A year ago, BSR’s Future of Sustainable Business report listed “technology, ethics, and human rights” as one of three issues—alongside climate resilience and automation—that will define the future of sustainable business. Since then, we’ve been making true on this belief by steadily increasing our capability to help our member companies and today, we move one step further by adding Susan Morgan as a senior advisor.
Susan has spent the past 20 years working at the cutting edge of technology across three different sectors. She spent 10 years at British Telecommunications, served as the first Executive Director of the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative, and as part of the Open Society Foundations, funded issues of disinformation and the health of the online public sphere.
I recently spoke with Susan to reflect on these experiences and to share the insights she has gained on how change happens in the world and how companies in all industries—not just technology—can work with other stakeholders to address disruptive technologies.
Dunstan: You’ve spent time in the private sector, at a multi-stakeholder initiative, and in a foundation. What have you learned about how to address issues arising from disruptive technology?
Susan: No one stakeholder group can singlehandedly address the challenges now facing the world. For example, in the technology sector, vital questions are posed by the rapid evolution in technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) can embed discrimination into decision-making systems, discriminating at speed and scale. Established democratic norms are vulnerable to nontransparent, poorly understood, and misleading information campaigns that are poorly regulated. And technologies such as facial recognition could fundamentally change the balance of power between citizens, governments, consumers, companies, challenging privacy, a fundamental human right. These issues have profound societal implications, and everyone must be represented in the deliberations about them. All stakeholders need to recognize and embrace this as well as the need for public policy and regulatory frameworks that protect citizens and govern the use of these new technologies.
The sweet spot that produces progress is when all stakeholders are stretched and feeling uncomfortable. But being comfortable with being uncomfortable is not easy. It takes work.
Dunstan: You say that the balance of power between citizens, governments, and consumers may fundamentally change. How and why will this happen, and what does this imply for how we address disruptive technology?
Susan: In the last few years we have witnessed incredible consolidation of power by companies operating in the technology sector. These companies have access to huge financial resources that they can deploy to achieve their goals thanks in part to large quarterly earnings and tax regimes that are poorly adapted to the global nature of the Internet. The acquisition of AI talent leads to a concentration of technical knowledge and expertise within companies that could make it more difficult for effective oversight by regulators, governments, and others due to a scarcity of talent and human resources. This is happening at the very same time that the space within which civil society operates around the globe is under pressure due to restrictions being imposed on the funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), punitive registration requirements, and direct government pressure.
Although these power imbalances reflect the current reality, initiatives serious about bringing different stakeholders together to tackle a particular challenge must proactively address them to be successful. In practical terms, this means designing governance models with equal representation and power amongst different stakeholder groups, being innovative about how to address knowledge gaps, and building in mechanisms to ensure companies are accountable for commitments they make.
Dunstan: You say that cross-sector collaborations and partnerships are essential. What are the main challenges?
Susan: An important pre-condition for effective cross-sector working is an understanding that no one will get everything they want. Understanding this reality is vital. In my experience, the sweet spot that produces progress is when all stakeholders are stretched and feeling uncomfortable. But being comfortable with being uncomfortable is not easy. It takes work. It is something that people running initiatives bringing different stakeholders together need to focus on, just as participants in these initiatives need to embrace it.
Dunstan: What are the main sources of success?
Susan: Building trust between the parties, who will sometimes have started on opposing sides, is an essential component of successful cross-sector working. Leaving behind preconceived notions is essential to achieving this. NGOs need to acknowledge that companies often do the right thing or want to put something right when it goes wrong. Companies need to recognize and accept when criticism of their actions or decisions is justified or can be useful in creating momentum for internal change. Confidence and courage is needed to invest time building personal relationships with people from other stakeholders when there is often external pressure and public scrutiny. These personal qualities are insufficiently recognized as important ingredients in the success of any initiative.
Over time, the core business of companies will increasingly be driven by technology and data even if they are not classified as being companies in the tech sector.
Dunstan: What are some of the most valuable learnings from your work in the field of tech and human rights?
Susan: One of the important lessons I learned during my time as a funder was how difficult it was to predict what would gain traction or produce pressure for change. It’s far too simple to assume that those things with the most financial backing will be the successful things. Sometimes, it is something that unexpectedly captures people’s imagination, something where the timing happens to be right, or an experiment or gamble that pays off. When developing theories of change or strategy, it is essential that initiatives consider all of these options.
Dunstan: You and I have often spoken about the importance of “non-technology” companies being much more proactive in addressing technology and human rights issues. How can we accelerate that?
Susan: Over time, the core business of companies will increasingly be driven by technology and data even if they are not classified as being companies in the tech sector. But these have much less experience with the types of issues that technology companies have been facing for years, and they will have much to learn. BSR is at the intersection of many different forces, from companies where technology and data are already central and those moving in that direction to the connection between the protection of human rights and broader company sustainability strategies. It also plays an important role in bringing different stakeholders together to make progress on critical societal issues. I look forward to playing a part in that at BSR as a senior advisor.