Tech Ethics for Start-Ups and SMEs

Hilary Sutcliffe

15 Dec 2020

Many start ups think ethics is just for the big boys. Not something for now.  They’ll get to that when they get bigger and they have more time.  But the best companies know it’s much more effective to embed strong values and ethical thinking in product development and company culture from the start, rather than reverse engineer ethical thinking further down the line after something bad has happened and they are in fire-fighting mode.   


This booklet, Tech Ethics for Start-Ups and SMEs, was developed by members of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council for Values, Ethics and Innovation which I was co-chair of with Amandeep Gill, I wrote it with the help particularly of Prof Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield, UK and Pamela Mar from the Fung Academy Hong Kong, Dr Emad Yaghmaei from the Technical University of Delft and Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.


The booklet explores the difference between values and ethics; highlights some examples and ways of working which will help navigate ethical issues and a some ideas from companies in different tech areas. 


Here are 5 important areas for consideration:

  1. Ethics could be your biggest hidden commercial risk - so put it on your Risk Register. It needs to be explicit and seen as important as any other issue which might otherwise take you by surprise and cost you money and customers. 
  2. Find out what ethical issues matter to you  Each sector, sometimes  companies within a sector may be different.  There may be ethical frameworks to help you (there are literally hundreds in AI Ethics for example).  How to find out what the ethical issues are, and what matters?  As biotech start up Scope Biosciences does, in the words of its CEO - Practice competitive listening.  He knows he needs to really be attune to ethical issues and changes in the values and expectations of citizens, his customers, of policy makers and other stakeholders.  He knows if he does it better than anyone else, he will be in the best place to capitalise on opportunities and head off problems before they became disasters. 
  3. Start with values and work from there.  Companies will likely have some core values - perhaps those such as respect, inclusion, fairness.    These are the guide-rails, the compass which helps you decide what to do when faced with ethical issues needing tricky decisions.  Work from the inside out with employees to consider what your core values might be and express them clearly - have a look how they are incentivised and rewarded.
  4. Make it normal to discuss ethics and think about problems in advance.  A culture which celebrates and rewards speaking out about problems will be stronger and more resilient than one which doesn't.   It is astonishing how many organisation punish early warnings of problems which might affect the company - this information is gold dust and they are pushing it under the rug!  Every corporate disaster, really every one, someone somewhere has been warning about the problem, sometimes for a long time.  Usually employees, ngos, academics or citizens - not mainstream voices.  Synthetic biology software company Synthace has really taken that to heart and finds lots of ways to really normalise discussing potential problems and ensure that its people and outsiders feel comfortable discussing concerns up front - and most importantly taking that feedback seriously and thinking hard about what to do. 
  5. Be collaborative in revolving issues - the thing with ethical issues is there is usually no right answer.  They might require trade-offs or a solution which won’t work for everyone.  That’s why they are so tricky. Working with people involved in ethical issues makes for better decisions and better products.  Digital Identity specialist YOTI is making a Digital Key for the millions of people, who for lots of different reasons, don’t have an identity and can’t access many important services.  Discussing the complex issues of identity with marginalised groups showed it was important that the device was breakable or swallowable so that these identities could be destroyed and didn’t get into the hands of those who could use it against them.  You don’t get that sort of learning from an internal brainstorm in Third Floor Conference Room B.  

But then you will have to choose.  By taking ethics seriously and following these thoughtful, inclusive steps  you can be confidence that you are making an ethical decision… ethically. 


Take a look at the booklet for inspiration - Tech Ethics for Start-Ups and SMEs and if you want take things further check out also a new Business Ethics Toolkit for companies wanting embed ethical thinking in their organisations from UK’s Institute of Business Ethics.