The Unintended Consequences of Innovation

This past fall I had the pleasure of being invited to TED Global in Rio de Janeiro to deliver a talk on the unintended consequences of technology and innovation.

‘Trickle-Down Technomics’ is a phrase refering to the general assumption many technologists and engineers share – that if they build things for a small group of individuals, eventually the benefits will find their way into all communities. However technical innovation behaves a lot like wealth, the benefits tend to consolidate for the few. As technologists, we also bear responsibility of being ethical and empathetic innovators.

While clearly we can’t account for all unintended consequences we can be more thoughtful about the things we build and how these things affect the lives of others.

I always write my talks before I deliver them, the original written version appears below.

* * *

As a serial tech entrepreneur who’s worked on civic activism projects all over the world. I’ve been a champion for ‘tech for good’ for many years.

For instance, in East Africa I worked on software that circumvented government surveillance in 2010. Later in North Africa, I worked on projects that help activists stay connected when governments used information blackouts as a means of population control. And I’ve used data and visualization to assist agencies responding to disaster.

So many of us today are obsessed with the virtues of technology. We tell ourselves things like“if we build great, things will improve for everyone.” We like to think that technologies we design to aid efficiency and share information among the few will eventually help the many. Tech, we tell ourselves, will find a way to make the world a better place.

But over the years, as I worked on these projects I was always nagged by the question – what if we’re wrong? What if, in some cases, the consequences of the tools we build (intended or not) are actually making it worse?

I call this blind optimism for the net benefits of innovation ‘trickle-down techonomics’. Much of the tech industry throughout the world operates the same assumptions. That is – invent great technology for those who can afford it and eventually those innovations will find their way out into the rest of society for everyone to benefit.

But, Innovation doesn’t always trickle down. In fact, technology is remarkably like wealth – the benefits seem to increasingly consolidate in the hands of the privileged.

Is this actually the case? Perhaps, perhaps not, but here are a few examples we can learn from…

1- There’s a movement to make our populations healthier through connected devices like Apple’s HealthKit which tracks our steps & movements throughout the day in the form of a $400 dollar watch or iPhone. In turn, the medical industry in the United States is rapidly getting digital ready, building solutions that can connect with these devices and learn everything about an incoming patient in seconds.

But what good is a $400 connected watch or phone that tracks health to someone who can’t afford them. Where should the priority for technology fall for people who can’t afford to send their children to school with enough money for lunch? More importantly, how will doctors and hospitals respond to patients who don’t have these devices. When hospitals come to expect 1- click patient entry what will service be like for people with less resources, but who require the same (if not more) medical attention? Will the digitally visible be preferred over the digitally invisible?

2- Crypto-currencies like BitCoin are a revolution in currency. Never before has the world had a more efficient way of moving money across the globe. It could revolutionize remittances to poor countries, which account for over $436 billion annually as expatriated loved ones send money back home.

But if digital currencies do take off, they won’t take off evenly. No invention ever does. What happens to the value of any regional paper-based note when borderless digital currencies become the preferred currency?

Let’s also not forget that the barrier to entry – a connected digital device or phone – is far higher with digital currencies then simply holding paper currency in one’s hand.

3- Recently I was at the Free Library of Philadelphia which, like many libraries around the world, is facing an existential crisis. With public funding diminishing and costs rising, libraries have to downsize to stay open. Part of their strategy includes digitizing literature, text books, and magazines and moving them to the digital realm.

As the analogue world falls away, and brick and mortar libraries shut down, information will become available ONLY in digital form. Only those who have access to digital devices and connectivity will benefit. We have to ask ourselves what level of access will kids who aren’t growing up in ‘digital or mobile first’ households retain? What will their education look like?

4- One final example, there have been efforts across Africa and Asia to digitize land records of ownership to create a more transparent history of who legally owns various plots of land which are often in dispute due to poor record keeping, migrant populations, or conflicting claims.

Ironically, these repositories have become a boon for foreign investors, venture capitalists and wealthy individuals who can mine them and act on the information far faster than the typical citizen who doesn’t have access to the internet.

Like many civic technology efforts, these land record portals though well intentioned, have fallen short when it comes to ensuring the outcomes match the intent.

What these examples share in common is the unintended consequences of good intentions.

Technologists tend to prefer efficiency over efficacy. We tend to focus more on doing things quicker, faster, cheaper regardless of the consequences. But we have to change the fact that some of us have more empathy for the innovations we create than the lives that are ultimately affected by them. This is our responsibility as ethical technologists, hackers, makers, engineers, investors, and CEOs.

In the late 90s there was a big push for a focus on ethics in the financial industry. In 2014 I think we’re long overdue for that same level thoughtfulness when it comes to technical innovation –
an ethical pledge from those of us who make the technologies that increasingly control the world.

We no longer have a problem with the rate at which we innovate. We have a problem with the rate at which we make those innovations more accessible to the many.

So I encourage you, when you’re working on the next revolution in technology, that you think about those who don’t have access, those who aren’t your ideal user, and the potential unintended outcomes of the things you create.

The real innovation is in finding the way to include everyone.