This week, Google appointed McKinsey Global Institute veteran James Manyika as the company’s first SVP of Technology and Society, as reported by Axios and Protocol. Manyika has been studying the global impacts of innovation and the internet for decades. Now, he’ll be reporting directly to the CEO of Alphabet “shaping and sharing” the company’s understanding of the social impacts of tech, including AI, the future of work, sustainability.
Given increasing “techlash” headlines, declining consumer trust in technology, challenging congressional hearings, and mounting proposed legislation to address tech’s impacts, it comes as no surprise that Big Tech firms are feeling pressure to get a handle on their role in society. Academic centers and think tanks like the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society (where I’ve been a research fellow) and Data & Society have long studied technology’s social effects. Now Google’s move signals that tech companies are trying to think holistically and strategically about tech’s impact—both for good and ill—on customers, society, and the environment.
The tech industry is listening. Google isn’t the only firm talking in terms of technology’s impact on society. Efforts across the industry have cropped up to coordinate response to mounting ethical concerns:
- Salesforce developed an office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology to encourage ethics by design, ethical use policies, and product accessibility and inclusive design.
- Backed by eBay’s founder, Omidyar Network’s core areas of investment support digital technologies’ “positive impact on society…balancing innovation with responsibility.”
- Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is exploring how to bolster “ethics and responsibility in a digital age” in an MIT fellowship.
- Organizations like All Tech Is Human are building the network and pipeline for tech talent to become more diverse, multidisciplinary, and aligned with public interests.
- Even WIRED, longtime techno-utopian cheerleader of the future and innovation, has declared its commitment to capture the nuances of tech’s role in the world’s biggest challenges and avoid simplistic binary narratives.
Digital acceleration requires companies to understand their technological and social impacts to build customer trust. It’s not just the tech industry’s concern. As every firm becomes increasingly digital, and as more tech leaders directly support business outcomes and customer experiences, the question of tech’s impact on society will loom large. Protecting against security breaches and mitigating tech risks will no longer be enough. Values-based consumers increasingly demand ethical uses of data. Data will become a currency for building and maintaining trust in the customer experience. Remits like Manyika’s will make their way into the enterprise technology organization, either through new ethics roles or added responsibilities under the purview of current CIOs, CTO, and digital leaders.
Responsible and ethical tech efforts need to be coordinated across the enterprise. Leading an adaptive, creative, and resilient tech organization increasingly means that technology executives must be able to account for and nurture the responsible and ethical use of technology. Future fit technology leaders are starting to monitor fairness in ethical AI, embed privacy by design throughout engineering and development processes, and track social and environmental impacts against ESG goals and sustainability targets. These efforts will require greater coordination across teams, functions, and lines of business. And they’ll need data and governance structures to form a comprehensive view. Having a responsible and ethical tech strategy will enable tech executives to deliver technology that enhances the overall customer experience by increasing trust and reducing risk of faltering on brand promises. Future Fit tech execs will play a critical role bringing all this together.
I’m investigating further how technology leaders will embrace this opportunity to become leaders not only in supporting the business, but also in managing the firm’s wider technological impact on society. If you’re grappling with how these responsible and ethical technology efforts are coordinated across the enterprise, reach out to me at email@example.com to contribute to this ongoing research. I’d love to hear how your teams are tackling these complex, pressing questions.