Responsible Innovation: What Every Tech Company Needs To Know
October 6, 2022
By Chloe Poynton & Sarah Ryan
Everywhere we look it seems like a new company is developing a responsible innovation (RI) program. From Microsoft’s program designed to insert ethics into the product design process to Google’s approach to new product review, leading companies recognize that innovating responsibly is now a baseline expectation. These programs cover the spectrum of products: from AI models to new software features and products to hardware.
This recognition emerged out of a series of product roll-outs that could have benefited greater oversight. Some companies have had to scrap products all together or quickly add mitigations after the products brought about unintended harm and negative attention to the company. Perhaps most well-known is the Apple Airtags roll out. The product, intended to be a simple tool to help people keep track of their lost belongings, such as keys, was on the front page of global newspapers for being misused by bad actors to stalk their victims. Apple proactively responded to this misuse with a series of product changes to help mitigate risk, including adding in a 15 second “chirp” when the Airtag is away from its owner within an hour.
While misuse of technology by bad actors unfortunately remains common, more and more companies are building responsible innovation programs to anticipate and mitigate these risks before product launch. These programs are designed to:
Identify and mitigate unforeseen consequences: RI programs proactively identify potential negative consequences of products during the development lifecycle and devise mitigation strategies ahead of launch.
Position company as a responsible actor: RI programs can build good will with internal and external stakeholders by demonstrating thoughtful and ethical product design that aligns with company values.
Ensure product success: RI programs can set the product up for a successful launch by reducing regulatory risk, media backlash, and customer distrust.
Article One has helped multiple companies develop responsible innovation programs and while every company’s approach is slightly different, we’ve learned the following lessons:
Start with Guiding Principles. The first step is developing a set of overarching principles that outline the company’s values when it comes to responsibly innovating. These can be at the enterprise level, or at the product level. In both cases, Principles help teams define the vision for the intended impact of their products and approach to identifying guardrails for the unintended impacts. In both cases, principles help teams define the vision for the intended impact of their products and approach to identifying guardrails for the unintended impacts.
Translate Principles into Practice. Having principles is often the easy step, it’s translating them into expectations for engineering and product teams that is often the challenge. The key to success is to speak the language of your audience. This means drafting and testing engineering requirements that turn high level value statements (for example, related to transparency) into hard and fast expectations during the product development lifecycle.
Engage Diverse Stakeholders. Identifying potential product misuse or unforeseen consequences as well as risk mitigating solutions requires creative and diverse thinking. By bringing a diversity of internal and external stakeholders into the process, teams can ensure they are getting a holistic understanding of their risk landscape, while also building trust with external experts.
Focus on Empowerment. The best programs are one that democratize responsibility. Every person involved in product development should understand the principles and how they relate to their work. This often requires innovative approaches to bringing risks to life. Whether it is developing personas of vulnerable users or bad actors, hosting Responsible Foresight Workshops, or creating scenarios, helping teams bring risks to life is essential.
By taking the approach above, companies can develop products in a responsible way – highlighting at each stage of the lifecycle how product functionalities, data sets and other inputs increase or decrease risk. This helps ensure that shipped products hold up the company’s values, are trusted by consumers, and meet emerging regulation.
If your company is interested in exploring what a responsible innovation program can look like, or is interested in piloting a responsible innovation workshop, please reach out at email@example.com.