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Responsible technology:

Responsible technology: a stimulus for a fairer society

Key findings from Thoughtworks China’s responsible tech report
Photograph of Nina Zhou
To better understand the concept of responsible technology in the Chinese market,  Thoughtworks China’s DEISSC (diversity, equity, inclusion and social change), CX (Customer Experience), and Security teams jointly developed a research report: The Breakthrough of Responsible Technology (CN). Its objective is to explore how responsible technology can be applied domestically, to help grow individual awareness of the topic, and to inspire localized, innovative solutions. In this article, I outline the report's key findings.

Technology has long been a driver for progress and positive change. But its ability to reshape society can go both ways – while it can be a force for good, it can also have negative, often unforeseen, impacts. In China, the internet’s influence on public discourse is a good example. According to research by the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences , the top 2% of the population holds 70% of the discourse power, while the bottom 60% only holds 1%. A clear imbalance, and a problem that technology should be solving, rather than contributing to. So how can we manage this double-edged sword? 


This is where the concept of responsible tech comes into play. People tend to overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies, while completely underestimating their long-term impacts and consequences. To ensure technology contributes positively to society, responsible tech requires us to question the value of new technologies in the context of technical and digital ethics – to actively take more responsibility and look at the bigger picture.


Defining ‘responsible tech’


At Thoughtworks, this is how we define responsible technology:


Responsible technology is considered a way of working that makes technology and business practices more in line with social and individual interests. It actively considers and explores the value of technology, the unpredictable consequences, and negative impacts, and proactively manages, mitigates, and reduces the risks and harms of technology. We consider concepts such as ethics, personal and human prosperity, social structure, inclusiveness and fairness, and strive to make technology beneficial rather than exploitative for the masses.


In our report, we also applied the United Nations' R.O.A.M.-X (ROMAX) model to develop our understanding of the topic. The model refers to four principles: human rights (R), openness (O), accessibility (A), and multi-stakeholder interests (M). It  emphasizes the values of privacy, empathy and fairness within technological solutions.


To help focus our research, we drew on The Current State of Responsible Tech, a report jointly released by Thoughtworks and MIT Technology Review. The report found that medium- and large-sized enterprises share a common view on which subjects they consider highest priority when it comes to responsible technology. The top four areas are sustainable development, data privacy and protection, algorithm bias, and diversity and inclusion.


Responsible technology: a model for interaction between humans, technology and society 


During our research we found that the core factors influencing responsible technology are people, technology and society/environment. We also established three key principles that align to each factor: to avoid unconscious bias and improve inclusivity (people); to integrate ethics into the whole product development process (technology); and to set clear goals for inclusive growth and diverse values (society and environment). 


While this model provides a starting point for how to approach responsible technology, it’s worth noting the complexity at play. People, technology and society/environment don’t exist in isolation. They mutually interact and the technology itself serves as a medium that connects organizations, individuals and our physical environment.  


Key findings: People


For practitioners, individual values and ways of thinking are often the critical starting point for innovation. However, it's essential to avoid bringing inherent human cognitive biases and creative inertia into design and development. Algorithmic bias is one example. Discriminatory bias and stereotypes that exist within society are being unintentionally transcribed into algorithms that feed into and affect the platforms and tools we use. Action can be taken early in the design process to prevent and avoid bias taking hold.


Companies should also identify the widest possible range of people who could represent their products' end users and focus on the needs of different groups, rather than just measuring their potential economic value. Recognizing the dignity and rights of each user, fully safeguarding the interests of multiple workers, and thinking long-term can  maximize individual and social well-being.


Key findings: Technology


Emerging technologies will ideally advance social progress at some point. To strive for progress and a more equitable future, we should therefore choose and promote technologies on a principle of fairness, rather than allowing them to exacerbate society’s existing problems.


A number of factors influence the direction of technology. Social opinion, market trends and stakeholders to name a few. Principles of fairness and ethical considerations must also be incorporated, from design to development, and an equilibrium between these different (and sometimes opposing) goals must be reached to make responsible technology the new norm.


Key findings: Society/environment


To achieve responsible technology from a societal perspective, we must set clear goals for inclusive growth and diverse values. Laws and regulations often lag behind emerging technology practices, and regulatory policies for the digital economy vary widely from country to country. Algorithm recommendations, platform governance and AI ethics are being challenged in different countries and regions, and different industries face ever-evolving regulatory issues due to changes and advances in tech. 


By following the different dimensions of market policies, institutional capabilities, governance frameworks and academic research in the physical environment, we can learn from the trends and high-potential topics that are emerging to set clear goals for inclusive growth and diverse values.



A shared responsibility   


Although nobody can completely predict the direction technology is taking us, tech professionals play a critical role in creating a safer roadmap to the future. We are the minds and businesses behind technological development, so it’s our responsibility to advocate responsible tech thinking across the industry. We must continuously explore equitable principles during product development and be mindful of how technology integrates into our lives. 


A key part of this responsibility is collaboration. At Thoughtworks China we will continue to work with local peers, scholars and clients to push forward the study and practices of responsible technologies in China and beyond.


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