech-influenced company and as such need to understand and manage new risks.

  2. Develop a responsible innovation program that assesses risks from internally developed tech. Companies developing their own technology solutions should form a permanent responsible innovation team that works with product teams throughout the product development lifecycle to identify and mitigate potential risks. As we outlined in our blog on responsible innovation programs for tech companies, this often starts with principles and then cascades to formal engineering requirements. Along the way it requires innovative approaches to bringing risks to life, like developing personas of vulnerable users or bad actors, creating hypothetical scenarios, or hosting Responsible Foresight Workshops.

  3. Conduct robust due diligence on third-party technologies. Most companies buy or partner with tech companies to achieve their goals. To do this responsibly, companies should vet third-party providers by asking a series of targeted questions to access actual and potential risks associated with the deployment of the technology.  Questions may include:

    • How was responsibility factored into the development of this technology?

    • How was the training data for this AI model gathered? Can it be audited to ensure diversity of data?

    • Have similar products been misused before? Either intentionally or unintentionally? In those cases, what kind of mitigations were developed?

    • What guidance do you have for our company to responsibly deploy this technology

  4. Continually assess the risks and incorporate findings into ongoing mitigations. As technologies are deployed, companies should assess the ways in which they may have unintended consequences that are harmful. As risks or impacts arise, companies should proactively update the form or use of technology to avoid harms in the future. By doing so, assessing and mitigating risks moves from a “checkbox” during a product launch to a core mindset and ongoing practice.

If your company is interested in exploring what a responsible innovation program can look like, or piloting a responsible innovation workshop, please reach out at hello@articleoneadvisors.com.